What image do the words ‘Harris Tweed’ conjure up for you?
If you immediately think it’s the preserve of the ‘hunting, shooting and fishing’ traditionalists, then you’re in for a surprise. Harris Tweed has reinvented itself as a top luxury fabric, and can be found in smart homes in the shape of anything from cushions to handbags.
The Harris Tweed story
The name ‘Harris Tweed’ is strictly controlled, and only cloth produced on the Outer Hebribean islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra can qualify.
The islands have a long history of weaving, using wool from island sheep and dyed with natural vegetable dyes, but the cloth as we know it today was born in the middle of the 19th century.
Lady Dunmore, widow of the Earl of Dunmore who owned Harris, asked to have their clan tartan re-made in tweed. She was so delighted with the results that she began to market it to friends across the country, and the UK began to hear the name of Harris Tweed.
The natural colours of Harris Tweed reflect the beautiful, soft tones of the Western Isles. Image: Morguefile
As all the cloth is made entirely by hand by skilled weavers, supply remained low and the cloth became the ‘must have’ fabric in the upper reaches of society, with several famous socialites promoting it.
In 1906, the cloth had become so successful that imitations had started to spring up all over the country. The Harris Tweed Association (later the Harris Tweed Authority) was created to verify each piece of fabric, and, if genuine, stamp it with the famous Harris Tweed Orb.
The industry brought work to a poor area, and much of the population of the islands was involved in it. When the Hattersley domestic loom was introduced in the 1920s, over 1,000 were sold to islanders.
By the 1930s, although the cloth still had to be made on the islands and woven by hand, millspun yarn was allowed in addition to handspun which increased the production enormously. Small producers began to spring up, employing several weavers, whereas previously each weaver had spun and woven their own yarn individually.
A traditional crofter’s cottage on the Isle of Harris. Photo: Morguefile
By the 1960s, production of Harris Tweed had leapt to over 7.5 million yards a year, which was exported all over the world. It was now at the peak of its popularity, and Harris Tweed was worn to climb Mount Everest, take part in sailing expeditions and even walk down the Hollywood red carpet.
By the 1980s, sales started to decline as fashions changed and modern, lightweight fabrics started to take the place of traditional cloth.
In the 1990s, double-width handlooms were introduced meaning that weavers could produce larger pieces of cloth, more fitting to a modern market, and the industry enjoyed a revival.
Harris Tweed today
Today, Harris Tweed can be found in home accessories, clothing and even dog leads and collars for the country’s smartest pooches. Here are our picks:
1. Herringbone mix Harris Tweed dog lead, My McDawg
Individually handmade from Harris Tweed and lined with moleskin fabric for strength, this dog lead, £24.95, carries a ‘genuine’ label and is strong and durable enough to last for years. Available from My McDawg.
2. Harris Tweed clock in Macloed tartan, Juniper and Jane
This quirky clock will be a real conversation piece. Made by hand in Scotland, it carries a ‘genuine Harris Tweed’ label to guarantee the authenticity of the fabric. £49.95 from Juniper and Jane.
3. Harris Tweed hipflask, SWIG
This official Harris Tweed hip flask features a stainless steel flask, contained in a pouch of Tweed. It can hold up to 170ml (6oz) of your favourite tipple, and has a flat bottom so it will stand up on its own. Handmade on the Isle of Skye using exclusive Harris Tweed, sourced direct from the weavers and mills on the Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, it costs £69 from LimeLace.
By Sara Walker