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Far from run of the mill

It was the smell, the salty sea-fresh odour whipped up by the wind, that grabbed author and photographer Lara Platman first.

The Harris landscape left its mark on photographer Lara Platman, who spent seven months living there and on Lewis documenting the local community for a book
The Harris landscape left its mark on photographer Lara Platman, who spent seven months living there and on Lewis documenting the local community for a book

Then the colours. The greens, blues and greys of the sometimes bleak but always beautiful Outer Hebridean landscape captured her imagination.

"The scenery blew my mind," says Platman, who spent seven months living on the islands of Harris and Lewis photographing and ­documenting the local community for her book Harris Tweed From Land To Street. "It just made me scream. As a photographer you're always looking for ­something to shake you and the scenery just blew me away. I think that's why people endure living there - it's why I would if I could somehow."

The landscapes of Harris and Lewis have left their mark on Platman.

The 44 year-old photographer, who lives in Gloucestershire, says she was filled with "amazement and love" for the scenery despite the fact that the weather was "really cold, and rainy and horrible" for some of the time she was there.

She adds: "I was there during February and it was the coldest one for 30 years. But then I got some nice snowy pictures that way."

Capturing images of snowy ­landscapes, beautiful though they may be, was not the main purpose of Platman's trip. Instead, she had set out to document the indigenous weaving industry, and to follow the production of Harris Tweed cloth, famously worn by celebrities such as Madonna.

Her timing couldn't have been better. Harris Tweed is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, with one mill reporting that orders were up by 25% in 2013.

The journey took Platman from croft to mill and then back again, with numerous visits to islanders' cramped garages, where much of the weaving is done, in between. Platman spent most of the seven months on the island either camping in sheltered spots or staying in B&Bs. When the weather got really bad, in the cold winter months, she moved into a croft.

Platman, who had previously spent time photographing dancers and theatre life, says that she found the weavers' work fascinating. "It knocked me for six. It knocked me for six because I realised there was a different life out there. When I first photographed a weaver for my other book [Art Workers Guild 125 Years] I realised craft takes time and patience; zen and meditation. Weaving is like a meditation."

That quiet stillness is reflected in Platman's images of the men and women working in the island's weaving industry. The surroundings are modest - some of the looms are shoehorned into small undecorated garages - and the weavers are pictured holy jumpers and all. It couldn't be further removed from the luxury designer catwalks, such as Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood, that Harris Tweed fabric is regularly displayed on.

In the book, personal pictures of weavers are interspersed with shots of scenic landscapes and industrial-inspired images taken in one of the three working Harris Tweed mills.

"Basically Harris and Lewis is one big mill and that's what I wanted to get across," says Platman. "The vans going around picking the cloth up, every shed is just a little office of a mill."

It was the community spirit that impressed Platman most of all. Everyone, she says, knows everyone and the mills could even identify tweeds based on the smell of a fabric.

"The community levels are so, so impressive," she says. "The mills, when they come to darn the cloth, know who has woven it by the weaving style of it, or if it smelled of chickens they would know it had been done by a certain person. The community there is an intrinsic soul - it's like a private members' club, and if you come from Harris and Lewis you're part of it."

Harris Tweed From Land To Street, published by Frances Lincoln, £14.99

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