Harris Tweed is a handwoven cloth made by islanders on the Scottish Isles of Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South Uist, Benbecula and Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
The original name for tweed cloth was ‘tweel’, the Scots word for twill, a textile with a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs.
Twill is produced by passing the weft thread over one or more warp threads, with a step or offset between rows to create a characteristic diagonal pattern. There are now over 4,000 commonly used patterns and colour combinations in the Harris Tweed Association’s pattern books.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the cloth produced by Harris weavers was only used and sold locally.
In 1846, Lady Dunmore, widow of the Earl of Dunmore, chose to have their clan tartan replicated by Harris weavers in tweed. The results were so successful that Lady Dunmore promoted the tweed to wealthy friends and it quickly became sought after by merchants across the country. By the 1840s a London market for Harris Tweed was established.
By 1903, tweed was being produced across the Outer Hebrides and carding and spinning mills were built to meet demand.
The Harris Tweed Association Limited was established in 1906 and an application was filed to register the Harris Tweed Orb and Maltese Cross. The trademark was granted in 1909 and was altered in 1934 to include yarn spun in mills on the island as well as handspun yarn.
The authenticity and reputation of Harris Tweed is now rigorously protected by the Harris Tweed Authority, which was created by an Act of Parliament in 1993.
The Authority oversees the production and inspection of all Harris Tweed from start to finish, and brands genuine Harris Tweed with the mark of the Orb.
Under the Act, Harris Tweed is defined as “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.”
Despite a period of modernisation in the 1990s when weavers were retrained and new wider, softer, lighter tweed was introduced, just five years ago the future of Harris Tweed looked uncertain.
The number of weavers had fallen below 100 and many of those left were ageing. The industry was failing to attract young people into the workforce and sales were poor
However, Harris Tweed is now enjoying a resurgence after a period of concerted marketing. Its image has been transformed into a young, contemporary fabric through associations with brands such as Nike and designers including Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.
It is now exported to over fifty countries and used in couture clothing, interiors, crafts and traditional tailoring. In 2012, production is expected to exceed a million metres, the biggest production run for 15 years.
Harris Tweed has recently been used in men’s ranges at Top Man and on Converse boots.
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