Harris tweed is an iconic fabric, steeped in history. It’s production is governed by an Act of Parliament, passed in 1993 which decrees that ‘Harris Tweed must be made form wool dyed, spun and woven on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. You can identify Harris Tweed by its Orb trademark which authenticates all Harris Tweed Woven.
The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, stretch for 130 miles and look out on to the Atlantic Ocean. Harris is the second largest island of the island chain, which includes fourteen other inhabited islands, there are also more than 50 other islands which are uninhabited. The inhabited islands have a total population of around 26,500. Alongside tourism and fishing, weaving is very important o the economy of the island.
In striking contrast to the 19th and 20th century when the Islands were dominated by absentee landlords, more than two thirds of the Western Isles population now lives on community-owned estates. However the economic position of the islands remains precarious and are defined by Highlands and Islands Enterprise as an economically ‘Fragile Area’. Across from the more mountainous North Harris lies South Harris, presenting some of the finest scenery in Scotland with wide sandy beaches . the Outer Hebrides the most strongly coherent Gaelic speaking area in Scotland with 59.3% of inhabitants Gaelic speakers.
The Western Isles is world famous for its weaving heritage which stretches back to the 19th century. In the mid-19th century, the Isle of Harris was owned by the 4th Earl of Dunmore John Murray (who was also the Governor of Virginia) and his wife Lady Charlotte. Both were born into wealthy Scottish families: he was an Earl and an officer, she was the daughter of one of Scotland’s leading families. They saw the potential for selling, Harris Tweed which was produced by their tenants – to their acquaintances in London .
Lady Dunmore in particular was instrumental in promoting Harris Tweed through her connections in the upper classes, particularly in the hunting and fishing set. This marked the beginning of Harris Tweed as a commercial product. By the end of the nineteenth century, Harris Tweed was firmly established and much sought after, it had even become popular with members of the royal circle.
As the popularity of Harris Tweed grew weavers began to produce their own versions and legal protection was sought to protect genuine Harris Tweed. Established in 1909 The Harris Tweed Association. The Orb trademark was created to provide a protect genuine Harris Tweed against competitors products.
Initially Harris Tweed was produced by the Islanders to protect themselves from the elements – at this time all of the work was done by hand. Over the decades, the process has evolved while always remaining true to the basic principles which are enshrined, in an Act of Parliament. Today, Harris Tweed is the only hand-woven fabric produced in commercial quantities.
The yarn production process uses specially blended yarns produced to secret recipes and then warped up to exclusive designs before being sent to weavers’ homes to be hand-woven using skills which have been handed down from generation to generation. The cloth is then returned to the mill to be finished.
Finally the product is inspected by the Harris Tweed Authority. Once inspected and approved, the famous Orb trade mark is ironed onto the fabric.
Harris Tweed Hebrides uses a range of more than 100 yarns which can be made up into thousands of patterns. There are a number of tweed weights: the heaviest is medium – weight used for furnishings and interiors. The most commonly used weight is the feather – weight which is popular for jackets. The lightest weight is superfine which is often used for ladieswear
This year Harris Tweed received a boost with the accreditation of 100 Western Isles weavers.
Thanks to two projects established by Cardonald College in Glasgow, a twelve week, course resulting in an SVQ qualification in Harris Tweed weaving was delivered in Stornoway, producing ten new weavers, most of whom have begun careers in the industry. The second stage of project recognised the skills of the existing workforce by means of an audit, to create an industry standard. A target of delivering one hundred accreditations has now been achieved and another twenty-five weavers have enrolled in the next course.
Anna Murray is Head of Marketing at The Scotland Kilt Company – a family run business based in Edinburgh. For more information about different tartans including measuring yourself for a kilt contact:
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