McLean & Co. – A Story of Rehabilitation
Words: Sarah Rowland Images: Sarah Rowland & Supplied
Rod and Sue McLean have worked through loss and grief using their artistic talents, love and devotion to each other.
With the aid of three antique machines originating from the Scottish Highlands, their journey has taken them through a full-circle of rehabilitation which spans nearly 100 years.
Sue grew up near Warkworth on the North Island and trained as a primary school teacher, something which continues to be large part of her life to this day. She had a keen interest in art and fabrics, which influenced events in later years.
Her first teaching position, in February 1979, took her to the deep-south, teaching youngsters in the small Southland town of Tuatapere. In the first week she was there, she met and fell in love with local lad Rod McLean.
Quickly forming a close bond, they married in December of the same year. All went smoothly over the first few years with a family’s usual ups and downs – when life took an unexpected turn.
In 1988, aged just 31-years-old, a congenital defect known as an Arterial Venus Malformation caused a potentially fatal haemorrhage in Rod McLean’s brain. Sue, who had two small children and was seven months pregnant with their third child (Lachlan) at the time, said “Doctors thought at best he would be blind or brain damaged.” Luckily he proved the doctors wrong.
At first unable to walk, look after himself or function normally, Rod’s recovery took many years of patience and physical therapy. “Luckily I was in full-blown care mode with having three small children around,” said Sue. “It took ten years before he really began to be himself again. It was when he cracked a joke at the dinner table I knew he was coming back to being his old self – it totally stunned us.”Although with Sue’s care Rod made a remarkable recovery, he was left with epilepsy and three years after his haemorrhage Rod contracted ME, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. A self-employed plumber, Rod’s condition meant he lost his business and was left unable to work.
After ten years of raising their young family and rehabilitating Rod, Sue took on the role of income provider, teaching part-time while the children were young, and later full-time. Having relocated to Oamaru in 1993, working around the constraints of his illness, Rod cared for their four children (with the arrival of their daughter) and slowly renovated their family home. “Rhiannon was just small at the time and I was still recovering, so we both had afternoon sleeps together!” laughed Rod.
During 2005, the McLeans heard of a set of Hattersley looms for sale in Lawrence. They bought and transported them to the Historic Precinct in Oamaru where Rod gradually restored the looms with help from their previous owner, while learning to weave using her advice, a variety of books and much trial and error.
Plans were made by the couple and McLean & Co. was formed. The Hattersley Loom. Responding to a need for a compact treadle operated loom, in 1918 George Hattersley and Sons designed and produced the first Hattersley Domestic Weaving System. Used in the Outer Hebrides from 1919, they provided disabled WW1 soldiers with rehabilitation and a means of earning a living. The looms the McLeans own arrived at the Riccarton Rehabilitation League workshops in Christchurch in 1946, to provide rehabilitation and employment for disabled NZ servicemen returning from WW2. After several moves around New Zealand they ended up in Lawrence before arriving in Oamaru in 2006 in a state of disrepair.
In an unusual twist of fate, the looms found themselves back in a rehabilitation role of a McLean – one of the clans who lived on Isles of Skye, Lewis and Harris, the home to many Hattersley Domestic Weaving Systems. In 2006 the family faced further tough times, Sue was struck by breast cancer - surgery and chemotherapy followed. Her respite from the associated stresses of being sole provider came creatively, particularly through her love of vintage textiles. After exhibiting some of her stitched artworks in 2001, Sue went on to complete her City and Guilds Certificate in Design and Stitched Textiles.
The resulting exhibition ‘Exemplar’ also contained work created in response to her journey with breast cancer. While undergoing her final round of chemotherapy, tragedy struck again in August 2007 with the accidental death of their 18-year-old son Lachlan. Rod’s therapy was to build a shed behind the family home to house the looms, relocating them from the historic precinct, and then to weave. Sue’s was to stitch her way through the grieving process, eventually resulting in the exhibition ‘Echoes’, shown first in Oamaru in 2011.
The 10-inch squares of needle sculpture, framed by Rod, was each accompanied by poetry written by their daughter Rhiannon, who was 15 at that time.
‘Echoes’ attracted up to 100 people each day, the visitors profoundly and emotionally moved. “People could relate to and understand what we were going through as they often had similar experiences. They would often do multiple visits to explore them,” said Sue.
The Exhibition attracted interest nationwide and so far has been displayed in Whangarei, Ashburton and at the North Otago museum.
Sue went on to complete her Post Graduate Diploma in Visual Art at the Dunedin School of Art in 2013, after gaining a TeachNZ study award. Her graduation exhibition ‘Parallel Threads’, in which she collaborated with Rod, investigates the legacy of loss and combines her love of woven and stitched textiles and her belief in the healing powers of faith and creativity.
Although McLean & Co began life a few years earlier, Sue had felt too physically drained and mentally exhausted to cope with getting it up and running as the couple would have liked. Recently though, the company has gained momentum and “the time is right,” she said.
A full-circle of rehabilitation has taken place with the looms playing the leading role first for the soldiers, later for Rod, who repaired the looms and largely self-taught himself to weave the fine textiles he now produces. Rod is just starting to be recognised for his fabulous weaving which he said “gave him focus,” in dark times.
With the Hattersley Weaving System back into production, Rod has been busy stock-piling wool and completed fabrics, while Sue has been turning them into beautiful heirlooms, including the softest of baby blankets, scarves, wraps, throws and rugs.
All the wool used is Otago-grown – either merino or a merino blend with other wools including alpaca, mostly bought from the Woollen Mill in Milton, South Otago. “When you compare the miles travelled by the materials we use compared to somewhere like China, there’s just no comparison,” said Rod. They initially began selling through specialist outlets but have discovered an online platform which will be their main focus for selling their products.
Formerly named ‘The Clever Bastards’, the site has been recently re-branded ‘The Design Store’. The specialist site is for New Zealand designers and artists to profile and sell their work, and has gone more global to meet a larger world market, hence the name change as “people overseas probably wouldn’t get the name!” said founder Paul Kayser. “The McLeans are very special people. We like people to access the story about the artists,” he said.
Rod is currently weaving about 108 meters of the McLean Clan’s ‘Hunting’ tartan, the traditional family tartan, as a special project - their sons Cameron and Fergus are both getting married next year within seven weeks of each other. The finished cloth should make about 100 meters, enough for five to six kilts and accruements. An ‘outsider’ of the family would be expected to send a request to the chief of the clan for permission to produce the design.
For the future, Rod and Sue want to grow their business using online marketing, turning it into a more full-time venture, concentrating on producing more of the unique baby-soft, handmade designs they are so good at. Sue said she “feels very blessed” to be at the Oamaru Intermediate School, where she is an art technology teacher, sharing her skills with her students.
She has also reached the stage where she can reach out to help others, guest speaking to groups about her experiences as a mother losing her child. “We are private people, but this has put us in the public eye. It’s important to know the stages of grief when you’re in despair, and to give hope,” she said.
The couple’s love and devotion to each other has been an essential element in survival over the years and in working forward through harrowing times. They have a new plan, to build an extension for people to come and stay – learning not only how to teach them how to weave and stitch, but also give hope and inspiration to others.