I feel the need, the need for Tweed
After the almost total collapse of the industry, Harris Tweed is once again on every wardrobe’s wanted list. Tessa Waugh meets the men who put it back on the map
AS glasses chinked at this year’s London Fashion Week in celebration of Harris Tweed, many must have marvelled at what has been an incredible turnaround in fortune. Very recently, Harris Tweed has carved itself a new niche on fashion’s global radar, but, 10 years ago, for all its beauty and provenance, it was struggling.
Handwoven in the Outer Hebrides, the Clò Mór (Great Cloth) as it is known in Gaelic was traditionally used as a material for suits and overcoats and, as demand for these garments dropped away, the material was in danger of disappearing from public consciousness altogether.
Harris Tweed is woven into the culture of this remote region, but the economics no longer added up; the weavers were dying out and the young were showing limited interest in an increasingly unsustainable way of life. Fortunately, against this dreary backdrop, certain people saw a way forward.
In 2007, two years before the cloth recorded its worst year for industry output, Ian Angus Mackenzie, Ian Taylor (Harris Tweed Authority’s chief executive at the time) and former Labour MP Brian Wilson established their mill, Harris Tweed Hebrides (01851 700046; www.harristweedhebrides. com), and things began to change.
Margaret A. Macleod is brand-development director of Harris Tweed Hebrides and observed the work that went in to reinventing this unique product for the modern consumer. ‘We went out to the market to promote our cloth and began working with young Scottish designers, exhibiting at international trade fares, developing a market in Japan and exploring the interiors market. From a zero start, we now employ 90 people on-site and provide steady year-round work for 150 weavers—all self-employed.’
Crucially, for a remote rural area in which ‘brain drain’ is a real problem, one third of the workforce is under 30. Harris Tweed Hebrides produces about 75% of all industry output, with two other Lewis-based mills, Harris Tweed Scotland (www. harristweedscotland.com) and Carloway Mill (www.the carlowaymill; 01851 643300) making up the remainder.
To qualify as genuine Harris Tweed, every aspect of production from fibre to cloth must take place in the Outer Hebrides. This doesn’t extend to the raw wool, so, each year, Harris Tweed Hebrides takes in tons of Cheviot wool from all over Scotland, which has been scoured (cleaned) in preparation. The raw wool is then dyed one of 50 colours. Unlike most other yarn, the wool is always dyed at fibre stage, which gives it an intensity of colour.
These colours are then blended to specific recipes in order to start the process of creating one of 150 yarn colours. The blended wool is then carded (brushed repeatedly), so that the fibres form a straight line, and spun in order to give them the necessary strength for weaving. The mill then prepares the warp threads (the yarn that runs from top to bottom on a length of cloth) for the weaver by winding the warped yarn onto the weaver’s beam.
This beam is then transported to the weaver’s croft shed, which could be anywhere across the island of Lewis and Harris, and each and every individual thread is knotted by hand onto the loom, carefully weaving the weft threads into the warp to create the cloth.
Once the cloth has been woven, it’s returned to the mill for finishing— where the cloth is inspected for quality, then scoured and milled to bring out the natural softness. It’s then dried, cropped and blown ahead of inspection by the Harris Tweed Authority. If everything is in order, the cloth is stamped with the Orb denoting its status as genuine Harris Tweed.
So who’s buying the tweed now? A better question might be, who isn’t? The promotional work of Harris Tweed Hebrides and others has generated a mass of interest at home and abroad. Furthermore, the fashion
Then and now: an early 1900s shooting costume in Harris Tweed (left) and this season’s Vivienne Westwood coat (above) in the same material