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March/April 2001


Harris Tweed:
The Fabric of Island Life

Cynthia Elyce Rubin describes
how the traditional handwoven cloth
is greeting the new millenium.

The landscape of the Outer Hebrides is inextricably linked to Harris Tweed. Photo illustration courtesy of the Harris Tweed Authority.

You probably think of Harris Tweed as a heavy, rough, and hairy fabric in muted brown colorings. But today's Harris Tweeds go a long way toward dispelling this old notion. At a September 2000 event at Dover House, home of the Scottish Office in London, some 25 hip British designers staged a fashion presentation that introduced Harris Tweed, women's wear in particular, in eloquent, ambitious design statements. Alexander McQueen's Grey Lady ballgown, hand patchworked to form an intricate jigsaw of different Harris Tweeds mixed with distressed mohair, and Vivienne Westwood's quirky "highland" suit, in a superfine shadow-check, creatively reworked the traditional cloth. Camilla Ridley appliquéd a lavender herringbone suit with suede, and Bruce Oldfield trimmed a blue one with iridescent sequins. Accessory designers dreamed up Harris Tweed stilettoes, handbags of all sizes and shapes, and even tweed chokers and cuffs.

The story of Harris Tweed begins and ends in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, about 40 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland. Physically linked like a Siamese twin to the Isle of Lewis, in the north, the Isle of Harris, in the south, is mountainous with rocky coasts. Bright blue patches of water with yellow lichen-encrusted rocks stretch for miles. Lavender heather, fields of daisies, buttercups, and blue bells flourish amid clumps of iris and assorted flowering plants of bright yellow, pink, and white. Blackface and Cheviot sheep roam the countryside and peat moors, where island inhabitants still cut and stack dark brown squares of peat for fuel.

Providing inspiration for color and texture, the landscape of these islands has bound its people to the woolen cloth, called an clò mór, "the big cloth" in Gaelic, that for centuries they have been hand weaving. Originally hand spun and hand woven from domestic wool for home use, in the late 1800s, this cloth became a popular cottage industry for supplementing islanders' fishing incomes.

In 1840, the Earl of Dunmore, a proprietor of Harris, asked local weavers to copy in tweed his wife's family tartan pattern (Murray tartan) for outfitting the workers on their estate. Lady Dunmore was so enthralled with the quality and presentation of the fabric that she began marketing the local cloth throughout the United Kingdom. Because of its camouflage-like colorings, substantial weight, and hard-wearing qualities, Harris Tweed rose from a regional poor man's cloth to British aristocracy's favorite fabric for outdoor sporting garb. By 1881, some 620 families were employed in the tweed and knit industry, and by 1900, a carding mill was erected in Harris to speed yarn production.

At that time, the method for producing Harris Tweed was a simpler version of today's process. The raw material of wool was all produced locally, at one time solely by blackface sheep. Part of it was used in the natural, uncolored state; the rest was dyed, using plant materials until the introduction of chemical dyes in the late 1800s. Then the wool was mixed or blended (the shade being regulated by the amount of colored wool added), oiled to replace any lost natural oils, and teased - that is, pulled apart by the bristly flower head of the teasel plant to open out the fibers and remove any stray material. Next came carding, in which the fibers of the wool were drawn out and evenly arranged. The wool now went to the spinning wheel, which gave the yarn its twist and thereby its strength. After spinning, the yarn was ready for the loom.

At about the turn of the century, an early type of hand loom with manually operated shuttle was replaced by the improved "fly-shuttle" loom, with four foot pedals and a shuttle that is thrown across the loom by a roller mechanism operated by one hand. Heavier than its predecessor, its limitations made weaving man's work.

When the tweed was removed from the loom, it had a harsh, uneven feel; the process of finishing softened and shrank the fabric, tightening the weave. The tweed was washed in hot, soapy water and, while still wet, pounded by hand on a rough wooden board until it shrank to a specified size. This "waulking the wool" became a highly popular social occasion, akin to the American quilting bee. Women on opposite sides of a long table pounded and pulled the cloth with their hands in rhythm to the strains of Gaelic work songs. After waulking, the tweed would be blessed before being handed over to its owner.

Gradually, mill-spun and -dyed yarn replaced its hand-spun predecessor. Metal Hattersley single-width treadle looms in the 1920s replaced wooden hand looms, and the finishing processes were removed to the mills. Only a few weavers employing traditional techniques of plant dyeing and hand spinning remain.

However, today's process of cloth production remains basically the same as that of the last century. First, the wool is taken to factories of the main tweed producers, such as Kenneth Macleod Ltd. and Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd. in the port of Stornoway, where it is washed, dried, and then dyed in huge vats. The richness of color associated with Harris Tweed is due to the fact that dyeing the wool follows operations of scouring and drying, so that a single yarn may be made up of numerous separately colored fibers, which are mixed together in the later blending, carding, and spinning operations. In blending, an almost unlimited number of shades can be produced by varying the proportions of the different colored fibers. Even solid shades are dyed in the wool phase

In making Harris Tweed, wools are scoured and dyed in bright colors. courtesy of the Harris Tweed Authority.



