Harris Tweed – a story of landscape, people and cloth

By Angela Weyers of Sticky Toffee Chic.

As someone who works with fabrics, I’m especially passionate about one very particular cloth – Harris Tweed – and here’s why…

I first came across the name Harris Tweed when, in my twenties, I bought myself a very cool skirt from Jigsaw. It was a navy and darkgreen Black Watch tartan pattern and bore the label Harris Tweed. I didn’t know much about it, but I was smitten – not just by the colours, patterns and quality of the finely woven cloth but also by its traditions and the romance of where it comes from.

That skirt certainly outlasted the size of my waistline! (I eventually passed it on to a grateful niece and she on to someone else.) Years later, on a trip to Scotland, I noticed bags and accessories also made out of Harris Tweed. I thought they were beautiful! So, as soon as I began to make my own bags and accessories, a big pile of tweeds crept into my cupboard and I started to find out more about them. 

 Made of 100% pure new wool, these tweeds are dyed, carded, spun and woven only on the Isles of Harris , Lewis, (and less so on Barra and Uist) in the Outer Hebrides, just off the west coast of Scotland. The skills have been passed down from generation to generation of islanders for over 300 years, with pride.

The weavers all have their own sheds and looms set in their gardens or land, and often with stunning views of rolling fields of bracken and heather or of the brooding sea shores. If you follow them on Instagram you hear tales of it being too cold to work, or of loom parts breaking and taking weeks until they are fixed.

Styles of Harris Tweed are remarkably varied.  Some weavers produce very colourful and bright tweeds, such as Christina’s Harris Tweed, above. Some are influenced by the natural subtle hues in the scenery around themthe lichen, the grey rocks and the misty sea – beautifully illustrated in the montage courtesy of Urgha Loom Shed below. And others stick to the traditional colours and patterns of old. It is a dream of mine to holiday on the islands and visit all my favourite weavers one day.

 For a long time the tweed was only used by the islanders themselves. But in the middle of the 19th century, the resident Lady Dunmore marketed the fabric to the rest of the world and very soon it was in huge demand in the highest social circles.

To maintain the authenticity and quality of this iconic cloth the Harris Tweed Association was formed in 1909, quickly followed by the registration of the trademark – the Orb and the Maltese Cross. Still used today, this symbol is how you can tell that your Harris tweed item is authentic.

In 1993 the tweed even got its own Act of Parliament, which decrees that:

In accordance with the Act, Harris Tweed cloth 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.”

The Act also replaced the Harris Tweed Association with a new statutory body, the Harris Tweed Authority which promotes and protects both the heritage and the future of this unique fabric. Their website is full of wonderful photos and information about the history of Harris Tweed as well as how it’s produced today. The short video below offers a fascinating and uplifting glimpse behind the scenes and it’s worth watching for the extraordinary pedal-powered looms alone…

 As well as for the colours and the patterns, another reason I love Harris tweed so much is that it is so hard-wearing and water repellent. Even, judging from my pristine stack of tweeds, it is moth repellent too!

But my favourite thing about getting a new piece of Harris tweed is that I always find bits of grass and bracken from the islands in each piece. The land and the people are truly woven into this wonderful cloth. 

Images: © Sticky Toffee Chic unless otherwise stated. See Angela’s work and shop online at Sticky Toffee Chic and IRL at the independent gift shop All Original, Ealing W5.

 

 

 

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