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Issue 48 - Woven history

Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009


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Woven history

I recently purchased a bolt of Harris Tweed to have made into a jacket. I know that sounds rather an old fashioned thing to do nowadays given the generous availability of off-the-shelf menswear but to my mind there is nothing more stylish than a made-to-measure item of clothing which genuinely captures the subtle colours of the Hebridean landscape.

And besides, I am not at all ashamed of being thought of as old fashioned, especially when it comes to an appreciation of quality products. That’s why I drink single malt Scotch whisky and, in much the same way, Harris Tweed ranks high on my list of the good things in life.

Like a good dram of Scotch, Harris Tweed has the ability to be both traditional and modern. Furthermore, it is enduring and versatile, and always looks good. Out-of-doors, it can be tough, warm and weatherproof. Indoors, it replicates an artist’s palate of browns and yellows and greens, heathery mauves and pinks. Better still, it comes exclusively from the West Coast islands of Harris, Lewis, Benbecula, the Uists and Barra, which makes it even more special.

For generations, Harris Tweed was woven by hand by Hebridean islanders for the ready markets of the Scottish mainland, but as its reputation grew, and its imitators emerged, it rapidly became clear that its authenticity had to be protected. The Harris Tweed Association Ltd was therefore formed around the beginning of the last century and, following Trade Mark legislation, the iconic orb and Maltese Cross symbol, which must by Law be shown on all genuine items of Harris Tweed, was registered in 1910.

Alterations in the Trademark Definition were introduced in 1931 to allow the use of mill spun yarn and this brought about a huge leap forward in production. So, by the 1950s, when trend setters such as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, and Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary were photographed wearing Harris Tweed, its status was legendary.

But nothing stands still in the battlefield of worldwide commercial competition and even the durability of Harris Tweed began to work against it. As less costly, synthetic fabrics from Europe and Asia flooded the marketplace, a new breed of fashion designers experimented with mass produced and less resilient textiles to achieve a faster turnover for retail outlets.

Thankfully, quality endures. Harris Tweed was always the fabric of choice for Scottish designers such as Betty Davies, and before long it was featuring regularly in the catwalk collections of Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Ralph Lauren, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. Film stars such as Clint Eastwood, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Catherine Zeta-Jones have also helped to underline the Harris Tweed chic, but the disastrous economic downturn of the late 1990s and the current recession has hit this remotely-based, and often disconnected, industry, hard.

Essentially there are now only two Harris Tweed Mills left operational. After dominating 90 per cent of the market, Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd, owned by Yorkshire businessman, Brian Haggas, has ceased production, and although Mr Haggas has hinted at the possibility of re-opening once his surplus stock has been sold, the closure has proved a calamitous blow to his 200-strong workforce.

Meanwhile, Harris Tweed Textiles at Carloway, and Harris Tweed Hebrides at Shawbost, remain in full production.

Harris Tweed Textiles is in the capable hands of Derek Reid, a former Chief Executive Officer of the Scottish Tourist Board, and his co-director Alan Bain, a New York-based entrepreneur. Harris Tweed Hebrides is chaired by the former UK Trade Minister Brian Wilson. One of his co-directors is Alasdair Morrison, who until 2001 was Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning and Gaelic in the Scottish Executive, and is now Chairman of BBC Alba, the Gaelic language channel. If a way can therefore be found for the two companies to combine their collective expertise under th dynamic of the Harris Tweed Authority, it may well be possible for the long term future of the branding to be saved.

Over the coming months, the Harris Tweed Authority’s Lorna Macaulay is launching a series of initiatives at home and abroad to celebrate its Centenary Year. To emphasise its versatility, Scottish singer Alyth McCormack recently commissioned Lewis-based designer Ann McCallum of Hebridean Dreams to create a soft lambswool tweed gown and matching coat for her wedding.

Peter Taylor, the driving force behind Blytheswood Square, Glasgow’s first five star hotel, has commissioned 9,000 square metres of the fabric to feature throughout the building, and for my part, I shall be showing off my smart new Harris Tweed jacket on every suitable occasion.