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

Country Life Every Week - - Opinion -

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

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