A journey to where they 'wurrk' the Scottish wool

Somehow the reality of a place creates its unique signature - Brussels lace means Belgium, just as Roquefort cheese spells France. There is little doubt that one of the strongest endorsements of Britishness is woven into the coziness of Scottish wool - and the search for its sources is one of the best roundabout ways to discover the intimacies of Britain.

Even on the surface, it is easy to understand why. The land is graced with lush miles of carpeted pastures that black-faced sheep munch to their hearts' content. Everywhere people welcome visitors for a look around their workrooms - whether the sign is out or not.

Isolated wool workers are engaged in cottage crafts all over the country. Some simply dye the wool and design patterns. Others are the solitary but anonymous knitters who turn out spectacular garments commissioned by grand fashion houses. But the core of Scotland's woolen trade still centers on the border towns of Hawick, Galashiels, and Selkirk, as well as the wind-swept Outer Hebrides.

Although the two areas produce totally different products, ''wurrkin' the wool'' is all the same - it is a way of life.

In the mills, families of weavers turn out the finest cheviots, flannels, worsteds, tweeds, tartans, and knits - including luscious mohair, camel's hair, and cashmere. In croft or cottage, the emphasis is on exquisite individual pieces.

Wherever it is done, Scottish (never ''Scotch'') ''cloth'' is essentially the same as that which has covered backs and warmed hands since the beginning of time, with one exception - it can no longer be classified as merely sensible. The stout, trustworthy, indestructible foe of chilled winds has been discovered by the fickle world of high fashion. Some say that means an inevitable loss of inherent dignity, as hot pinks and citron yellows replace classic heathers and grays.

I thought about the possibility of that dour prediction recently, as a blustery wind tore at my scarf on the ferry ride from Ullapool on the mainland to the Outer Hebrides. The journey of 50 miles takes three hours, during which there is nothing to see but the silent, motionless, pewter-colored water, parting for the vessel and then closing again. Even the sky, curtained in gray gauze, hangs oppressively low.

When the islands of Uist, Barra, Harris, and Lewis finally emerge from the fog, they appear like lazing seals scattered across the horizon. Whipped by wind and unrelieved by visible vegetation, they seem to float aimlessly. But a closer scrutiny reveals tiny cottages here and there as the port of Stornoway almost embraces the boat.

Everyone in the assembled crowd on shore seems to know everyone on board except us. Rather quickly, and very politely, a local official called Constable MacKay (who is delighted we came to see ''the tweed'') sets us in the direction of the Kenneth MacLeod Mill in Showbost, a short distance away.

There, Derek Murray, a third-generation owner, explains that he was born into the business. ''My grandfather started it,'' he explains, ''because his father died when he was very young. We say he was thrown in at the deep end.''

Angus John MacDonald, a pattern-maker who says he's been involved with wool as long as he can remember, joins us for the tour. As he guides us around gigantic bales of multicolored wool, he explains that raw wool is dyed, blended, carded, and spun here.

Over noisy machines and activity he cautions, ''Never forget that more than 800 weavers are responsible for the actual production of millions of yards of cloth that will ultimately bear the orb of Harris Tweed. That mark means the tweed is woven on a handloom in a house or shed on these islands, and is made of wool that may or may not have been prepared in a mill such as ours.''

Mr. MacDonald explains that the usual process begins when a bale of wool and a pattern are delivered to a weaver. The tweed is subsequently handloomed, and the finished bolt is placed on the doorstep (no matter what the weather) to signal the delivery of the next load of wool. The freshly woven bolts, which usually measure 90 to 100 yards each, are returned to the mill, where they are washed, finished, and marked.

When we inquire about ''the old way,'' we are told that Joan MacDonald, Tweed Maker to the Queen, is one of two people left who does everything by hand. Derek Murray says she lives on the Isle of Harris, just across the isthmus. Where? ''Oh,'' he says with a shrug, ''just go over and ask around.'

This proves less easy than we anticipated and, after a rather hilarious morning, we discover that almost everyone on the island is named MacDonald and they all weave the tweed. In a conspiracy of silence, no one is willing to help us find this holder of the royal warrant. Finally, after promising several MacDonalds we would return to look at their socks, sweaters, and tweeds, we are guided to the Mrs. MacDonald.

Clad in a tartan skirt and brilliant red sweater, she is easily observable clambering about on the rocks, searching the lichen and mosses for exactly the right hues. ''I choose colors that remind me of the islands,'' she says in lieu of a greeting. ''Our colors are here, in the rocks, the heather, and of course, the changing sea. But Her Majesty requested her tweed to reflect the hues of sky and hills.''

