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The Ōamaru couple bringing back traditional textiles

Sue and Rod McLean hand weave traditional textiles in their Ōamaru workshop using three cast-iron looms that are more than 100 years old. Photo/Ron Atkinson

Patience, resilience and passion are woven into the work of Ōamaru handcrafters Rod and Sue McLean.

As men of a certain age turn to Lycra and road cycling, Rod McLean prefers a little more sartorial elegance while pedaling his loom.

The waistcoat-clad Ōamaru weaver treadles the equivalent of 15km during an average day’s work. Turning out exquisitely fine fabric or sturdy upholstery cloth on pre-World War I machinery demands sustained, steady foot action. He must also wind and thread yarn, set a counter, crank several handles, insert wooden dowels and wield a looped wire contraption called a heddle.

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“It’s good for my body,” says McLean, 61, whose home workshop is a short walk from downtown Ōamaru. “I’m not getting any younger but I’m the fittest now that I’ve ever been in my whole life.”

This labour-intensive manufacturing method also requires a certain attitude. “I need an apprentice, but I’ve never been able to find the right person,” he says. “I need an old soul, somebody who loves old stuff. You have to be really patient.”

Rod McLean and his textile-artist wife, Sue, understand perseverance. Their McLean & Co business partnership – he weaves and maintains the looms; she designs, sews and markets their products – sprang from considerable adversity.

Sue was pregnant with their third child when Rod, then a self-employed plumber, suffered a brain haemorrhage at the age of 31. Three years later, with their fourth child on the way, he contracted myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome) and was unable to work.

In 1993, the family moved from Southland to Ōamaru, where Sue took up teaching while Rod cared for their children. To counter the stresses in her life, Sue turned to creating, then exhibiting textiles and eventually to post-graduate studies in textile art. This in turn led to the purchase of a rare set of three run-down Hattersley looms and associated accoutrements. Smitten by their magnificent simplicity, Rod toiled to restore the old English machines, hunting down books and taking weaving lessons from the previous owner.

One of three 100-year-old looms. Photo/Ron Atkinson

Plans to open a retail store in Ōamaru’s historic precinct halted when life dealt them another brutal blow: the accidental death of their 18-year-old son Lachlan in 2007.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the couple installed their looms in a purpose-built shed behind their home and set to work. Rod wove merino and alpaca, and Sue stitched the fabrics into a series of artworks that explored the death of young men in history.

These days, their creations are utilised rather than displayed. The duo collaborate to produce hand-stitched capes and cushions, bespoke baby blankets and elegant, linen-like scarves (available online at mcleanandco.nz).

It can take 40 hours to thread a loom and an hour of pedaling to make a single metre of cloth. Each bolt of fabric must then be washed and rinsed, repeatedly put through a mangle, rinsed again, spun and hung to dry in an airy corner of the McLean villa. “I love the concept of being able to create something useful and beautiful,” Sue says. And theirs is undoubtedly a labour of love. 

 

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.