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Issue 36 - Everything you need to know about Harris Tweed

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007

 

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Everything you need to know about Harris Tweed

To begin with, it needs to be understood that Harris tweed, one of the most desirable wool textiles in the world, is produced exclusively on the Outer Hebridean island of Harris and Lewis, an island which is divided into two halves, with Harris in the south and Lewis in the north. By Certified Trade Mark, Harris tweed (known in the Gaelic language as the Cloh Mor – the Big Cloth) must be made from 100 per cent pure wool, dyed, spun, finished and hand woven by the islanders of “Lewis, Harris, Uist, Barra and their several purtenances.” Much of the mystique surrounding Harris Tweed originates from it being created in a string of remote crofts. Although much of the wool comes from the mainland Scotland, islanders annually join together in the early Summer to round up and shear the local sheep to add into the mix. This is then taken to a mill, where it is washed and dyed. Coloured and white wools are weighed in predetermined proportions, then thoroughly mixed and carded. The spun yarn is then warped by winding threads onto a frame of wooden pegs to ensure an even tension throughout. The warp is then gathered into long hanks and delivered to the homes of the weavers, together with yarn for the weft.

Having received design instructions and a pattern sample from the manufacturer, the weaver proceeds to weave the order (approximately 78 metres long) on a footpowered loom. When this is completed, the cloth is collected from outside the croft gate and returned to the manufacturing mill, where the dirt, oil, and other impurities are removed by washing.

At this stage, the fabric passes through a mending department for loose ends and broken threads to be rectified, thus ensuring that there are no imperfections. Afterwards, every roll is inspected by a Harris Tweed Authority (www.harristweed.org) inspector.

If all the necessary regulations have been complied with, it is then stamped with the ORB MARK which certifies authenticity.

Weaving has been a way of life in the Outer Hebrides for centuries, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that Harris tweed began to be recognised elsewhere, and when Royalty started to wear sporting jackets and suits made from the hard-wearing fabric, it rapidly became a status symbol.

By the 20th century, Harris tweed was firmly established as a prestigious industry with a growing reputation for quality, providing a comfortable living for the islanders. Unfortunately, with the emergence of artificial, lighter and cheaper textiles during the 1980s, the international demand for longer lasting fabrics declined. From employing a workforce of around 1,200 in the 1970s, the industry found itself slipping into the doldrums and only able to support in the region of 100.

Then, mercifully, the unexpected happened. At the turn of the millennium, top international designers such as Jean Paul Gautier, Chanel and Prada suddenly began to make use of Harris Tweed in their designs.

Even the pop singer Madonna incorporated it into her wardrobe. In 2004, sportswear giant Nike incorporated specially woven Harris tweed from Luskentyre (www.luskentyre harristweed.co.uk) in a limited edition line of womens’ trainers, introducing the material to a rapidly expanding youth market.

In 2006, however, the Stornoway-based KM Group, which produces 95 per cent of all Harris Tweed, was purchased by Yorkshire textile manufacturer Brian Haggas.

According to recent reports, he has plans to restrict its use to making men’s jackets for a clothing company he owns and in only a handful of the 8,000 officially established tweed patterns. How much fabric he intends to sell to outside buyers, and to which markets, he says will be decided upon early in 2008.

Two independent Harris Tweed mills that are continuing to cater for wider demands, however, still survive. They are Harris Tweed Textiles (www.harris-tweed.co.uk) at Carloway, which is currently undergoing a significant upgrade, and the until recently mothballed Shawbost Mill, also situated on the west of Lewis. In November 2007 the Shawbost Mill was bought by Harris Tweed Hebrides and there are plans for it to r eopen shortly.

After a successful promotion during Tartan Week 2007, Harris Tweed Textiles commissioned the Manhattan-based designer Lusmilla McColl, whose family is from Dumbarton, to design eight outfits for young people. These were unveiled in November to rapturous applause at a charity fashion show held at the Oran Mór hospitality complex in Glasgow.