Harris Tweed, history of a trademark
Harris Tweed is the only commercially-produced textile still to be handwoven and the only fabric protected by an act of parliament. Production of Harris Tweed is here to stay as long as there are weavers in the Outer Hebrides: from traditional Harris Tweed jackets to modern, fashionable Harris Tweed bags and even laptop cases, this truly vintage textile has survived generations.
What is Harris Tweed?
Known as Clo Mhor in Gaelic (meaning Big Cloth), Harris Tweed cloth comes in three weights. The lightest (superfine) is used in ladies’ clothing. The medium weight (featherweight) is popular and used for jackets, trousers and outerwear. The heaviest weight (mediumweight) is used for soft furnishings.
It is a strong yet manageable fabric which makes it ideal in fashion and interior design. Hard-wearing and water-resistant, it became a popular choice for quality outerwear. It is warm in winter, cool in summer, water-resistant, is biodegradable and manufactured with the greatest of energy efficiency and sustainability.
The birth of Harris Tweed pre-18th Century
Owned by Scotland since 1266 the Hebridean isles are descended from a mix of Norse and Celtic ancestry.
The original Harris Tweed cloth was a domestically-produced twill from the Outer Hebrides isles of Scotland (Lewis, Harris, Uists and Barra) from the wool of the native islanders’ own sheep. It was a homegrown process, handmade to clothe and protect the family from the weather. Surplus cloth was then traded and became a form of currency amongst the islanders.
This twill cloth was woven on a small wooden treadle-powered loom (known as a beart bheag in Gaelic) right up until the 20th Century. It was a comparatively slow and laborious process for the weaver. This loom was replaced by a bigger one (beart mhor) in the 1900s.
Twill cloth is defined by its diagonal texture created by the simple weaving pattern of crossing the weft across the warp for one or more threads and then two or more threads, alternating the weave to make a parallel diagonal textural pattern. The right side of the weave is always more unevenly textured making it ideal for resisting stains and dirt. This again makes it ideal for outdoor wear and upholstery. (Perhaps the most common twill today is denim.) Herringbone is a typical twill pattern of weaving from the Outer Hebrides, named after the look of the herring fish bone structure after the flesh is removed.
18th Century Harris Tweed
By the end of the 18th Century this twill cloth from the Outer Hebrides is being sold to mainland Scotland along with other locally-produced goods such as animal hides. The shorn wool from the sheep is washed in the soft, peaty island water and hand-coloured using local natural dyes from plants and vegetables. These softly-hued dyes create beautifully-coloured wool that can then be spun into subtle colour blends. This blended wool is then woven on the hand loom in the chosen twill pattern making a distinct local cloth.
19th Century Harris Tweed
‘Tweel‘ was the name given to this type of woven fabric within Scotland. Tweel is the Scottish pronunciation of ’twill’ in English. It is believed that an 1830s London merchant misread the word tweel in an order and thought it read tweed (after the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders – a major textile area in Scotland at the time).
In the 19th Century, North Harris is owned by the 6th Earl of Dunmore. The estate is inherited from his father in 1836. When the Earl dies in 1845, his wife Lady Catherine Herbert, takes over responsibility for the estate until her son is old enough to inherit it.
In 1849 she sets up an embroidery school and takes an interest in local tweed. During difficult economic times for the islanders, she commissions some high quality cloth for dressing her estate workers. She also sees the potential for the fabric to be used to make quality sportswear for her friends and acquaintances.
It soon becomes a fashionable, quality choice for hunting and sportswear by the aristocracy and the Victorian royals and so becomes referred to as Harris Tweed. Lady Catherine ensures that Harris Tweed gets the royal seal of approval needed to boost its success with the aristocracy.
Commercial production of Harris Tweed helps to develop a sustainable local industry using local handweaving by the Earl’s tenants (the islanders). Its success leads to the manufacture of greater quantities whilst trying to maintain the high quality, handwoven image of the cloth.
Lady Herbert aims to improve general standards of production and weaving for the cloth to turn it into a highly desirable fabric to be sold across the UK. The Harris Tweed jacket of the typical English gent is born from the fashionable popularity of this traditional fabric. Similar twill cloth weavers from the other isles of the Outer Hebrides join the production of commercially-produced Harris Tweed.
In 1868, the Dunsmores go bankrupt whilst the 7th Earl is building Amhuinnsuidhe Castle. The Harris estate was taken over by bankers.
By the end of the 19th Century, cheaper versions of the Harris Tweed are being manufactured due to its popularity. However, these cheaper versions of the fabric are machine spun and woven and use lesser quality yarns.
20th Century Harris Tweed
The beart mhòr handloom is in use to produce Harris tweeds from around the turn of the 20th Century.
The Harris Tweed Association is formed in 1909.
The Orb Trademark, introduced in 1910, helps keep Harris Tweed authentic and distinguishes itself from any imitations. Every item made from genuine Harris Tweed bears the label with the Orb Trademark to this day.
In 1919 Lord Leverhulme buys all of Harris including the estate and castle for £20,000. The tweed is woven on a Hattersley single-width domestic loom introduced in 1919 and widely in use since the 1930s.
Introduced after World War 1, the Hattersley helps disabled ex-servicemen earn a living through weaving. Its rate of production is superior to the wooden hand looms of the past. It is now capable of weaving more complex patterns.
