Harris Tweed cloth must be the most fabled and mythical of cloths in use today. With a history going back over 200 years, the story reads more like a fairytale than a straight history lesson. A fairy tale with highs and lows, a fairy godmother, an evil persona, a prince to save the day and happily ever after. Let’s not get ahead of ourself though, let’s start way back at the beginning.
Harris Tweed stems from the islands known as the Outer Hebrides outside Scotland. These islands missed out on the Industrial Revolution when it arrived to revolutionize production of cloth on mainland Scotland, instead retaining their traditional processes. Which for a large part are where they are still doing today.
Originally the handmade fabric was made for local use, by the crofters for the locals. The woven wool was ideal for protection against the elements of the North of Scotland. By the end of the 18th Century, the spinning of wool yarn from the local raw materials had become a primary industry for islanders, working from home, often in remote locations.
So where does the name come from, and how did Harris Tweed become the famous cloth it is today? The name is generally believed to have come about almost by chance, when around 1830 a London merchant received a letter from a firm in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders region, regarding some “tweels”. The merchant misinterpreted the handwriting and understood this to be a trade-name taken from the river Tweed that runs through the Scottish Borders. This led to the cloths being advertised as Tweeds, and the name has stuck ever since. The Harris part is of course taken from one of the largest of the islands in the Outer Hebrides. It could just as well have been Lewis, the Uists, Benbecula or Barra Tweed! Tweel would of course be what we know as twill, as type of textile weave that is also the basis of denim, chino, gabardine and serge, as well as tweed itself.
So how did it transition from being a strictly local product to the world renowned name it is today? Well, we can thank the toffs for that, as it was Alexander 6th Earl of Dunmore who inherited the North Harris Estate from his father in 1836, when production of the tweed was still an entirely manual process. The wool was washed in soft, peaty water before being coloured with dyes from local plants and lichens. It was processed, spun and hand woven by crofters in their cottages. This gave it the complex blend of colours it is still known for today. Upon his death in 1843, the estate was passed to his wife, Lady Catherine Herbert. It was she who noticed the marketing potential and high quality of the tweed cloth produced locally by the two sisters known as the Paisley sisters in the village of Strond. The sisters were trained as weavers and the fabric woven by the girls was of a markedly higher quality than that produced by untrained crofters.
Lady Catherine commissioned the sisters to weave lengths of tweed in the Murray family tartan, and she sent the resulting fabric to be made into jackets for the gamekeepers and ghillies on her estate. The new clothing was hardwearing and water resistand and very well suited to life on the Dunmore’s estate and Lady Catherine was quick to see that the jackets worn by her staff would be ideal for the pursuit of the outdoors lifestyle popular among her peers.
She took every opportunity to promote the local textile as a fashionable and practical cloth for hunting and sporting wear and it soon became the fabric of choice for the landed gentry and aristocracy of the time, including among the royal family.
With the demand for the cloth established, Lady Catherine sent more girls to the Scottish mainland to be trained as weavers. She improved the yarn production process to create more consistent, workable cloth and by the late 1840s they were supplying the privileged classed with hand-woven Harris Tweed.
This was the start and from this fledgling point the Harris Tweed industry grew. It reached a peak production in 1966 when 7.6 million yards were produced.
With the increasing popularity of Harris Tweed, it became apparent that the name should be afforded legal protection by trade marking it. A group of merchants from Harris and Lewis grouped together and applied to have a trade mark registered. This was granted in 1909, but not without controversy. The Harries weavers felt it should be granted to only the weavers from Harris, while the granting authority, the Board of Trade, decided it should be granted to all the islands of the Outer Hebrides, as the tweed was made in exactly the same way in all the islands there.
The result of this was the famous Harris Tweed Orb Trademark. Nowadays this is protected by the Harris Tweed Authority, who inspect and hand stamp every 50 meters of genuine tweed and ensure it follows the definition of genuine Harris Tweed:
“Harris Tweed means a tweed which has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides”
So, has it always been plain sailing, and how is the situation today?
