What's Up with Harris Tweed?

December 04, 2017

What's Up with Harris Tweed?

The story of the beautiful, woven cloth of Harris Tweed has a surprisingly lengthy and interesting history.

History Lesson

For centuries, the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, wove a beautiful cloth which was only available at local markets.  However, in 1846, Lady Dunmore, a wealthy local widow, chose to have her clan tartan replicated in tweed by the local weavers. The resulting cloth was so beautiful, Lady Dunmore began marketing the tweed to her wealthy friends, thus beginning a country-wide, and eventually world-wide, commerce of Harris Tweed.

As the Harris Tweed reputation began to spread, it became apparent that protections were needed to insure the quality and authenticity of the brand. In 1909, the certification mark was granted and the Harris Tweed Association was established to maintain and preserve the Harris Tweed quality. Starting in 1911, the official logo was stamped on each product.  In 1934, the trademark was updated to include millspun wool (on the island) in addition to the traditional handspun method.  This allowed the production of the "must-have" cloth to reach more global markets.

In 1993, the Harris Tweed Association was replaced by the Harris Tweed Authority. The fundamental role of this organization is to undertake the responsibility of maintaining and marketing the authenticity and standard associated with the brand.

The Making of the Cloth

The wool originates from the mainland of Scotland, although once a year the sheep on the island are rounded up, sheared, and the wool is added to the mainland wool.  The raw, undyed wool is washed and dyed in a process unique to Harris Tweed.  Once dry, the wools are blended together in secret color recipes, carded, and spun.  

The yarn is warped and delivered, to the homes of local weavers along with pattern instructions from the local mill. All Harris Tweed is woven on a treadle loom by the weaver at their own home.  Once woven, the bolts of tweed are returned to the mill for finishing. The oils from the loom are washed out of the fabric. The final product is then presented to the Harris Tweed Authority for inspection.  If the fabric is up to standard, the ORB MARK (Certification Mark), is stamped onto the fabric.

Resonating Around the World

Harris Tweed has been sported by famous designers and celebrities over the last century, increasing the popularity of the luxurious, hand-made fabric. Featured throughout history by renowned designers like Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, and Chanel, Harris Tweed is still featured on catwalks in fashion capitols: New York, Paris, London, and Milan.  Yet despite the prevalence in high fashion, the brand is still sported by crofters and fishermen of the Outer Hebrides, as they honor the traditions and craft of their community.

Google put together a fascinating slideshow to showcase Harris Tweed, if you are interested, you can find it here.