Heritage of Harris Tweed

We live in a time of mass global manufacturing where your Yorkshire puddings could be made in Gdansk and your bowler in Beijing. For many this may be fine but there is a growing desire to source products from their original geographical home. This is true luxury that the French do so well with their Appellation d’origine contrôlée.  We too have such laws and interestingly control over the origin of Harris Tweed was one of earliest.

The Isles of Harris is part of the romantic Hebridean archipelago in the north west of Scotland where the islanders manage to live in a largely self-sustained way. The land is divided into crofts, areas that are large enough to sustain each family through a great deal of hard work. Food is grown, fish are caught, sheep are reared and clothes are hand woven on small pedal powered looms.

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The spreading industrial revolution never quite reached these remote Isles. In sheds at the bottom of Crofts the skill of hand weaving was passed down through generations. Local lichens known as crottle, along with sea weeds and vegetables were used to dye the yarns so that the very landscape gave rise to the colour of tweeds.

Being woven with such care the woolen fabrics became highly prized for their original designs and hardwearing quality. In the 1840’s Lady Catherine Herbert took responsibility for the Harris estate and promoted the local fabric production, she clad herself and her ghillies in a Murray tartan woven by the islanders.  It was not long before all her friends wanted some of this fashionable fabric for hunting and all manner of country pursuits. Queen Victoria’s love affair with Scotland helped and before long merchants from Edinburgh to London were clamouring for the cloth.

Where there is demand there are dastardly deceivers, and it was not long before imposters started trying to pass off inferior mass-produced tweeds as Harris ones. They tried all the tricks, hanging the masquerading weaves over smoky fires to give the original peaty smell of the Crofters and literately taking the piss when they urinated on them to give a hint of urine that was used as the original mordant dye fixer. Enough was enough and in 1909 one of the earlier trademark was granted to the Harris Tweed Association. Only tweed woven on the island and stamped with the distinctive Orb trademark could be called Harris Tweed and all impersonators could be prosecuted.

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Present times are no less exciting for the combined isle of Harris in the southern half and Lewis in the north. The desire for Harris Tweed has not diminished, in 2004 Nike called the renowned crofter and weaver Donald John MacKay to order a huge 950-meter length of hand woven tweed, he was bowled over. When the phone rang again he was momentary relieved to hear they had made a mistake. However, his sigh of relief became an ever-larger gasp of surprise when the order was upped to 9,500 meters, a job that kept almost all the crofters peddling their looms for months.

Following the renaissance for the tweeds, textile magnet Brian Haggas thought he would help the islanders by stream lining their production. He invested heavily in the Mackenzie mill with the aim to close all other mills and concentrate on weaving just four designs in greater quantity. As you can imagine this kind of help caused uproar and galvanised apathetic crofters to grab their shuttles and protest.

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Tweed production is now at a healthy state and the quality of the fabric is as good as ever. We have a strong link to the Hebrides as Kirsty, our Fabric Design Director, was born in Stornaway on Lewis and her first breaths of windswept wildness must have sparked her love of weaving. We work with the Carloway Mill that send us their yarns for designing before we commission then to weave authentic Harris Tweed to our specifications. In stock at the moment we have two very wearable designs, the Iona in a blue barleycorn structure and the Staffa in a subtle herringbone structure in colour-flecked browns, and we can create other designs to order. When you buy the cloth we supply a label of authenticity enabling you to track the production to the beautiful remote isles where globalisation is just a whisper in the wind.

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