Harris Tweed: The Jewel of the Western Isles

Herringbone Harris Tweed
Image credit: Nick Wood on Unsplash

Harris Tweed is a unique textile with a sense of heritage that feels every bit as singular and variegated as a length of the cloth itself. Born, bred, and built in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, it is owned by no single entity and marshalled, protected, and given to the wider world by only a small group of individuals. Despite its remote origins, its name has long been revered around the globe and its orb symbol remains instantly recognisable. It is the only fabric that has its own Act of Parliament and is one of only a few items in British manufacturing to do so. Patrick Grant of Norton & Sons on Savile Row calls it ‘the world’s most iconic cloth’ and ‘perhaps Britain’s greatest brand’. Guy Hills of Dashing Tweeds, meanwhile, points out that ‘no wardrobe is complete without an item in Harris Tweed, and this will always be the case.’

It certainly has been the case for generations. Humans have lived in the Outer Hebrides since the Stone Age as evinced by the standing Callanish Stones which were constructed some 5 000 years ago. While a great deal has changed in the intervening millennia, there is nevertheless an uncanny sense of much having stayed the same. It remains a region that is sparsely populated in which crofters still tend to sheep whose fleeces are shorn, processed, and woven to create textiles. Over time the sheep breeds have changed somewhat and parts of the manufacturing processes have been mechanised, but the overall story remains the same. The clò-mòr, or ‘big cloth,’ that residents of Harris and Lewis have been weaving in their homes for centuries is not all that far removed from the Harris Tweed sold today. 

As to what this present-day incarnation entails, as specified by the Harris Tweed Act of 1993,  ‘Harris Tweed means a tweed has been hand-woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.’ Only tweed made in this way can be granted the coveted Harris Tweed trademark, which is stamped by the Harris Tweed Authority on every piece of the cloth it carefully inspects and eventually issues. A trademark — the aforementioned ‘Orb’ seal which was created in 1911, making it the oldest British trademark in continuous use — is stamped on the bolts of fabric at roughly two-metre increments and the Authority keeps ‘passport’ information (the weaver, mill, pattern, date, etc.) on every meterage of material it ships out, the record of which stretch back more than a century.

Harris Tweed label
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Before reaching this point, however, it must first be transformed from virgin wool into serviceable textile. While sheep from the Outer Hebrides are still shorn for this purpose, an increase in demand in the twentieth century meant that wool from outside the region (predominantly in the Scottish Lowlands) is also used. The fleeces are sorted, graded, washed, baled, and then shipped to the tweed mills where they are dyed, carded, and spun into yarn, before being delivered to weavers who produce the final product. While all of this was once done by hand, large parts of the process have been mechanised in modern times, perhaps most conspicuously on the weaving end. The 1920s saw the introduction of the Hattersley single-width loom, which allowed weavers to produce more complicated patterns in greater quantities than on the large antique wooden looms they had used previously. Some weavers still use the Hattersley loom to this day, although it has largely been replaced by the newer Bonas-Griffith double-width loom, first introduced in 1996.

Evidently, the creation of Harris Tweed is a product of seamless vertical integration, each step of which is scrupulously safeguarded (If you would like to see more about the production process, Lara Platman’s Harris Tweed, from Land to Street, offers a brilliant and intimate step-by-step visual guide). As a product, its virtues have been extolled beyond its remote birthplace beginning in the nineteenth century through the ambassadorial efforts of Catherine Herbert, Countess of Dunmore. Her husband, Alexander, the 6th Earl of Dunmore, inherited the Isle of Harris from George Murray, the 5th Earl of Dunmore, who had bought it for £60 000 in 1834. In 1846, Lady Dunmore had lengths of Harris Tweed made into jackets for the staff on her estate and, realising that tweed proved the ideal material for country pursuits, introduced it to her high-society friends. It quickly became fashionable for hunting and sporting attire which spurred on the nascent Harris Tweed industry and brought the Orb trademark into being.

The fortunes of Harris Tweed as an industry have waxed and waned somewhat over the years (changing fashions and the rise of synthetic fibres in the second half of the twentieth century dealt a blow, for example), but The Harris Tweed Act of 1993 and the establishment of Harris Tweed Hebrides (HTH) in 2007 has helped to protect and promote the region’s eponymous export. And it has worked. According to The Rake, since the formation of HTH, Harris Tweed’s presence throughout the fashion industry has increased tenfold. Apart from its longstanding use by tailors on Savile Row and elsewhere, it has also been embraced in the fashion world by everyone from Vivienne Westwood to Nike.

Harris Tweed garments were among the very first bits of tailoring and outerwear I sought out when I could finally afford to buy them. It seemed a natural thing to do partly because I live in Scotland where they are easy to source and sample, but mostly because Harris Tweed is a cloth I have heard referred to in hushed tones since I was a child born on the other side of the globe. I still feel a giddy sense of pride every time I put it on and catch a glimpse of that famous label. I love that it always looks tailored and sophisticated while being somehow hefty enough to take a beating right alongside the likes of leather or denim. I often find myself pausing to appreciate its unique texture and appearance, coloured as it always has been by the hues of the Hebrides and painstakingly hand-crafted by its people. Each garment is part of a proud tradition, yet no two are ever the same. It’s hard to imagine another product so intimately tied to the region that created it or one as animated by the lives of the people who made it.

And yet it is only by putting it to use that the process is completed. Every wearer adds their own stamp on the material by accruing their allotted collections of scuffs, nicks, and repairs, before passing it on to the next owner to fashion in their own right. Because Harris Tweed has long had a habit of transcending trends and seasons; instead, it passes through generations largely unchanged and with undiminished value and appeal. Long may it continue to do so.

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