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Quality Fabric Of The Month

Quality Fabric Of The Month: Harris Tweed For A New Generation

Harris Tweed, handwoven and finished in Scotland's Outer Hebrides islands, is being offered in updated styles that are being used in new ways.

Janet Bealer Rodie, Managing Editor

The handwoven tweed cloth that bears the name of Harris, one of the Isles of the Outer Hebrides off of Scotland's northwest coast, is celebrating the centenary of the first stamping of the cloth with the orb and Maltese Cross trademark that certifies the fabric is handwoven using locally dyed and spun virgin wool and finished in the Outer Hebrides.


The cloth has been made for centuries, originally for local use, but it began to receive wider recognition in the mid-19th century, when Lady Catherine Dunmore commissioned local weavers to produce tweeds in her family tartan to make into jackets for workers on her Isle of Harris estate. She also promoted Harris Tweed among her circle of friends and worked to upgrade the production processes. In 1909, the Harris Tweed Association Ltd. was formed to promote Harris Tweed and certify its quality. The trademark was granted in 1910 and the first cloth stamped the following year. In 1993, the Harris Tweed Authority was established to oversee certification.

Harris Tweed goes high-tech in Nigel Cabourn's Dry Wax-coated Lined Cameraman Jacket.

Originally, wool came only from island sheep and was hand-dyed, -blended and -spun. In 1934, the trademark definition was altered to allow the wool fleece to be produced anywhere in Great Britain and sent to mills on the islands to be dyed, carded and spun into yarn. This change, along with updated loom technologies, has led to increased productivity. The yarn is warped and beamed at the mills and sent to island weavers, who weave the cloth using programmed instructions per customer specifications on special handlooms in their homes. The woven fabric is returned to the mills for finishing and internal quality control, and then checked by a Harris Tweed Authority inspector who stamps the cloth with the trademark.

In the 1990s, in response to demand for wider fabrics, the Bonas-Griffith rapier loom, operated by a bicycle-like pedal mechanism, was made available. Of the 130 to 140 Harris Tweed weavers working today, 110 to 120 have the newer looms.

Production of the cloth has dropped from a peak of 7.5 million meters per year in the 1960s — when there were 10 mills on the islands and 1,000 weavers — to a low of 440,000 meters in 2008, with the decrease primarily attributable to competition with more mass-produced, generic tweeds. However, production is increasing again, according to Donald Martin, chairman of the Harris Tweed Authority. "This year, we hope to approach 900,000 meters," he said. "We'll never get back to 7 million — we don't have the capacity now, and reckon production will be capped at 1.2 million meters. There's a possibility to modify the looms to make them more efficient."

Furniture throughout Blythswood Square, a luxury hotel in Glasgow, Scotland, is upholstered in Harris Tweed.

When production hit its low point in 2008, only two mills were left on the islands to dye and spin the wool, prepare the warps for the weavers and finish the woven cloth. That number now has increased to three: Harris Tweed Scotland Ltd., which also converts its fabrics into men's jackets; Harris Tweed Hebrides, which claims to account for more than 90 percent of all Harris Tweed fabrics produced and sells those fabrics to name brands and designers in more than 50 countries; and H.T.T. (Manufacturing) Ltd., which supplies fabrics to large- and small-scale apparel manufacturers and designers.

The weavers are all self-employed crofters, and may weave fabrics for all three mills. Many are in their 60s and 70s, Martin said, adding that training programs have been organized to bring new weavers into the fold.

Harris Tweed fits into a premium niche because of its provenance, handling and limited production. The cloth today is "not just your father's Harris Tweed," said Harris Tweed Authority Chairman Donald Martin. "Our industry is responding to the fashions of the day. There's a focus on a younger age group that doesn't wear the same styles as the older generation." New looks include patchwork jackets that are offered this year by Brooks Brothers, fashion accessories, evening gowns and other fashions — often in more vibrant colors and softer-hand, lighter weights than the Harris Tweed associated with outdoor sporting attire and Ivy League tradition.

After it is dyed, virgin wool fleece is mixed and carded prior to spinning into yarn to be woven into Harris Tweed cloth.

"The mills are continually surprised by the interpretations of the fabric," said Stewart Roxburgh, senior executive, National Textiles Team, of economic development agency Scottish Enterprise. "It's fantastic to see the re-evolution of Harris Tweed in the work of brands and young designers."

Wool is being rediscovered as a performance fiber. British designer Nigel Cabourn designs Harris Tweed outerwear featuring a Dry Wax coating to make the inherently water-repellent cloth waterproof. Roxburgh noted that the coating penetrates the fiber and is not noticed on the surface.

CONTACTS: For more information about Harris Tweed, contact Lorna Macaulay, +44 1851 702269; lmacaulay@harristweed.org.

November/December 2011