From time immemorial, the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland have woven a beautiful and intricate cloth the world knows simply as Harris Tweed.
The islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra produce this luxury cloth entirely by hand and have long been known for the excellence of their weaving. However up until the middle of the nineteenth century, their cloth was used only on their crofts or sold at local markets, but in 1846, Lady Dunmore, widow of the landowner of Harris, the Earl of Dunmore, chose to have their clan tartan replicated by Harris weavers in tweed.
The results proved so successful that Lady Dunmore began to devote much time and effort to marketing the tweed to her wealthy friends further afield and as a result of her enthusiastic work sales and trade of the island cloth were soon established with merchants across the country.
This was the beginning of the Harris Tweed industry.
Harris Tweed became highly sought after in the highest social circles and weavers across the Outer Hebrides soon began contributing to the rising demand also. Between 1903 and 1906 the tweed making industry was in full swing and in Lewis to the north, new carding and spinning mills were built to meet ever increasing orders. With tweed gaining in popularity it soon became clear that steps would have to be taken to protect the good name of Harris Tweed from imitations from elsewhere seeking to cash in on the island’s success story.
A special meeting was held in Stornoway in 1906 to discuss the introduction of a system whereby the tweed was inspected and, if passed, given a certifying stamp which would give confidence to the trade and public. A company was formed under the title The Harris Tweed Association Limited to ensure the grant of a new trademark and an application was filed to register the well-known Harris Tweed Orb and Maltese Cross with the words Harris Tweed underneath. This Certification Mark was granted in 1909, registered in 1910 and stamping began in 1911.
1934 saw the alteration in the Trademark Definition allowing the use of island millspun yarn in addition to handspun, and enabled the industry to make a huge leap in production. The stamped yardage increased tenfold and continued to increase till the peak figure of 7.6 million yards was reached in 1966.
Over the decades Harris Tweed was embraced by the world. From royalty and landed gentry to Hollywood icons and the finest designers of couture, this humble cloth, produced by the skilled craftsmen and women of the Outer Hebrides, became a wardrobe staple, a must-have item for discerning customers across the globe. In its rise to prominence, Harris Tweed scaled Everest and graced the Silver Screen, sailed the Seven Seas and showed off on red carpets and catwalks. By the middle of the 20th century the Clo Mor (Gaelic for Big Cloth) had secured its status as a true and timeless classic textile.
In the early 1990’s the industry set out to transform and modernise itself by producing a new double width loom, re-training weavers, introducing new, tougher quality standards and marketing a new wider, softer, lighter tweed. This new outlook was further consolidated when the Harris Tweed Authority took over from the Harris Tweed Association in 1993 by Act of Parliament. Thus the definition of Harris Tweed became statutory and forever tied the cloth to the Islands.
Times proved difficult in subsequent years as cheaper, mass-manufactured fabrics flooded the market but as Harris Tweed entered the 21st Century the industry was revived once more, partly in a market return to quality workmanship and value placed in artisan products but mainly thanks to the faith, perseverance and sheer hard work of island business men and women who refused to allow their precious local industry to die out.
Even after a century of change and challenge, Harris Tweed remains truly of its time, a cloth that rises above fad and fashion. As age-old skills are passed on from one generation to the next, our beloved cloth will always made by our local artisans in this, one of the most remote places in the world, to our exacting standards, enshrined in law and forever meeting the needs of customers across the world who seek a luxury fabric, longevity and value, style and timeless quality.