Harris Tweed is a cloth that has been handwoven by islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.
Harris Tweed is protected by the Harris Tweed Act of Parliament 1993, which strictly outlines the conditions in which the cloth can genuinely be made.
As the Industrial Revolution reached Scotland, mainland manufacturers turned to mechanisation but the Outer Hebrides retained their traditional processes. Lewis and Harris had long been known for the excellence of the weaving done there, but up to the middle of the nineteenth century, the cloth was produced mainly for home use or for local market.
Originally this handmade fabric was woven by crofters for familial use, ideal for protection against the colder climate of the North of Scotland. Surplus cloth was often traded or used as barter, eventually becoming a form of currency amongst the islanders. For example, it was not unusual for rents to be paid in blankets or lengths of cloth.
By the end of the 18th Century, the spinning of wool yarn from local raw materials was a staple industry for crofters. Finished handmade cloth was exported to the Scottish mainland and traded along with other commodities produced by the Islanders, such as dry hides, goat and deer skins.
The original name of the cloth was tweel, Scots for twill, it being woven in a twilled rather than a plain pattern. A traditional story has the name coming about almost by chance. Around 1830, a London merchant received a letter from a Hawick firm about some tweels. The London merchant misinterpreted the handwriting, understanding it to be a trade-name taken from the river Tweed that flows through the Scottish Borders. Subsequently the goods were advertised as Tweed, and the name has remained ever since.
When Alexander 6th Earl of Dunmore inherited the North Harris Estate from his father in 1836, production of tweed in Outer Hebrides was still entirely manual. Wool was washed in soft, peaty water before being coloured with dyes from local plants and lichens. It was then processed and spun, before being hand woven by the crofters in their cottages. The result was a tweed cloth with favourable tactile qualities and possessing a complex blend of colours. Traditional island tweed was characterized by subtle flecks of colour achieved through the use of vegetable dyes, including the lichen dyes called "crottle" (Parmelia saxatilis and Parmelia omphalodes which give deep red- or purple-brown and rusty orange respectively). These lichens are the origin of the distinctive scent of older Harris Tweed.
Upon the death of the 6th Earl of Dunmore in 1843, responsibility for his estate on the Isle of Harris passed to his wife, Lady Catherine Herbert. It was Lady Catherine who noticed the marketing potential and high quality of the tweed cloth produced locally by two sisters from the village of Strond. Known as the Paisley Sisters, after the town where they had trained as weavers, the fabric woven by the girls was of a remarkably higher quality than that produced by untrained crofters.
In 1846 the Countess commissioned the sisters to weave lengths of tweed in the Murray family tartan. She sent the finished fabric to be made up into jackets for the gamekeepers and ghillies on her estate. Being hardwearing and water resistant, the new clothing was highly suited to life on the Dunmore’s estate. Lady Catherine was quick to see that the jackets worn by her staff would be ideal attire for the pursuit of country sports and the outdoor lifestyle that was prevalent amongst her peers.
The Countess took every opportunity to promote the local textile as a fashionable cloth for hunting and sporting wear. It soon became the fabric of choice for the landed gentry and aristocracy of the time, including members of Queen Victoria’s inner circle.
With demand established for this high quality "Harris Tweed", Lady Catherine sent more girls to the Scottish mainland to better their weaving skills. She improved the yarn production process to create a more consistent, workable cloth and by the late 1840s merchants from Edinburgh to London were supplying the privileged classes with hand-woven Harris Tweed.
From this point on the Harris Tweed industry grew, eventually reaching a peak production figure of 7.6 million yards in 1966.
The Harris Tweed Authority
As the demand for Harris Tweed expanded in the first decade of the 20th century, there was an influx of weavers into the industry seeking a wage and soon a poorer quality tweed was being made by inexperienced weavers from imported, mainland mill-spun yarn gaving rise to the pejorative name of ‘Stornoway Tweed’. This inferior tweed affected the market for traditional Harris Tweed made by experienced weavers from hand-spun yarn.
Legal protection of the good name of Harris Tweed by a trade mark and an established standard definition had become essential to the developing industry. This led to groups of merchants in both Lewis and Harris applying to the Board of Trade for a registered trade mark. When this trade mark, the Orb, was eventually granted, the Board insisted that it should be granted to all the islands of the Outer Hebrides i.e. to Lewis, North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra, as well as to Harris, the rationale for this decision being that the tweed was made in exactly the same way in all those islands.