Her blue-blue eyes point to wisps of raw wool hanging from the rafters of her weaving cottage. Smoky grays and blues enlivened by a touch of violet create a pattern which, by royal decree, can never be duplicated for anyone else.

She cards and spins on an ancient wheel. The tweed that evolves is musky and heavier than most that would be shipped to Paris, Milan, and Tokyo. I find it irresistible. The cloth I bought has since become a skirt, but somehow it is more than that. It will always represent the softness of those islands nobody really visits and a woman named Mrs. MacDonald, who does it ''the old way.'' I always remember the way she looked the morning she carried my tweed to the car. The wind was blowing to beat the band and a cold rain was stinging. Her snowy hair was disarrayed, but she laughed: ''I suppose we do have more than our fair share of rain.'' Then her eyes caught sight of the rocks, lichen, and stirring sea. ''But then, you can't have everything.''

On the mainland, across the entire width of the country, it is very different. At first the gentility of the surrounding countryside is a startling contrast to the starkness of the islands. But, as it unfolds on the three-hour, 80-mile journey to the border, one feels comforted by the soothing landscape.

In the midst of this tranquillity, the unsophisticated towns of Hawick, Selkirk, and Galashiels, crowded with sooty, turn-of-the-century mills, are strung out like a necklace. Straddling the rivers Teviot, Tweed, and Esherick, they form the core of Scotland's woolen industry.

Hawick (pronounced ''Haw-ick'') is perhaps the most well known. The center of cashmere knitting and the home of world-famous brands of Pringle, Braemar, Ballantyne, Glenmag, Barrie, and D. McGeorge (all owned by Dawson International) , it is a must on any wool pilgrimage. Here, every factory produces a spectrum of woolen goods. Almost all have factory outlet stores that sell standard items at greatly reduced prices.

At Pringle Mills, Doreen Keen, a designer of women's wear, explains why cashmere is so expensive. It is made out of hair from the underbellies of Tibetan goats and shipped here from the barren mountaintops of China, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia via the Canton Export-Import Commodities Fair, the largest cashmere market in the world. But she says only half of what arrives is considered good enough for Scottish cashmere. After 19 precise steps and four control checks, it becomes a sweater.

''Just think of it,'' she says, ''the hair of one goat makes a scarf; two, a lady's sweater; three, a man's V-neck; six, a lady's two-ply dress; 24, a coat!'' Hamish Carruthers (clothmaker to Givenchy, Anne Klein, Chanel, and many other top designers) adds that one easy way to calculate the worth of cashmere is to imagine that it takes two miles of yarn to make a sweater.

Expense notwithstanding, cashmere sales are skyrocketing. Even independent designers like Hilary Rohde are thriving. A sparkling, affable person who lives ''half-time in Edinburgh (schools for children, you know)'' and half-time in the Highlands just off the Isle of Skye on an isolated peninsula of Loch Hourn, Ms. Rohde claims she is one of the only designers of hand-knit cashmere in the country.

''On Loch Hourn,'' she says, ''we raised sheep, made electricity from the stream, and I hand spun, dyed, and wove my own wool. Five years ago, I tried doing a hand-knit cashmere collection and it all sold. Since I couldn't keep up with the demand, I began to send cashmere yarn and designs to certain knitters by post. They would return the garments the same way.''

There are Hilary Rohdes, Hamish Carrutherses, and MacDonalds everywhere in Scotland. Beguiling they are - happy to pass you from one gentle person to another. Eager to educate visitors about ''the cloth,'' whether it is tartan or tweed, they will lead you to their sources. Subtly they will suggest you pause to absorb the essence of their land of moors and heather, Norman keeps and thatched cottages - where certain places haven't changed for centuries.

But hurry - those who love it fear its newfound fame. They spout truisms about their skills: ''character and good fences don't need whitewash.'' And they whisper about their country, ''fragile it is.''

Practical information:

British Tourist Authority, 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 581-4708.

British Information Services, 845 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022, (212) 752-8400.

British Woolens, 159 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 586-7621.

Mrs. Alex. MacDonald, ''Craigard,'' 9 Drini-shadder, Isle of Harris, Scotland (Drinishadder 203).

Hilary Rohde, 4 Carlton Street, Edinburgh EH4 1NJ, Scotland, (031-3320-4147).

Harris Tweed Associates, Station Square, Inverness, Scotland.

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