Well, after the production peak in 1966 they were never again to reach such lofty popularity. As the years moved on, so did fashion and teh development of newer and more hi-tech materials. Harris Tweed became less the choice for outdoors wear and more the material of the older gentleman. The demand for tweed went down year by year and the future of Harris Tweed was looking as bleak as the view from the islands during winter.
In the 1980s there was a brief revival when Vivienne Westood reinvented the classic cloth for a new generation with the celebrated 1987 Harris Tweed collection.
There is technical development when a modern double-width rapier hand-loom is introduced in the Outer Hebrides. The Bonas-Griffith loom allows the creation of a wider and lighter cloth.
As we arrive in the 21st century there have been improvements in the process, with vat-dying and machine-spinning replacing the old manual methods. The weaving is still done on foot-powered looms at home by the crofters though.
In 2004 Nike directly contact producers to design and make 10.000 metres of tweed for their sports shoes. Since then they have made several new versions and variations.
In 2006 the Yorkshire businessman Brian Haggas decided it was time to save the ailing Harris Tweed industry. Having made his fortune in the garment industry, he was certain he knew how it should be done. Haggas bought the largest mill on the Islands and basically ensured he controlled almost all production. He then streamlined production by cutting the range of tweeds from around 8000 to 4. That’s four, yes. A strange move given that Harris Tweed is famous for it’s varieties. His second move was equally controversial. He would sell no tweed to outside companies, but use it all for his own production of tweed jackets. These jackets would be available in 2 styles, 4 tweeds, and produced in China. In the thousands. With his total control of production, he was also able to produce just as much tweed as he needed, and then close down production mid-year to await further need. This was not the only problem though, prices paid for cloth at this time were so low that weavers were finding it hard to survive on the prices paid.
The arrogance of the man! In retrospect I imagine Brian Haggas himself must see that his actions were ill-advised, yet his website still advertises jackets, from stock. I was quite stunned to see there is even a stockist in the small Norwegian town where I live.
The BBC made a rather excellent documentary about Harris Tweed around this time, with a strong focus on Haggas and his business, how the islanders felt about what was going on, and also how this was effecting other businesses that traditionally were prime users of the tweed, such as Savile Row tailors, represented in the TV-programme by Patrick Grant, charismatic owner of Norton & Sons. Well worth watching if you have an interest in tweed, but beware the nausea-inducing Yorkshireman.
Since those bleak times, Harris Tweed has had a major increase in popularity. Part due, no doubt, to the heritage-revival we are seeing, and part, I hope, to a returning interest in quality and proper materials. A previously mothballed mill has been reopened, so alternative production facilities have been established. An increasing number of weavers are returning to production, and weaving is again a viable career on the islands. The number of available designs are increasing again, apparently more than a thousand now, many in strikingly modern hues.
After a market repositioning sales and production are very much up. The newly established Harris Tweed Hebrides, in sharp competition with Haggas’ policy of not supplying anyone but his own business, has targeted designers, fashion shows, trade fairs and retailers. Nowadays Harris Tweed is hip and happening, and figuring on the high street again. Designer brands such as Nigel Cabourn, Universal Works, Viberg, Ralp Lauren, Paul Smith, Dr Martens, Nike, Converse, Top Man, J Crew, North Face and many, many others have embraced the traditional cloth and incorporated it in their designs.
Popular BBC TV-character Doctor Who, currently portrayed by Matt Smith, also helped create a demand for Harris Tweed among younger men, when he used a 60s Harris Tweed jacket in the series. There was a surge in demand as fans wanted replicas of the Doctors jacket. Shame on the BBC though for cashing in by selling a part-acrylic, Chinese made replica. Retailing at just under 400 pounds, it’s not even a cheap replica. Controversial!
So what happened to Haggas and his plan for world domination of the Harris Tweed jacket market? Well, he has introduced another model, which may help a little. Other than that, rumour has it that he’s downsizing the operation and may have seen the error of his ways. Karma?
So, after all this time Harris Tweed is still going strong!
We’ll be looking at more Harris Tweed in upcoming posts.
In the meantime, I recommend Harris Tweed Hebrides as a good starting place for all items Harris Tweed. And also, a video on the making of Harris Tweed: