Textile designer and author Malcolm Campbell is taking weaving into the classroom with his beautiful books - and the character he created is busy making a new animated children’s TV show, as he tells Stephanie Smith. Pictures by James Hardisty.
It was the Queen who first came up with the name of Malcolm the Weaver. In March 2010 Malcolm Campbell was presented to Her Majesty at a Buckingham Palace reception for the elite of the British fashion industry. “I said ‘Good evening, Ma’am, my name’s Malcolm, and I’m a Scottish weaver’,” he says, “and she turned to the Duke of Edinburgh and said, ‘This is Malcolm the Weaver’. And I thought wow.”
They spoke for about 20 minutes and the Queen invited him to Kensington Palace to see Queen Victoria’s archives and gave him permission to take the Balmoral tartan and weave it in Harris tweed. “I registered it,” Malcolm says. “Can you believe I’ve got the only registered Harris tweed tartan in the world and it’s the Callanish tartan, based on the Balmoral tartan that Prince Albert designed for Queen Victoria in 1853.”
Woven on the Isle of Lewis, this handsome cloth is now used for furniture, clothing and accessories. “The Queen has had bolts of it, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have had fascinators and hats in it,” says Malcolm.
This was just the beginning of the story of Malcolm the Weaver and his alter ego, Malcolm Campbell, a textile designer who lives in Harrogate and has worked in the premium cloth making industry for 50 years, holding senior positions with some of the world’s most prestigious names and collaborating with designers including John Rocha, Paul Costelloe and Vivienne Westwood.
The real Malcolm was born 20 miles from Edinburgh in Haddington where his mother Frances was a tweed cloth mender at A&J MacNab. He says: “My mother said, because I did a lot of painting and took art at school, why don’t you become a weaver?”
At the age of 15 in 1969, he became an apprentice weaver and textile designer at A&J MacNab, attending the Scottish College of Textiles on block release. He took to it, worked hard and studied. In 1975 he was awarded the City & Guilds of London Institute certificate in Textile Design and Colour & Business Management.
When he was 20, he moved to Yorkshire to be assistant designer with Hirst & Mallinson of Huddersfield, and became head designer at 21. He moved to West Riding Fabrics in Leeds, then went back to Scotland in 1983 as design and marketing director of The Edinburgh Woollen Mill. In 1990, divorced and with daughters aged 12, 11, 7 and three, he returned to Yorkshire, this time to Harrogate for its schools, and worked for the Parkland Group. In 2002 he became marketing director for The Woolmark Company in Ilkley and in 2004 was the first Scot to be appointed President of the Bradford Textile Society. In 2006 he was awarded fellowships of the Society of Dyers and Colourists, The Textile Institute and the Royal Society of Arts.
Then, in 2007, Malcolm joined the prestigious Holland & Sherry Group as global sales director. “It took me to Russia, India, China, Hong Kong, America, selling the best cloths in the world,” he says (he also provided costumes for Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman for the film Australia).
In 2010, came his epiphany after meeting the Queen when he decided to forge his own independent path and then to develop his idea for children’s books. Starting with the Callanish tartan, in 2010 he launched The Cloth of Kings, a bespoke collection of tweed tartan products by Master Craftsmen in the Outer Hebrides. He also established his global consultancy Retail & Textile Company (he is currently working with Egyptian company GoldenTex in Cairo which owns Baird menswear brands in Leeds, supplying department stores in the UK with suits and jackets).
In 2012 BBC Scotland asked him to help make a children’s programme about weaving on the Isle of Lewis, featuring himself and his twins, Aidan and Zoe, then six. It took three days and saw them visiting tweed mills and the Callanish Stones dating from 2693 BC. Answering his children’s questions and keeping them occupied was what inspired the books, he says. So, using the Queen’s name for him, he began creating the story of Malcolm the Weaver, based loosely on his own early life.
The first Malcolm the Weaver book, Weaver of a Life in Colour, was published in 2014 in collaboration with The Society of Dyers and Colourists, to teach 4-8 year-olds, and people of all ages with learning difficulties, about colour, textiles, nature, the environment and sustainability. Illustrated, as all the books are, by his daughter Sharon Campbell, who is also a textile designer, it is dedicated to the memory of his mother – “who was my inspiration for life, and my teacher of magical things”.
Malcolm says: “I know the beauty of colour, I know the beauty of stories. Every time I develop a cloth, I put a story to it.”
Now the books are in 8,000 schools throughout the UK, thanks in no small part to Malcolm persuading companies to sponsor them. Woolmark has sponsored ones for schools in Australia, and they are now also in India, China and America, with Malcolm working steadily to send them out across the rest of the world. Joanna Lumley has sponsored books and Malcolm has won praise from Sir David Attenborough and Selina Scott, among many others. He also works with Jenny Ruth Workshops, a charity and a social enterprise based in Ripon, working with people with autism.
An experienced public speaker and father of seven children aged between 46 and 12, plus seven grandchildren, Malcolm now goes into schools, many in Yorkshire, to bring nature into the classroom and put weaving onto the school agenda. Recently, at one primary school in Harrogate, children went on a nature ramble to gather bark, leaves and berries to make dyes for the wool they had gathered off fences, which they then spun into yarn and wove into a little piece of cloth. “When you can teach a kid that that’s what can happen, it then sows the seed for them realising it’s not all about just having it there and then. It makes them appreciate,” he says.
“Because it’s my craft, my skill, because I know you can take a piece of wool off a sheep’s back, spin it into yarn, weave it into a piece of cloth, make a garment, wear it, feel good in it, because that process has been there since time immemorial, I want children to appreciate that. The weaving process is such a magical process.”
Malcolm believes that education is crucial to the future of the textile industry to re-establish the production of luxury natural fibres. “My whole career has been about natural fibres, wool, cashmere, silk, linen, angora, vicuna,” he says. He often wears his clothes made in cloth he has designed, including worsted suits and Harris tweed coats and jackets, as here for this photoshoot at The Ivy Harrogate.
Meanwhile, Malcolm the Weaver might soon have his own TV series. Malcolm is now working with BBC Alba in Scotland to developing a pilot animation programme in which Malcolm will be portrayed as a boy. “Who knows what could happen in the future? There could be nightwear, bedding, toys,” Malcolm says.
“It’s to teach kids the fundamentals of the magic of life, get them dreaming again, get them thinking again, instead of this drum-drumming on their mobile phone.
“If we don’t watch what we are doing, we’re going to lose the magic of life.”
Find out more about Malcolm the Weaver and the books at malcolmtheweaver.com and about The Cloth of Kings at www.theclothofkings.com
* CREDITS: All clothes owned and styled by Malcolm Campbell and made in cloths he has designed. / Photography: James Hardisty. / Location: The Ivy Harrogate, which has partnered with Jo Malone London to create the summer terrace, inspired by the new Blossoms collection. It will stay in place until Sunday, August 25.