In 1934 an alteration in its trademark definition allows the use of mill-spun local yarn in addition to hand-spun. This further increases the rate of commercial production. In 1966 alone 7.6 million yards is produced.
Tweed becomes popular work and outdoor wear for many men and is used for women’s clothing as utility fashion embraces hardwearing and durable fabrics.
Tweed becomes fashionable for women especially in the 1950s and 60s and Harris Tweed is no exception. It is used for the interiors of the QE2 ocean liner.
It is also popular in the UK mod fashion of the 1960s and the trend for natural fabrics in the 1970s is a reaction to the dominance of cheap man-made fibres.
In the 1980s there is a decline in sales until Vivienne Westwood’s celebrated 1987 Harris Tweed collection reinvents the classic textile for a new generation.
The 1990s introduces a modern double-width rapier hand-loom to the Outer Hebrides. This Bonas-Griffiths loom creates a wider, lighter cloth.
An Act of Parliament in 1993 legally protects the Orb trademark and ensures that the traditional weaving process continues. The Harris Tweed Authority is also set up.
Times prove difficult in subsequent years as cheap, mass-manufactured fabrics flood the market and become fashionable. But a return to quality workmanship and growing interest in artisan products ensures that Harris Tweed survives into the 21st Century.
Harris Tweed in the 21st Century
Machine-spinning and vat-dying has replaced the old handmade methods but the weaving is still done on a domestic loom at home on the crofts of the Outer Hebrides.
2003: After having passed through several wealthy landowners in the 20th Century, the North Harris estate is bought by the locals through trusts and donations. The cost is £4.5m and is celebrated as a triumph for community-owned land in Scotland.
2004: Sportswear firm Nike directly contacts producers in the isle of Harris to design and make a large order for its new line of training shoes/sneakers (below). This ensures Harris Tweed is fashionable and in demand again across the world. It is a surprising yet welcome boost to the industry.
2005: The Shawbost mill, in the isle of Lewis closes in 2005 and is taken over by new company Harris Tweed Hebrides in 2007.
2006: Yorkshire textiles entrepreneur Brian Haggas controversially purchases the largest Harris Tweed producer Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd (KM Group) and shuts down a local Lewis tweed mill.
2007: a company named The Healthy Back Bag Company sells a range of bags made from Harris Tweed.
2009: Scottish Fashion Awards vote Harris Tweed the Textile Brand of the Year. Glasgow’s first ever 5 star hotel Blythswood Square has its luxurious interiors fitted with Harris Tweed.
2009: Tweed lovers of London unite for the first ever annual Tweed Run: a gathering in which people dress up in tweed and ride their vintage bicycles around the city. Tweed Runs have taken place in New York, San Fransisco, Tokyo, Sydney, Glasgow, Paris and Toronto. Of course Harris Tweed features in these events which are growing in popularity beyond 2009.
2010: Thomas Pink orders Harris Tweed for a collection of quality sports jackets.
2012: Even Top Man has a Harris Tweed collection this year. Canadian label Viberg has produced a Harris Tweed walking boot. Vans are also using Harris Tweed herringbone and hounds-tooth in the latest footwear designs. Clarks Originals has introduced Harris Tweed into its new footwear collection. This year tweed continues to be a fashion trend across the globe. Vivienne Westwood returns to her 1987 Harris Tweed collection for inspiration this year.
A long list of fashion designers continue to use Harris Tweed in their collections repeatedly including Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith.
Harris Tweed remains the only fabric to be handwoven for commercial quantities. The skills have been handed down through generations and a special method used to blend the differently coloured wool. There are around 8000 different tweed patterns. The cloth is finished at local mills, inspected and given the Orb trademark by Harris Tweed Association. Three metres of Tweed can be produced in an hours work on a handloom. The wool is still dyed prior to being spun so it can be blended into complex hues.
Genuine Harris Tweed must be made from pure virgin wool, produced and dyed only on the Hebridean isles and hand woven at home on treadle-powered looms. Harris Tweed can now come in a wide range of colours, although the colour patterns inspired by the Hebridean landscape remain the most popular and traditional. Each piece can be traced back to its original weaver.
Here is a short video showing exactly how Harris Tweed is made today:
At present there are three independently-owned mills in the Outer Hebrides, each with its own character, which produce Harris Tweed using self-employed weavers:
The mills dye, blend and spin the wool, send it out to the weavers with the pattern and get it back to wash, dry, cut and finish before getting inspected and given the Orb trademark label. The mills then deliver the product to order.
Famous wearers of Harris Tweed
-Dr Whos Patrick Troughton and Matt Smith (however the BBC has started to use fake replica acrylic Harris Tweed jackets in the latest series and now sells the expensive fake jackets to fans)
-Robert Langdon of the Da Vinci code
-Mr Toad of Wind in the Willows
Buy directly from the isles for beautiful bags (including laptop bags), fashion shoes and boots, purses, hats, bedspreads, even phone covers:
If this history of Harris Tweed has been interesting to you please share it with your friends. Harris Tweed is a truly sustainable industry that has helped the economy of the Western Isles of Scotland for decades. Supporting the Harris Tweed industry ensures that there are still employment opportunities on the isles for those who live there. It is a beautiful alternative to mass-produced machine made fabrics, lasts a lifetime and comes with a trusted guarantee of quality.
Sources and recommended reading: