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 had long been recognised 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.
In 1846, Lady Dunmore, widow of the landowner of Harris, the Earl of Dunmore, had the clan tartan replicated by Harris weavers in tweed. The results proved so successful that she began to devote much time and effort to marketing the tweed to her wealthy friends further afield.
As a result, sales of the island cloth were soon established with merchants across the country.
Harris Tweed became sought after in the highest social circles and, across the Outer Hebrides, weavers began contributing to the rising demand. Between 1903 and 1906 the tweed-making industry was in full swing and, in Lewis, carding and spinning mills were built to meet ever-increasing orders. With tweed gaining popularity it became clear that steps were needed to protect the good name of Harris Tweed cloth from imitations.
A meeting was held in Stornoway in 1906 to discuss a system whereby the tweed was inspected and, if passed, given a certifying stamp that would give confidence to the trade and public. In 1909, The Harris Tweed Association Limited was formed to register the famous Orb and Maltese Cross with the words Harris Tweed underneath as a trademark. This certification mark was registered in 1910 and stamping began in 1911.
In 1934, the trademark definition was altered to allow the use of island millspun yarn in addition to handspun, enabling 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.
From royalty and landed gentry to Hollywood icons and the finest designers of couture, this humble cloth, produced by the skilled craftspeople 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 cloth 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 'The Big Cloth') had secured its status as a true and timeless classic textile.
In the early 1990s, the industry set out to transform and modernise itself by producing a double width loom, re-training weavers, introducing tougher standards and marketing a new wider, softer, lighter tweed. This work was consolidated when the Harris Tweed Authority took over from the Harris Tweed Association as a result of the 1993 Act of Parliament. Thus, the definition of Harris Tweed cloth became statutory and forever tied the cloth to the Islands.