The remote islands of the Outer Hebrides on the northwest tip of Scotland are home to every weaver, dyer, blender, carder, spinner, warper and inspector of Harris Tweed cloth. No part of the process takes place elsewhere. Harris Tweed cloth – Clo Mor (Gaelic for ‘The Big Cloth’) – is the only fabric in the world governed by its own Act of Parliament and the only fabric produced in commercial quantities by truly traditional methods.
The fabric was made by island people from the wool of their own sheep. They were crofters. A croft is a relatively small agricultural land holding which is normally held in tenancy and which may or may not have buildings or a house associated with it. Crofts range in size from less than 1/2 hectare to more than 50 hectares but an average croft is nearer 5 hectares. Crofting is subject to specific legislation that gives rights to crofters, such as the right to assign their croft to somebody else. It also puts responsibilities on crofters, which include: A duty to be resident on, or within 32 kilometres of, their croft; A duty not to neglect their croft; A duty to cultivate and maintain their croft or to put it to another purposeful use. The original crofter houses, today called ‘black houses’, were built of stone with thatched roofs, the inside blackened by the smoke from the peat fires. It was here that the weaving was done.
During the second half of the 19th Century, this beautiful fabric came to the attention of the wider world, when the Dunmore family took an interest in the cloth, and commissioned large quantities of Harris Tweed to sell to the aristocracy. Harris Tweed became highly popular amongst the social elite. The Harris Tweed industry, made up of island weavers creating fine cloth from island wool, was a true cottage industry, and soon needed protection from cheap and inferior machine woven tweed made elsewhere and mimicking the traditional.
In 1909, The Harris Tweed Association Ltd was formed, and the Harris Tweed Orb and Maltese Cross trademark was registered a year later. In 1993, an Act of Parliament was passed, making provision for the establishment of the Harris Tweed Authority to promote and maintain the authenticity, standard and reputation of Harris Tweed. The Harris Tweed Authority replaced the Harris Tweed Association as guardians of ‘the Orb’. The Act defines Harris Tweed as “Handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides”.
However, the weaver is only part of the story. Without the skill of the millworkers, there would be no yarn to weave. Dozens of specialised jobs take place in the mill sheds. There are professional wool dyers and blenders, yarn spinners and warpers, cloth finishers and stampers and many more roles in between.
Unusually, the wool is dyed before being spun, allowing a multitude of colours to be blended into the yarn, creating a cloth of great depth and complexity. Traditionally the colours would have been the colours of the landscape – the blue of the sea, the purple of the heather, the green of the grass and the brown of the bracken. The dyes were created from lichens, shells, sea weeds, a type of fungus, even onion skins and the plant woad (another source of indigo) to create the deep blue. The dyeing of Harris Tweed is actually the first step in the production of the fabric. The pure wool is dyed in different base colours, which are then broken up by hand and tossed together. They are then fed into a machine which shreds and blends these base colours, creating unique hues for every piece of yarn before spinning.
From the remote islands, Harris Tweed cloth is exported to over 50 countries. From traditional markets in Europe, North America, the Far East, Brazil, Russia, India, China, the cloth finds its way to every corner of the planet even New Zealand and Australia. The cloth goes to fashion houses, independent designers, small clothing labels, multi-national companies and famous tailors. Hundreds of distinctive patterns have been developed over centuries, each one unique – from plain twills, traditional herringbones, complex plaids as well as contemporary patterns. Harris Tweed is tactile, soft, breathable, warm, colourful, sustainable and adaptable. The old image of coarse and prickly dull tweed does not exist. Harris Tweed is beautiful to feel because of the fine thread and perfect weave.
Old and Traditional craft
Weaving has always been a very old and traditional craft. Flax weavings have been found in Fayum, Egypt, dating from around 5000 BC. The first popular fibre in ancient Egypt was flax, which was replaced by wool around 2000 BC. The Ancient Greeks had stories of The Fates – or Moirai – a group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth – one spun a life thread, one wove it into a life story and one cut the life thread with her shears.
Each crofter’s loom is different and usually foot pedalled with flying shuttles carrying individual colours. It can take a long time to ready the loom for weaving a new cloth, but once the weaver starts they can create as many as four metres of tweed per hour, watching constantly for breaks or flaws.
Every fifty metres of Harris Tweed is certified for authenticity by the Harris Tweed Authority, and stamped with ‘the Orb’. This famous and beautiful fabric, still produced by island artisans in one of the most remote places in the world, remains as iconic today as it has ever been.
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