The long, barren archipelago on the far northwest tip of Europe is home to every dyer, blender, carder, spinner, warper, weaver, finisher and inspector of Harris Tweed. No part of the process takes place elsewhere. – from The Harris Tweed Authority website
When we first decided that we’d travel to the Outer Hebrides, I didn’t realize at first that this included Harris and Lewis, the land of Harris Tweed. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I made the connection – I love tweed.
Harris Tweed is very much tied to the land from which it originates. In order to bear the Orb that officially designates the cloth as Harris Tweed, it must be “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” – this, from the 1993 Act of Parliament that brought about the creation of the Harris Tweed Authority (replacing the Harris Tweed Association that was set up in 1909).
So think about that for a minute. That means every inch of cloth that is branded with the Harris Tweed mark is made in the homes of individual men and women. It’s not woven in a factory on machine looms. It also means that all the wool has to come from sheep raised in the Outer Hebrides – not a big place. From the head of Barra to the Butt of Lewis it is only 210 kms. The whole string of islands is just over 3000 km2 and only 15 of the 50 islands are inhabited. It’s a testimony to the tenacity and spirit of the crafts people on these islands that they can bring hundreds of thousands of metres of this famous cloth to market each year.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the cloth was woven by crofters primarily for their own use or to be sold in local markets. That changed in 1846 when Lady Dunmore, widow of the Earl of Dunmore, owner of the Isle of Harris, decided to have their clan tartan replicated by Harris weavers. It became so popular that Lady Dunmore devoted her time to marketing the cloth to her wealthy friends around the country. It was the beginning of the Harris Tweed Industry. In 1909 the Harris Tweed Association was created and they registered the trademark Harris Tweed Orb and Maltese Cross logo with the words “Harris Tweed” beneath it. At its peak, in 1966, 7.6 million yards of cloth was woven here.
In preparation for our trip here, I read Seasons on Harris: a Year in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides by David Yeadon. The book was written in the 1990s and in it he lamented that the art of weaving Harris Tweed was dying out. Young people were leaving the islands because there was no work to keep them there. The feeling was that the cloth would die with that generation. In 1970 there were 2000 weavers on the island; by the turn of the millennium, there were only 200 left.
And then, Nike came along. In 2004, the famous shoe maker contacted Donald J. Mackay, a weaver trying to save the art, and ordered some cloth: 9500 metres of it, to be exact. The order breathed new life into the industry. Today, Harris Tweed is seen on runways from Paris to Milan, it’s found on the upholstery of luxury cars and used in furniture and interior design. For the tourist industry, if you can imagine a product, they’ve covered it in tweed – everything from book markers to ipad covers, key chains to Christmas ornaments, wallets, skirts, handbags, hats and, of course, the classic Harris Tweed jacket.
We visited the Harris Tweed Shop in Tarbert and the Clò-Mòr Harris Tweed Exhibition at the Harris Tweed and Knitwear shop in Drinishader on the Golden Road.
The exhibit was well done, giving us both the history of the cloth and the story of its present and future. It’s encouraging to me that this fine cloth is still being made in the traditional way and is providing an income for crofters who are keeping that tradition alive.
When I look at the cloth I can see the mountains, the peat bog and heather, the long stretches of sand and surf, the machair. The Clò-Mòr is both beautiful and durable, a reflection of the land from whence it comes and the people who create it.