TEXTILES OF SCOTLAND: HARRIS TWEED

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I have done a bit of traveling and it has been my lifelong habit to observe local fashion trends – what crosses regional boundaries or doesn’t, what I predict will be a passing fad, and what has become a mainstay. In the last couple of years, it has become evident that tweed is reappearing in a big way all across the globe. Years ago, it was considered by many to be an old man’s fabric, representative of a stuffy, moneyed culture. It is refreshing to see that contemporary designers and connoisseurs have adopted tweed and added modern styling touches. Tweed is timeless. And today, certain varieties of tweed are still hand woven by individual artisans in their own homes; a skill that is reminiscent of our own artisans.

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Tweed was first crafted in Scotland and Ireland in the 1700s; a coarse cloth woven from virgin wool, it is naturally wind and water resistant and well suited for the local farmers working in damp, cold climates. In fact, surplus cloth was often traded among farmers and workmen – becoming a form of currency in the Scottish Isles; it was not uncommon for islanders to pay rent in tweed blankets or bolts of cloth. There are a remarkable number of types and classifications of tweed. There are clan tartan tweeds, which are used to identify members of a specific family, and estate tweeds, which were used to denote people who lived and worked on an individual estate. Some tweeds are named for the type of sheep who produced their wool (like Cheviot or Shetland); others denote their region of origin (Donegal or Saxony). There are also brand names of tweed – such as Pendleton Woolen Mills and Harris Tweed (the latter being one of the most well-known).

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Harris Tweed is woven by islanders residing in what is known as the Outer Hebrides of Scotland – on the Isles of Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barra – using only 100% virgin wool and mostly natural, vegetable-based dyes. The Outer Hebrides lie on the outer edge of Europe, in the far northwest of Scotland; they are, by all accounts, a beautiful, unspoiled land that hosts mountain ranges, moorlands, and miles of beaches. The islands are home to just over 26,000 people – some of the least populated and most remote land in Scotland.

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The fabric is regulated by Parliament, so all Harris Tweed carries the Harris Tweed Orb certification mark that decrees “only tweeds woven in the Outer Hebrides would be eligible.” Harris Tweed is not a single company or single brand. Rather, the Harris Tweed Authority acts, through an act of Parliament, as legal guardian of the tweed. Weaving must be done in the homes of the islanders in the Outer Hebrides. No automation is allowed in the weaving process; every piece of Harris Tweed fabric is made by “human power,” using only pedals to power the looms. It can be an all-day job to craft one single piece of tweed fabric and weavers may sit for up to 13 hours at a time. The Authority has to confirm that each bolt of fabric is made under these conditions, in the required islands, using 100% pure virgin wool, which must also be dyed and spun on those same islands.

Harris Tweed has a distinct, rich color scheme – a result of the dyeing process. The yarns and cloth are dyed in the wool, meaning they are dyed before being spun. According to Harris Tweed, this means that a single yard can contain between 2 and 8 different colored wools, mixed together at the blending stage of preparation. The result of this process is an impressive number of available shades of yarn – and a wide variety of resulting twills.

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Similar to Alabama Chanin stitchers, Harris Tweed artisans work using a cottage industry-based model. The mills and their weavers buy, dye, blend, spin, and warp the woolen yarn then send it to the weavers, along with pattern instructions. When the cloth returns to the mills from the weavers, the mill washes, dries, and finishes the tweed. It is then inspected and, if it meets the specifications, receives the Harris Tweed Orb Mark. Much like Alabama Chanin’s finished garment inspections, each piece of Harris Tweed woven fabric is carefully scrutinized. Broken or stray threads must be darned or mended. Weavers who make too many errors may receive reduced fees to cover costs. But, as we see with our own artisans, such errors are rare because making a long-lasting, near-perfect product is a matter of pride for the craftspeople.

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Like Alabama Chanin, Harris Tweed’s very survival depends upon the advancement of their own “living arts.” Like hand sewing, weaving is an at-risk skill that their brand depends entirely upon. As younger generations of potential craftspeople relocate from the islands to the mainland, and with the current increase in demand for the cloth, Harris Tweed must find ways to ensure that the necessary skills are not lost forever. In 2011, the first nationally accredited course created to encourage and teach new weavers was established, resulting in 10 new weavers entering the industry. There are now approximately 150 weavers working across the Outer Hebrides.

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As our processes share such similarities, it seems the Alabama Chanin stitchers share a true connection with Harris Tweed craftspeople. The weavers and Harris Tweed crafters have had these methods of making and crafting passed down from one family or community member to another.

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Harris Tweed shares insight into and photographs of each step in their process, including the dyeing of their wool, the carding of the wool fibers, the weaving process, and the drying, pressing, and final inspections. View breathtaking photographs of the mills, weavers, and the land – so integral into the process and product – here. From one group of artisans to another – we support your commitment to tradition, craftsmanship, quality, and timelessness.

All photos courtesy of The Harris Tweed Authority. And many thanks to Kristina Macleod and team.

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9 thoughts on “TEXTILES OF SCOTLAND: HARRIS TWEED

  1. Colette

    Beautiful but itchy :) I have an enduring childhood memory of visiting Magee of Donegal in Donegal town and being mesmerised by all the different tweeds. The colours, patterns and the smell. The beginnings of a lifetime obsession with fabric!

    Reply
  2. Marcy Tilton

    Harris Tweeds are woven in a narrower width than most wools. The width was determined by the width of the doorways in the small houses….the looms need to fit into the house. They are a dream to hand tailor!

    Reply
    1. Janice

      Actually Marcy as an islander from Lewis ( and a fan of your work) can I correct you on this. Harris tweed used to be only available as single width ( 28 in. wide) – but is now mostly available in double width ( 56in wide ). Also the looms are too large ( and noisy !) to be accommodated in houses. Harris tweed is woven in designated weaving sheds near to the weaver’s home.
      Harris tweed is wonderful to sew with. You should come to visit the Western Isles of Scotland sometime – you would love it !

      Janice.

      Reply
  3. Eva

    Carolyn Denham, who created and runs Merchant and Mills, a UK based company, sells some of it online, and also, she is offering Harris Tweed selvedge for trims, which reminds me of how AC uses every scrap, like the jersey pulls, for something, so that nothing is lost from such precious textiles. Thank you for sharing the history of Harris Tweed; I think when people understand the process of creating such treasures, they are more willing to consider purchasing quality products.

    Reply
  4. Margo Duke

    Thank you for this article – it is close to my heart and in my genes. My mom’s family is from Stornoway and her cousins, Harris Tweed weavers. Although they are older now, they still live in the same croft where they had their loom (one of the first true cottage industries) surrounded by the craggy hills, deep valleys with running streams and flock of sheep running about. Mom’s uncle Malcolm, traveled to London to make the cause for having authentic Harris Tweed identified on every yard because at the time, the Japanese were copying it and marketing it as the real thing. I visited the Lewis Looms and came away with a variety of lovely remnants, dyed, of course in local plant dyes. For those who want to learn more, there is a lovely book written from the heart of a local, Ian Lawson, titled “From the Land Comes the Cloth” describing all about Harris Tweed – he also has a Facebook page.

    Reply
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