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An update on our Waitaki tartan project - by Ashley Smyth/Waitaki App News

Waitaki tartan dreams weaving their way into reality

Article by Ashley Smyth - Waitaki App News 10 August 2023

There are many strands to creating a meaningful tartan, and that is before the actual weaving begins.

The Ōamaru couple behind McLean & Co Hand Woven Textiles - Sue and Rod McLean - are taking on the task of creating a Waitaki tartan, and are hoping the people of the district it represents will get behind them.

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The McLeans have always fancied the idea of creating the tartan since they bought their early 20th Century weaving looms in 2006.

“We’d been thinking, and we talked about it for a while with some people, but it never got off the ground, because everybody’s so busy,” Sue said.

Now, as the couple near retirement, they have decided it’s now or never. 

They “put feelers out” to see how they might initially source the wool fleece required, and were offered three bales of wool from Benmore Station, at Omarama.

“Suddenly, once the ball got rolling, it was just like a snowball and it gathered momentum,” Sue said.

“It was good though, because it made us do it, where we would have just kept plodding along, doing what we were doing, and then we would have been at the age to want to sell the looms and hand it on, and not have done it.”

Then, with about 450kg of wool at their disposal, the next steps were choosing colours and getting the wool dyed locally through Godfrey Hirst. 

“Because we want everything done, as much as we can, in the Waitaki District.”

Sue described the tartan design as “fluid”.

“There's many strands to designing a tartan that actually means something, that's not just a commercial endeavour. And it's really important for Rod and I, that what we design and make is representative of the Waitaki district. Of the Waitaki, you know, of the land and the river and the people. So, there's a lot of bits and pieces.”

Due to the limitations of the looms and the “rotating shuttle box system”, the number of colours, and colour changes the couple can easily use is restricted, so they initially decided on four colours - a grey, a limestone/tussocky cream colour, a bright greeny-blue, and a dark red.

The grey signifies the bedrock of the mountains, the volcanic basalt, and the greywacke of the river stones.

“Also, it’s about the winding roads that you see, and it’s to do with migration.”

The limestone/tussocky colour is self-explanatory, they said, while the blue is a bright aqua, which can be found on the right day in the Waitaki River, or the Pacific Ocean.

The fourth colour is called blood red, to signify bloodlines.

“The bloodlines of the tangata whenua, the bloodlines of the people, the settlers who came and, like us, are here now, and the people who will come in the future, because we’ve all migrated here, from somewhere, at different times,” Sue said.

Once the four colours had been chosen, she ran them through a free online tartan generator, which came up with designs with the colours she thought told “some of the stories that we wanted to tell”. But when they shared the ideas with their artist friend, Dominican nun Sister Mary Horn, who moved from Teschemakers to Dunedin last year, she threw a spanner in the works. Sister Mary showed them some of her work from an exhibition called Pilgrimage. She had used clay to make her own paints, and immediately Sue knew a green was missing from their lineup.

“As soon as I saw the green, I was just like - I looked at Rod, and he looked at me . . . and I could see it written on his face, because he could probably see it on my face, and I was like ‘oh, shit’. 

“I didn’t say it, but I thought a much worse word than that!”

The green is about the flora of North Otago, but also about reflection, Sue said. 

“Kind of like, reflecting on who you are, and your interactions and of people and place, that kind of thing.”  

The green is one they have already used - called bush green or New Zealand green - in their version of the McLean hunting tartan, rather than using the original Scottish version, but it makes life a bit more difficult.

“But that’s okay, because my favourite designer of all time is Vivienne Westwood, and I like . . . things to be sometimes a little bit quirky. So yeah, the tartan design, which is still formulating, is not necessarily going to be symmetrical.”

Buying the fleece, getting it scoured, dyed and spun is costing the couple just under $40,000, which they have had to borrow. 

That price doesn’t include keeping the pair fed, while Rod is busy weaving. It takes him about two months to weave 200 metres, and with 80kg of each colour, they will have enough wool for about 800m, Sue said.

This adds another strand to the story, with the McLeans looking to help fund the project, through a pre-sale of the Waitaki tartan.

While they can’t start designing the tartan properly until the yarn is spun, and they can have a play with it to see how it is going to work.

There will be scarves, cushion covers, or “whatever people are going to want it to be”. People can even order the fabric by the metre, or buy a gift voucher.

“Also we'll be offering experiences where people can come and weave their own little piece of tartan.

“That will be included in a two metre length and then we'll mark it. Those are going to be expensive because we need the money and it takes up both of our time to have people in the shed, so we need to cover that cost.”

The wool, which is being spun by Wild Earth Yarns, in Christchurch, will take about six to eight weeks to prepare, and they are hoping it will be ready by the end of September. They are planning to be part of November’s Heritage Celebrations, as well as Meet the Maker, in October.

For the first run, the pair will “warp up” 200m, and “hopefully lots of people will like the idea that they will have a piece of the first 200 metres ever woven”.

Once woven, it can also be registered with the Scottish Tartan Authority, which means McLean & Co has the rights to its use.

Sue said while the tartan is part of the McLean & Co story, it was important for them to work with Waitaha Ngāi Tahu, and the Whitestone Waitaki Geopark.

“No one can tell you that it’s wrong, because it’s our story . . . well, it’s our narrative of the telling of the stories . . . it’s really important to us that we tell other people’s, that we tell the story of the Waitaki with integrity.”


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