Gordon and Sheila Covell have been running Islay Woollen Mill for more than 35 years. Marcus Janssen spoke to Gordon about his love of Tweed and his life on Islay.
Islay Woollen Mill, situated just off the main Port Askaig road near Bridgend on the Isle of Islay, was first established in 1883 and is Islay’s only mill. Since its re-opening in 1981, it has been owned and run by Gordon and Sheila Covell, and produces a wide range of products including rugs, scarves, caps, tweed jackets and kilts as well as raw fabrics.
The Mill is a traditional family-run business and uses two looms dating from Victorian times. Some of the machinery is unique and historical and much of it is still in use. A team of six is currently employed at the mill, including Gordon, Sheila and their son Marcus.
The mill creates designs and then weaves them on its own looms. And, somewhat surprisingly, a number of their designs have been featured in Hollywood blockbusters such as Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Rob Roy and Far and Away.
We spoke to Gordon (77) about how this came about, and his life on Islay...
Where do you originally hale from?
I was born in York and brought up in Huddersfield. I met Sheila in Huddersfield which is where she was born and raised. Sheila is the backbone of the business. I am basically lazy but creative. Sheila is the hard-working one and very good at her job.
How did you end up running a woollen mill on Islay?
We’ve been here since 1981. I was managing a textile company in Pembrokeshire and somebody who knew somebody who knew me, rang me up and asked if I would be interested in restoring an old, run-down woollen mill. I asked Sheila what she thought about living on a remote Scottish island for a while and she was up for it. So we came up here in 1981.
When we took the business over, it was in a state of disrepair, and the looms weren’t even in working order. We also had to install a warping machine, so I bought one for £10 from a scrapyard in Huddersfield and rebuilt it myself.
I then built two looms from four old ones that no longer worked. I had boasted that we would be in production within four weeks of taking over, and, against the odds, we were! I have a saying that if it’s not turning, it’s not earning.
Things went well, and two years later, in 1983, I bought the other partners out. We do have a sleeping partner in the business – a man by the name of Peter Johnson. I was short of money when I wanted to buy the other partners out and Peter came in with me. He has been my business partner for 37 years but hasn’t taken a penny out of the business.
What did you do before you moved to Islay?
I got my City and Guilds qualification in textile design and weaving when I was 15, and then went to Dublin to work for an Irish company. But I was on the machine side of things – I never thought I would end up actually designing textiles. But when I was working for a company in Huddersfield as the weaving manager, I asked why they didn’t use the old, leftover yarns. They told me that I could do what I wanted with them. Well, it turned out I had an eye for design and colour, and I’ve been designing textiles ever since. I love the creative side of things – the designing. I also love meeting the customers – they make it interesting.
How many staff do you now employ?
There are six of us altogether. My wife Sheila and son Marcus both work here. Marcus runs the weaving side of things, and Julie Stitchel, who I often refer to as my daytime daughter, works in the shop.
Sheila is the one who gets things done. She is behind the scenes and makes things happen. When the Queen came to see us, I shouted upstairs to say that we had an important visitor, but she shouted back to say that she was too busy. I then told her it was Her Majesty the Queen, to which she said: “Pull the other leg, I’m still too busy.”
The shop is open six days a week, and the mill runs five days (Monday to Friday). We have a retail shop, too. We sell our own tweed and products.
Who do you make Tweed for?
Our tweed ends up all over the place. We do a lot of work for Huntsman in Savile Row, a lot goes to tailors in Italy, we make promotional products for distilleries here on Islay, and we make tweed for a lot of shooting estates – we have about 20 or 30 sporting estates on our book.
Where do you source your wool from?
The yarn comes from Yorkshire where it is spun – there is very little commercial spinning in Scotland; there are firms like Johnstons of Elgin who spin themselves, but most Scottish mills will get their yarns from Yorkshire.
The wool itself comes from all over the place. Some is British, other wool comes from the Falklands, we get some merino wool from Australia, and we also use cashmere – it all depends on what product we are making.
What makes a good quality tweed?
The quality and durability of the final product depends on the quality of the wool and how your looms are set up – numbers of ends, warp and weft, and how tightly woven it is. You want a close-knit, tightly-woven tweed. When a lot of firms want to make a lightweight tweed they will simply reduce the threads per inch. This results in a loosely-woven tweed which in turn results in seem slippage. If we want to make a lightweight tweed, we will use finer wool and set it up as tightly as we can. We measure wool in microns; the finer the wool, the softer.
What has been the key to your continued success?
I think it is important not to be too greedy. The secret of our success is that we live modestly but comfortably. We have never taken a bonus or a dividend; we plough it all back into the business. I have seen it so many times – when you start making money there is a temptation to spend it. We have reinvested our profits.
And I still enjoy it. I have been working in the textile industry since I was 15 and it has never felt like a chore to me.
How did you become the tweed maker for the film industry?
It all started in a pub Harrogate in 1986 when I was introduced to Graham Churchyard, a costume designer for a film company. He asked if I knew anyone who could make some bespoke tweed for a film, and I said I could do it. That was for a film called December Bride, a film produced in Ireland. And since then it has snowballed. We’ve now made tweed or tartan for about 15 films, including Hemmingway, Far and Away (Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), Mary Riley (Starring Julia Roberts), Forrest Gump, Amazing Grace, The BFG, Jack the Giant Slayer, Warhorse, Rob Roy and, of course, Braveheart.
When I did Braveheart, I got a cheque for £5,000 from Sheperton Studios. I thought it must have been a mistake, and I was about to phone them to tell them that they had accidentally sent me a cheque, but that afternoon the phone rang and it was Charles Knode from Sheperton – he said that he wanted me to make some tartan for a film and the cheque was to concentrate my mind!
What’s it like living on Islay?
It’s a nice way of the life. The people on the island have been very welcoming to us and embraced us as part of the community here, which is so important in a place like Islay.
I spent 15 years as a member of the lifeboat crew which I guess helped, but the people are the glue that bind small, rural communities together.
And we have made so many friends through the business – people who visit the island every year and come and see us. We’ve met people and made friends that we would otherwise have never met.
Like Her Majesty the Queen?
Yes! It was a Monday morning in August, and a big black Range Rover pulled up outside and Princess Anne got out. She had been a few times before. But then her mother got out. Her Majesty walked into the shop and said “Good morning, Mr Covell,” just like any other customer. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears! I said, “I didn’t see your name in the appointments book this morning”. She smiled at that. She was wonderful.
When you aren’t working, what do you do to keep busy?
We have a big garden which keeps us busy – both Sheila and I enjoy our gardening and we grow vegetables. But we’re getting old, so are moving to a smaller house. I also love my dogs – we are knee-deep in Border terriers! I used to hunt with Meynell Foxhounds in Derbyshire and the Bray Harriers in Ireland when I lived over there. I don’t ride anymore – I don’t bounce like I used to. I also used to do a bit of fishing, and my grandfather used to keep coursing greyhounds which I loved, but I have never been a shooting man. For no other reason than I just didn’t grow up in a family who shoot.