At the only textile mill of its kind in the Highlands, heritage looms have been working hard to disrupt the centuries old face of tartan.

The process of producing the cloth is the same as it’s always been; the clatter of the looms as the pattern takes shape, the nimble fingers of the weaver, eyes fixed on the spinning threads, the cogs, chains and shuttles.

But while the task at hand is rooted in the past, the tartans which roll from the Prickly Thistle mill are firmly in the present; bespoke and modern designs often created as the result of collaborations with clients from around the world, in vibrant colours and complex patterns.

It’s tartan – made at the region’s only tartan textile mill - but not as Highland clans of the past might recognise it.

And, it’s being suggested, the mill’s ‘rebel tartan’ is an example of what can be achieved when the creators and designers of today turn to the past for inspiration.

A new initiative, Heritage as a Creative Future, has been launched to encourage interaction between the Highland and Islands’ creative industries and the area’s heritage – from the old as time natural landscape to traditional skills, museum objects, people’s stories and company archives.

The online series of webinars, hosted by Highlands creative economy support organisation XpoNorth, also examines how museums and heritage organisations can in turn become archives of fashion products, and inspire new works.

According to leading design anthropologist, Dr Aude Le Guennec, Assistant Professor at the School of Textiles and Design, Heriot-Watt University, the Prickly Thistle example shows how the rich heritage of Highland skills and textiles can be given a modern twist to meet consumers’ demands for products which tell a story of traditions, landscape and history.

She says there are many potential areas of inspiration to ignite the creative spark.

“From creative industries perspective, it could be anything around, it could be the landscape, history, objects in museums or collections and how they use that to create different products and tell a story.

“One colleague at Heriot-Watt is doing a project where he is looking at sounds which are part of our heritage and transforming sound waves to textiles.

“It’s not about going to a gallery, looking at something and reproducing it. It’s looking at the landscape and thinking of how to integrate it or using an old technique to produce a product that meets the expectations of today’s customers,” she adds.

“It’s using an unexpected part of heritage in a different way to tell stories.”

The seminar organisers have pointed to recent work by Edinburgh-based Craft Design House, which has drawn inspiration from the life of Arctic adventurer, botanist and writer Isobel Wylie Hutchison to create a collection of wearable, accessories and homeware.

While some designers, such as Fair Isle knitwear specialist Mati Ventrillon, have already taken inspiration from museum collections of traditional designs and patterns of the past to create new, highly desirable fashion items for new markets.

Others have fused traditional Highland products in innovative ways to ignite the interest of modern consumers - such as a range of Harris Tweed imbued with the scent of whisky, the result of a project involving Harris Tweed Hebrides, Johnnie Walker Black Label and textile experts at Heriot-Watt University.

Clare Campbell of Prickly Thistle says while her tartan products are soaked in Highland heritage, they are created with modern customers’ demands for sustainability, heritage and style in mind.

“We’re disrupting the way tartan is produced on a number of levels,” she adds. “We are using cast iron looms that give us more creative freedom, are highly sustainable and create more jobs.

“We’re disrupting the clan system of tartan design and working collaboratively with people around the world.

“We make kilts, but we are also pushing forward towards creating modern styles of highland dress and new designs that have zero waste.

“Consumers now realise that mass consumerism is killing everything, and they’re looking for products that are more than fast fashion.”

Meanwhile in Orkney, textile designer Kirsteen Stewart’s window showcases the area’s natural heritage, with dramatic open skies, rugged coastlines and the power of the sea inspiring her range of textiles.

While most become clothes or accessories, she has found an innovative use for some fabric – as a vibrant splash of colour and shape on a surfboard.

She has also delved into the archives of Orkney jewellery designer Sheila Fleet for a collaborative collection of scarves and is working with other local creatives using natural heritage and skills as inspiration for prints inspired by the underwater landscape of Scapa Flow Bay and a corset made from rope.

“Our lifestyles are changing, and people want to buy products with an authentic story behind them,” she says.

She has plans to develop the surfboard and swimwear, both items typically associated with tropical designs but which she says could instead be decorated with the patterns inspired by Orkney plants, sunsets or underwater seascapes.

Iain Hamilton, Head of Creative Industries at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and co-founder of XpoNorth, says: “Provenance and authenticity is a big selling point at the moment.

“People want to buy things that are more than just an immediate product; they want something that has really some meaning behind it.”

He suggests Highland and Islands producers might look to Scandinavian countries, where traditions and heritage have inspired distinctive ‘Scandic style’ products and influenced literature and film.

“The Highlands can have a similar impact – there’s a feeling and a look that people identify with.

“It’s not about recreating the past,” he adds. “It’s about how to use the things form the past to create something new, but which tells you a story.”

The online seminars, which run until April, are available at