What Is Harris Tweed - and Is It for Me?Written by Gavin Humphreys
You may or may not be familiar with this textile.
Perhaps you own a tweed jacket, but don’t know much about it...
But for me, Harris Tweed is the fabric that’s got it all.
A cloth which bridges the gap between elegance and hardiness, quality and artisanal, as well as being tied to its environment, socially responsible, versatile, and full of history.
When I wear Harris Tweed, I feel good using this fabric (not only because it’s a strong and warm fabric, but also as a good consumer). Both these factors make you look good too.
Harris Tweed is also classic material, which has come of age in the 21st Century.
I talked to Margaret Ann Macleod, one of the top dogs at Harris Tweed Hebrides, which supplies much of the Harris Tweed to today’s market. She is an expert in the fabric, who grew up on the Isle of Lewis, so she has tweed woven into the bones - as almost everybody from her island does!
How do most men first come across Harris Tweed?
Margaret Ann pointed out that “A Harris Tweed jacket is undoubtedly a wardrobe essential, very often matched with a vest. This timeless look has seen a resurgence over recent years, which is really exciting for our company.
“The popularity of the fabric across the US is growing as people seek authentic heritage products with sustainable credentials. Harris Tweed is perfect as a modern fabric - handwoven, 100% pure new wool, and steeped in decades of Scottish textile heritage.
“We have seen the fabric used increasingly by menswear brands and retailers across the USA, and we look forward to that trend continuing.”
What exactly is Harris Tweed, and how is it made?
Here’s the colorless, technical answer:
The Harris Tweed Act 1993 Part III
So let’s break that down.
The Outer Hebrides
Let’s first talk about the Outer Hebrides. The Hebrides are the islands off the West Coast of Scotland (pronounced ‘Heb-rid-ees’). The culture and history of the people who live in these islands owe a lot to the Celts and Vikings - they have a love of the sea and the land, and this material is part of that ancient heritage.
The Isle of Harris is part of the Outer Hebrides, and that’s where the textile gets its name. Just to confuse you, the Isle of Harris is not actually an island, but together with the Isle of Lewis they make up one island. Lewis is where Margaret Ann works, and the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill is found.
Blessed by childhoods on golden beaches, growing up under the Northern Lights, and strengthened by storms and wild seas - the islanders have strong personalities and are rightly proud of their wee corner of the Earth. They are also the guardians of the Scottish Gaelic language, these islands being its last stronghold. All this is part of Harris Tweed.
The islands are dotted with a hardy breed of sheep, called Black-faces. These sheep roam for miles across the heather-covered bogs, but are gathered in every summer to shear off their long, shaggy, wool coats.
In these island communities the farms are small, and the open expanses of moor are community owned. This collective way of living is centuries old and is called crofting, and the farmers are more correctly titled crofters. When it comes to the shearing, the community works together to sheer one another’s flock.
This is where the Harris Tweed Hebrides comes into play. Margaret Ann explained: “We take the raw sheep wool, at our Shawbost Mill, and carefully dye it to 60 base colors. These are then blended together and carefully spun into the yarn. This yarn now has the range of colors that makes Harris Tweed fabric instantly identifiable.”
These colors are often said to mirror to the colors of the environment of the western isles - brown heather, the dark sea, sandy beaches, green rushes, autumn leaves...
Back to the croft
The wool then returns to the community to weave, very often to the same crofters who farm the sheep.
“The prepared yarn is delivered by the Shawbost Mill team to the home-weavers at their weaving sheds across the Isle of Lewis and Harris.” Margaret Ann said.
This process results in an incredible boost for a society which has suffered from lack of employment and depopulation. “It provides sustainable, rural employment to some of the most remote communities in the United Kingdom.”
If you walk around these remote villages in the middle of the winter, you will see light coming through the cracks in the doors of the out-houses and garages. As you approach, over the sound of the ever-present wind, you will hear a radio softly sounding, and the chuck-chickity-chuck of the crofter sitting at his loom making the Harris Tweed.
Even Margaret Ann’s own brother is a home-weaver. She told me, “He was taught to weave by our late father, Calum Iain Macleod. He has loved the art of creating the fabric since he was a young man.”
Then back to the mill
“The crofters return the woven fabric to the mill in 50 meter batches for finishing. Inspection by the Harris Tweed Authority is the final stage in the process. Only then is the tweed given the trademark Orb stamp, identifying the fabric as genuine Harris Tweed.”
The Orb is a stamp you will find on any authentic Harris Tweed garment. It certifies that it has been woven by hand in the Hebrides.
From there the tweed is transported all around the world.
How has Harris Tweed evolved to be part of the new century?In the 19th and 20th
Century, tweed was an essential for country gentlemen - with a reputation for being warm and hardy, it became the sporting fabric for wealthy mountaineers and hunters. The idea of the hunter searching out his quarry became Sherlock Holmes, the detective, with his tweed deerstalker hat and Inverness cape.
Around the world it became one of the most respected and sought-after fabrics, in city style just as much as the countryside. It also became associated with the intelligentiae, especially university professors.
In the second half of the 20th Century the material had a nightmare period. As cheap fabrics became available, and disposable clothing became the fashion, Harris Tweed passed from the world’s attention.
Modern, waterproof, breathable fabrics also replaced traditional textiles for outdoor wear.
The rise of social and environmental awareness this century has changed things around. People are also again ready to buy quality, which lasts, rather than the cheap alternative. The internet has meant that fashion and style are more accessible, and that Harris Tweed is available across the world in ways it had never been before.
The worldwide popularity of the British television shows like Dr Who and Peaky Blinders has introduced a new audience to tweed, and especially the classic tweed suit and flat caps.
Margaret Ann explained that they also started innovating more. The classic herringbone, checked tweed, and dogtooth (or houndstooth) designs are still at the heart, but there are new color blends and variations which make the traditional cloth exciting to use and wear.
“Color and design are always at the heart of our fabric collection. At Harris Tweed Hebrides we design a new selection of fabrics each season - our inspiration comes from the Scottish Hebridean landscapes that surround our mill. We are also lucky enough to live on the edge of the Atlantic ocean, with sandy beaches and seascapes that never fail to inspire.”
There is a buzz around Harris Tweed. “Our fabric is used in many different products and market sectors from menswear, ladieswear and interiors - we have recently been working with a number of well-known US designer brands and retailers including Thom Browne, J Press, and Brooks Brothers.”
It’s a vibrant fabric, used both for traditional menswear and new original ideas, such as tweed hoodies and men’s bags.
“There have even been some fairly unconventional Harris Tweed projects in recent years. There was a range of Nike sneakers, a motorbike seat for a Triumph, and a whisky-infused Harris Tweed for Johnny Walker.”
I look forward to seeing where the textile goes over the coming years. Do you have any Harris Tweed items, or do you have it on your wish-list? Please leave a comment below to tell me what you think of this fabric.