Weaving a future through bespoke handwoven textiles on a World War One loom

Rod warping up our Hattersley loom.

A creative couple has spun a niche business by fusing old-world hand-weaving and modern design.

Words: Nathalie Brown

This article was first published in the March/April 2017 issue of NZ Life & Leisure.

There’s a whiff of the 1970s in the way Rod and Sue McLean make their living, hand-weaving natural wool, taking their wares to outdoor markets throughout the South Island and joining an artisan collective. But, as the saying goes -everything old is new again. And McLean & Co is the chic and savvy millennial take on the art of hand woven textiles.

Tartan woven for upholstery and winter coats.

Every morning Rod McLean goes for a walk after breakfast with his bearded collie, Joe, then saunters across the brick courtyard beyond the kitchen door to the workroom that houses his Hattersley Domestic Weaving System circa 1918. There’s a pirn winder, a warping mill and three looms.

If he has already warped up the loom, he spends the next five hours or so weaving traditional tweed or tartan fabric – or variations on these – by foot, using two pedals. If he hasn’t warped up the loom, he’ll spend days, even weeks doing so. It’s slow, methodical, soothing work and it suits Rod just fine.

Putting a tartan warp onto the warping mill.

His wife Sue is inside taking care of everything else that makes their handwoven textiles business tick. She resigned her full-time teaching position two years ago to concentrate on it, although she still takes on a fair amount of relief teaching.

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It’s a precarious pursuit, bespoke weaving, but the McLeans have found a niche among high country farmers, who want to have their wool clip transformed into custom-made drapes, upholstery fabrics, throws and cushions. At present, it’s not a big niche, so there’s plenty of room for it to grow.

Their own home, a gracious old villa soon to undergo extensions and refurbishment, will one day be a testament to their weaving skills.

Southern Lakes tartan, now officially registered.

“I’ve woven 65 metres of McLean Hunting tartan for the living room drapes. We’ve already used a deep wine-red woollen weave for the seats on the dining room chairs and the ottoman in the lounge and Sue has made cushions and throws for the beds, chairs and sofas.”

They bought the looms in 2006 at a time when Rod was recovering from a chronic illness and wanted to find some way to get back into the workforce. He took a few lessons from the woman who sold them the Hattersley system and then taught himself how to produce beautiful textiles.

“At present about half our income comes from commissions,“ says Sue.

‘The Veil’ woven as part of Sue’s 2013 ‘Parallel Threads’.

In addition to the really big undertakings, Rod has designed and woven a Wanaka tartan, a Steampunk tweed – which is used to make scarves sold at Steampunk HQ in Oamaru, scarves for a handful of fashion designers, and metres of fabric for people who have wool from a few of their own coloured sheep.

McLean & Co have been in business nearly two years. Sue says it is pretty good to be still afloat as they’ve been told the first two years are the hardest. “Now when we go to the regional markets people recognise us and our wares; people are talking about our textiles. I’m giving a lecture at the Creative Fibre conference in Christchurch in April about the way we set up and operate the business.

Perino (possum and merino blend) scarves woven for BONZ in Queenstown.

“Right now we’re working on our winter 2017 range of textiles, clothing and homewares for retail sales. I’m making lined and unlined coats, ponchos, scarves, cushions and throws for sale from our online shop and at markets.

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“Actually, we don’t need to do so many markets these days because we’re making very good sales at Crafted, a collective of 14 Waitaki artisans in Oamaru’s historic precinct. It’s proving to be a really good way for creative people to get their names known and to earn a regular income.”

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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