During spinning, the amount of twist (number of turns per inch) inserted in the yarn influences the properties of the yarn, such as strength, bulkiness, stretch quality, and sheen. The spun yarn is warped, a process of arranging the warp (longitudinal) threads, with the colors in a desired order, by winding the thread around stakes of a wooden warping frame of pegs on a wall. The completed warp is carefully wound around the warp beam of the loom.

This beam is then delivered, together with yarn for the weft, to the homes of the weavers, who receive design instructions and a pattern sample from the mill. All Harris Tweed continues to be hand woven on foot-operated treadle looms by weavers in their own homes. When a weaver completes the length of cloth, it is collected and returned to the mill in its "greasy" state, where it is "finished" by washing to remove dirt, oil, and other impurities. Women closely inspect each length of cloth and mend any loose ends or broken threads. After this quality control step, the tweed is presented to the Harris Tweed Authority for inspection.

But the Harris Tweed industry has had to adapt to today's global economy. The number of weavers has diminished from 1,000 just ten years ago (2-1/2 million yards of cloth) to about 250 today (about 1 million yards). Ina and Angus Morrison of Hill Crest on the Isle of Harris used to weave together, but they gave it up when there was just not enough work. "You used to be at it day and night," Ina remembered wistfully. "You could depend on it."

One reason for the decline might be the vagaries of high fashion; in time, the classic, heavy, dark textile became old fashioned and out of style. Another reason is that Harris Tweed wears so well that it not only inspires affection for but also reduces demand to replace old garments. A recent e-mail to the Harris Tweed Authority from Marjorie Simard of Logan, Utah, attests to this fact. Her husband's well-worn, 45-year-old Harris Tweed coat is now an important part of the daily wardrobe of her son, Jim Simard of Juneau, Alaska. "It looks like it was tailor-made for me," he wrote.

Creativity is adding a new dimension to Harris Tweeds today. In Luskentyre, on the Isle of Harris, Donald John MacKay, weaving for 30 years as did his father and his father's mother before him, has developed his own niche with a specialty of tartan Harris Tweeds. He taught himself the complex patterns some nine years ago and has mastered about 40 tartans. The Isle of Skye, a seven-colored intricate weave of purples, greens, blacks, and gray, is his most time consuming. Since his Hattersley loom holds only six colors, the seventh color has to be inserted by hand. But he keeps it going at a rate of two to three yards an hour. Today, with wife Maureen, MacKay sells directly to customers all over the world via mail order and the Internet.

Most weavers today depend on the mills for work, and the KM Harris Tweed Group, a marketing group with a majority of the market, has spearheaded investment in modern technology. That has meant (1) the introduction in the 1990s of the Bonas Griffiths double-width loom, which uses bicycle pedals and chain, and a specialized course at Lewis Castle College to teach weavers how to use it, and (2) computer-aided design to produce plastic punch cards that control colors and patterns. The results of these innovations include a lighter and softer Harris Tweed, bold colorings, and contemporary fashion plaids, updates on age-old tartans.

All these changes should make Harris Tweed more attractive to mainstream manufacturers, who prefer the extra width and softness of the new brand of old tweed. But despite substantial investment in the new looms, controversy over their use abounds. The loom is expensive and must be purchased by the individual weaver, who can easily go into debt if there is not enough work to support the payments. So, many old-time weavers are continuing to work the standard cast-iron Hattersley loom, handicap in the global marketplace or not.

Ultimately, it is above all the skill of the usually anonymous weaver - continuing the island tradition - that remains Harris Tweed's most valuable feature. Whereas it began as a functional body covering and was transformed into the uniform of the landed gentry, today Harris Tweed makes a smashing fashion statement on any world stage.

Is it Really Harris Tweed?

As demand for the fabric grew in the 1800s, commercial weaving spread, as did the sales of fraudulent Harris Tweed: a London firm was convicted in 1906 of selling so-called Harris Tweed made on power, not hand, looms. After a Trade Marks Act was passed in 1906, the Harris Tweed trademark, consisting of an orb and maltese cross with the words "Harris Tweed" underneath, was developed to protect the industry from imitation by huge spinning mills. The original definition read "Harris Tweed means a tweed, hand spun, hand woven, and dyed by the crofters and cottors [small farmers] in the Outer Hebrides." Stamping the cloth with an iron transfer mark began in 1911.

Today, finished tweed is presented to inspectors of the Harris Tweed Authority, an independent body established by Act of Parliament. The orb certification mark guarantees that the Harris Tweed was made from 100 percent pure virgin wool; dyed, spun, and finished in the Outer Hebrides; and hand woven by islanders in their homes "in the islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist, Barra, and their several purtenances."

Cynthia Elyce Rubin is a visual culture specialist who lives in New York City.

This profile first appeared in:

Mar/Apr 2001

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