In 1909, after much negotiation and a degree of acrimony from merchants in Harris who felt that the trade mark should have been granted exclusively to Harris, the famous Orb Trade Mark was granted. The Harris Tweed Association, a voluntary body, was formed to protect both the use of the Orb Trade Mark and to protect the use of the name ‘Harris Tweed’ from imitations.
The original definition attached to the Orb Trade Mark stated that:
- "Harris Tweed means a tweed, hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides."
In 1993 new statutory body to guard the Orb Trade Mark, the Harris Tweed Authority, replaced the original Harris Tweed Association.
Also in 1993 an Act of Parliament, the Harris Tweed Act 1993, established the Harris Tweed Authority as the successor to the Harris Tweed Association, its purpose being:
- "To promote and maintain the authenticity, standard and reputation of Harris Tweed; for preventing the sale as Harris Tweed of material which does not fall within the definition..."
And with this Act the following definition of genuine Harris Tweed became statutory:
- "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"
Today, every 50 metres of genuine Harris Tweed are checked by an inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority before being stamped, by hand, with the Orb Mark
The industry surrounding the production of Harris Tweed is a complicated one, consisting as is does of disparate groups and interests working together under the stipulations set out in the Harris Tweed Act of 1993.
Harris Tweed Authority
The Harris Tweed Authority is the legally appointed governing body responsible for upholding the integrity of Harris Tweed in accordance with the Harris Tweed Act of 1993. They are involved in instigating litigation, issuing of the Orb Stamp, inspection of mills and weavers sheds, promotion of the industry and safeguarding Harris Tweed on the behalf of the islanders of the Outer Hebrides. Based in the island capital of Stornoway the Authority consists of a Chief Executive, Secretary and two inspectors and stampers. There is also an overseeing board of unpaid members and a legal team in support.
Harris Tweed Mills
There are three mills operating on the islands, each with a public facing company associated with them. The companies handle marketing, sales, customer service and distribution of Harris Tweed to customers while their mills handle certain aspects of the production process.
The largest producer of Harris Tweed cloth is currently Harris Tweed Hebrides who reopened a disused mill in Shawbost in November 2007. The mill, which had been closed the year before, resumed production intending to supply customers at the top end of the fashion market who might otherwise have been lost to the industry with the Stornoway Mill choosing to focus only on traditional men's jackets. The main shareholder in the company is Ian Taylor, a Scottish businessman who has spent the last 30 years in the oil industry with Vitol alongside former UK trade minister Brian Wilson, a long-time supporter of the industry, as non-executive chairman.
Harris Tweed Scotland is owned by Brian Haggas of the John Haggas Group who, after buying the Stornoway based KM Group and mill and set up Harris Tweed Scotland Limited in 2006. The company manufactures Harris Tweed men’s jackets and retail from their online store or from gentleman's retailers. They are the only completely vertical company that manufactures and retails Harris Tweed jackets in this way. Their Stornoway mill is the oldest producer in the Outer Hebrides and has been producing Harris Tweed since 1906.
The Carloway Mill is an independent wholesale producer of Harris Tweed in the village of Carloway and the smallest of the three existing Harris Tweed textile mills. It uses traditional craft machinery to produce a unique, individualistic and bespoke Harris Tweed cloth.
All weavers are self-employed and can work for any of the three mills or make and sell their own cloth independently to order. These independent weavers use yarn dyed and spun by the mills but may warp it themselves before returning the cloth to the mill for finishing and stamping by the HTA.
Association Of Harris Tweed Weavers
The Association acts as the representative voice for the interests of all Harris Tweed weavers in relation to the industry, public agencies and the media providing input on quality and regulatory issues, promotion and marketing, developing new equipment, skills and training and other activities deemed important and in the weaver’s interest.
Harris Tweed Industry Liaison Group
This groups meets regularly to discuss issues facing the industry and consists of a range of interested parties such as mill owners, weaver representatives, HTA officials, funding bodies, local council members, buyers and other industry figures.
