What is Harris Tweed, anyway?
From a locals-only fabric to one of international acclaim, here's the history of Harris Tweed
Words— Marc Richardson
When you put on a T-shirt in the morning, you are, in all likelihood, putting on a cotton T-shirt. When you put on a pair of jeans, they are usually denim jeans. You might even slip on a tweed blazer and some leather boots to round out your outfit. There is a difference between cotton, denim, leather and Harris Tweed—even tweed and Harris Tweed are different. The difference is not that some of these materials are written with lower case letters while Harris Tweed is not—though the syntax hints at the fact that Harris Tweed is a special textile, worthy of proper distinction. So what exactly is Harris Tweed and what makes it different?
For as long as they can remember, people living in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland—a series of islands to the North West, between the mainland and Iceland—have woven what is today known as Harris Tweed. Until 1846, the cloth remained a local phenomenon, used by islanders and sold at small markets on the islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra. When Lady Dunmore asked Harris-based weavers to recreate the Dunmore clan tartan, it sparked the legend of Harris Tweed. Lady Dunmore began to promote the cloth within elite and wealthy circles. Soon enough, tweed was being sold throughout Scotland and islanders outside of Harris were needed to keep up with the demand for the cloth. With demand high and supply relatively limited, more people began to weave, using imported, mill-spun yarn and passing it off as the hand-spun Clo Mor (big cloth) that had been coming from the Outer Hebrides.
Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world that is produced using “traditional” methods, but in commercial quantities, which contributes to the quasi-magical aura inherent to Harris Tweed.
In 1906, merchants from both Harris and Lewis started taking steps to protect and regulate the production of the cloth. Those from Harris—who had made the clan tartan for Lady Dunmore that sparked the craze and had been the first to export their cloth to mainland Scotland despite the fact they eventually couldn’t keep up with demand—felt that a trade-mark should be granted only for tweed woven on their island, but the Trade Board ultimately disagreed. In 1909, the Orb Trade Mark was granted and the Harris Tweed Association was created to protect the use of the trade-mark and assure the quality of Harris Tweed. Thus was born the syntax that makes Harris Tweed distinct from normal tweed or, say, cotton, or denim.
In the last 110 years, little has changed when it comes to what makes cloth worthy of the Harris Tweed designation and Orb Trade Mark. In 1909, Harris Tweed was strictly defined as “a tweed, hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides.” In 1934, modifications were made to allow mill-spun yarn, which set the table for explosive growth in production. In 1993, an the Harris Tweed Act created the Harris Tweed Authority and set out slightly updated guidelines: "Harris Tweed means a tweed which has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.” While there are a trio of mills—Harris Tweed Scotland, The Carloway Mill and Harris Tweed Hebrides—Harris Tweed is still reliant on individual islanders who are either commissioned by the mills, sell their cloth to the mills, or sell their cloth on their own. And, as stipulated by the Harris Tweed Act, Harris Tweed is woven in the islanders’ homes, rather than in factories or workshops.
Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world that is produced using “traditional” methods, but in commercial quantities, which contributes to the quasi-magical aura inherent to Harris Tweed. Add to that the fact that Harris Tweed is extremely varied—plaids, herringbones, and an almost infinite amount of colours can be produced with Harris Tweed—and it’s quite obvious why it has become famous the world over.
While little has changed in terms of what makes tweed Harris Tweed, how it is perceived and used in society has changed a great deal since Lady Dunmore first commissioned her clan tartan to be reproduced in tweed. In the 1800s, Harris Tweed was worn by islanders who made the cloth or by mainland elites—there was no in-between. In the latter half of the 1800s and the early decades of the 1900s, Harris Tweed was used primarily in sportswear; the cloth was extremely durable, warm, and weatherproof—at least by the standard’s of the time. Production of Harris Tweed peaked in the mid-‘60s, by which point the cloth was being used by tailors in the United Kingdom to create suits for a wide range of clients, from the descendants of the first bourgeois socialites to wear the cloth outside of the Outer Hebrides to your average salesman. Harris Tweed became very much associated with the 1960s, from blazers to the tweed mini skirts that became synonymous with that particular era of women’s fashion.
The use of Harris Tweed tapered off in the decades that followed, as new fashions caught on in the United Kingdom and around the world, where Harris Tweed was now being exported. It was only in the late 80s that Harris Tweed enjoyed something of a renaissance when the English designer Vivienne Westwood inadvertently met an agent from the biggest Harris Tweed mill at the time. The London-based designer’s Autumn/Winter 1987 was titled “Harris Tweed” and offered a thorough examination of the cloth—it even spawned Westwood’s orb logo, after the designer created a necklace inspired by the Harris Tweed Orb Trade Mark.
Westwood’s use of the cloth reinvigorated it to a certain extent and Harris Tweed became central to the world of luxury, not just that of second-hand suits. Industry heavyweights like Chanel, Prada and Paul Smith sourced Harris Tweed for their collections in the ‘90s and, in 2004, Nike released a series of sneakers using the cloth—the order was so substantial that it almost single-handedly boosted the industry, which, by then, was once again ailing.
When the hashtag-menswear craze took off in the late aughts and early 2010s, customers once again began to value time-honoured craftsmanship; it was a movement spurred in part by the financial crisis, with customers seeking to buy less, but buy better. Harris Tweed was once of the biggest beneficiaries. The cloth was historically entrenched within the canon of menswear and the casual tailoring that defined hashtag-menswear; the Harris Tweed jackets of yore, elbow patches and all, were suddenly considered contemporarily stylish and customers eagerly sought out vintage versions and newer ones alike. Revered menswear brands like Junya Watanabe MAN and Nigel Cabourn have used the cloth extensively in the last decade. Harris Tweed even came to define a certain breed of hipsterism in the 2010s, with events like the Tweed Run placing the cloth at the centre of an aesthetic and sociological movement.
But, as hipsterism has waned in recent years, Harris Tweed has returned to a more traditional place within contemporary style: It is used predominantly in men’s suiting, to a certain extent in womenswear, but also in luxury interiors. And, unlike a brief period in the mid 2010s, it isn’t associated with Portland-based, handle bar-moustached fixed-gear cyclists, but with a centuries-old commitment to quality, craftsmanship and independent entrepreneurship.