The creation of Harris Tweed begins with fleeces of pure virgin wools which are sheared from Cheviot and Scottish Blackface sheep. Although most of the wool is grown principally on the Scottish and UK mainland, in the early summer the island communities still join together to round up and shear the local sheep to add to the mix. The two types of wool are blended together to gain the advantages of their unique qualities and characteristics
Washing & Dying
Blending & Carding
The freshly dyed coloured and white wools are weighed in predetermined proportions and then thoroughly blended by hand to exact recipes to obtain the correct hue. It is then carded between mechanical, toothed rollers which tease and mix the fibers thoroughly before it is separated into a fragile, embryonic yarn.
This soft yarn then has a twist imparted to it as it is spun to give it maximum strength for weaving. The spun yarn is wound onto bobbins to provide the ingredients of weft (left to right threads) and warp (vertical threads) supplied to the weavers.
This vitally important process sees thousands of warp threads gathered in long hanks in very specific order and wound onto large beams ready to be delivered, together with yarn for the weft, to the weavers.
All Harris Tweed is hand woven on a treadle loom at each weaver's home usually a single width Hattersley loom or the newer double-width Bonas-Griffith loom. The weaver will arrange hundreds of heddles to a specified pattern before the beam of warp yarn is tied into the loom by hand.
The weaver will then set up the weft threads, pulling bobbins of yarn through a series of guides to be woven into the warp threads by a flashing “rapier” or shuttle Once ready, the weaver begins to weave, always observing, correcting, mending and amending their creation until complete.
All Harris Tweed is woven by hand, using a manually powered loom driven by a simple pedal mechanism,
The tweed then returns to the mill in its 'greasy state' and here it passes through the hands of darners who correct any flaws.
Once ready the cloth is finished. Dirt, oil and other impurities are removed by washing and beating in soda and soapy water before it is dried, steamed, pressed and cropped.
The final process is the examination by the independent Harris Tweed Authority who visits the mills weekly, before application of their Orb Mark trademark which is ironed on to the fabric as a seal of authenticity.
Harris Tweed Today
In 2012 the weavers and mills of the Harris Tweed industry produced one million metres of Harris Tweed, compared to just 450,000 metres in 2009 and the highest production figures in 17 years. The last three years have seen Harris Tweed remain "on-trend" and a regular feature in both High Street stores and on catwalks in couture collections and the increase in popularity has led to the training of a new generation of weavers to meet production demands.
Menswear brands such as Topman, Brooks Brothers, Nordstrom, Thomas Pink, JCrew  as well as designers such as Nigel Cabourn, Hugo Boss and Paul Smith continue to explore the fabric's use in jackets, outerwear and suiting. Harris Tweed also remains popular in designer womenswear with new collections from Margaret Howell, Celine, Katherine Hooker  and House of Holland  making appearances at fashion weeks and ranges.
Footwear brands have also used Harris Tweed, most notably Nike, Dr Martens, Aigle, Red Wing, and Clarks. The luxury interiors market is also expanding following the use of over 90, 000 meters of Harris Tweed in Glasgow's 5 Star Blythswood Square Hotel in 2008.
New markets are emerging within the BRIC nations  and more traditional markets are reviving in the USA  and Europe as well as Far East countries like South Korea. The outlook for 2013 remains cautious but positive with the sales forecasts looking optimistic for this historic cloth.
- The Harris Tweed Authority
- Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore
- Traditional dyes of the Scottish Highlands
- Tweed (cloth)
- Dunbar cites Scots philologist W. F. H. Nicolaisen's suggestion that this "too plausible" explanation may be folk etymology, noting a use of "twedlyne" in 1541, and suggesting "tweedling" in parallel to "twilling" as the origin of "tweed"; see John Telfer Dunbar, The Costume of Scotland, p. 150.
- Fraser, Jean: Traditional Scottish Dyes, Canongate, 1983
- J.C.T. Uphof, Dictionary of Economic Plants, Hafner, New York, p. 210, cited at Bibliographical database of the human uses of lichens retrieved 20 May 2007
- Hunter, Janet:The Islanders and the Orb Acair Ltd. 2001. ISBN 0-86152-736-4
- Dunbar, John Telfer: The Costume of Scotland, London: Batsford, 1984, ISBN 0-7134-2534-2, 1984 (paperback 1989, ISBN 0-7134-2535-0)
- Fraser, Jean: Traditional Scottish Dyes, Canongate, 1983, ISBN 0-86241-108-4
- Vogler, Gisela (2001). A Harris way of life: Marion Campbell (1909-1996). West Tarbert: Harris Voluntary Service. ISBN 090396029X.