For generations, the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland have handwoven an intricate cloth the world knows simply as Harris Tweed. The islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra have produced this cloth entirely by hand and have long been known for the excellence of their weaving. Up until the mid-nineteenth century Harris Tweed was used only on their crofts or sold at local markets. However, since then, Harris Tweed has become a wardrobe staple globally and is worn by everyone from royalty to Hollywood icons. Today, Harris Tweed has become a luxury fabric, being used by the fashion houses Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Chanel. In 1993, Harris Tweed was further protected by updating the Act of Parliament; the only fabric in the United Kingdom to hold such important recognition.
What is Harris Tweed?
The rare character of Harris Tweed is attributable to the fact that it is the only fabric produced in commercial quantities by truly traditional methods anywhere in the world. Hundreds of distinctive patterns have developed over the centuries, each is unique with its own characteristically subtle designs and complex natural shades.
The wool is fibre dyed before being blending and spinning, allowing the Harris Tweed Hebrides Design Team to introduce a multitude of colours into the yarn. With each thread containing a myriad of different colours inspired by the landscape and seascape of the Outer Hebrides, a cloth of great depth and complexity is produced.
Because of the way that Harris Tweed is created there is almost an unlimited number of patterns, shades and colours to choose from; all the way through form Plain Twills and traditional Herringbones to more complex Plaids and modern design combinations.
Harris Tweed Hebrides
Harris Tweed Hebrides is the largest producer of Harris Tweed in the world. At their mill at Shawbost on the west side of Lewis they currently employ over 80 people and work directly with over 130 self-employed home-weavers located around the island of Lewis and Harris. Harris Tweed Hebrides not only supplies the UK but exports the unique fabric all over the world, with the USA, Japan and increasingly China important markets for Harris Tweed.
Even with the global success of Harris Tweed Hebrides the same production techniques and skills are employed that have been used for decades on the islands.
The Manufacturing Process
As outlined in the 1993 Harris Tweed Act of Parliament, every piece of Harris Tweed that carries 'The Orb' Trademark must carefully follow a traditional manufacturing process. Pure new wool is dyed, spun, handwoven in the weavers’ home, and finished by islanders of the Outer Hebrides, to create every length of Harris Tweed.
Shearing and wool gathering
The Harris Tweed story begins with pure virgin wools, which are blended to gain the advantages of their unique qualities and characteristics.
Although most of the wool is grown principally on the Scottish mainland, in the early summer, the island communities join to round up and shear the local sheep, which are dotted throughout the landscape.
Once this wool is shorn and collected then it is time for it to be scoured and dyed.
Washing and Dyeing
Harris Tweed is truly dyed in the wool, which means the wool is fibre dyed prior to being spun as opposed to dying spun yarn. This means the mill can gently blend different coloured wool together to create a myriad of intricate shades and hues.
Blending and Carding
The coloured and undyed natural wool are weighed in predetermined proportions and then thoroughly blended to exact recipes to obtain the perfect hue.
This wool is then carded between mechanical, toothed rollers which tease and mix the fibres thoroughly before it is separated into a fragile, embryonic yarn.
This soft yarn then has a twist imparted to it as it is spun to give it maximum strength for weaving.The spun yarn is wound onto bobbins to provide the ingredients of weft (left to right threads) and warp (vertical threads).
This vitally important and very skilled process sees thousands of warp threads gathered in long hanks in very specific order and wound onto large beams ready to be delivered, together with yarn for the weft, to the weavers at their homes.
All Harris Tweed is handwoven on a treadle loom at each weaver's home, not at a mill. The warp and yarns for the weft arrive from the mill, and then the weaver sets to work hand-tying the new yarns to the tail-ends of the previous weave, to make it easier to thread onto the loom. It is then a matter of steadily weaving the cloth, always observing the fabric as it is slowly woven together through the loom.
The tweed returns to the mill in its 'greasy state' and here it passes through the nimble hands of experienced and sharp-eyed darners who correct even the smallest of flaws. Once ready, the cloth is finished.
Dirt, oil and other impurities are removed by washing and beating in soda and soapy water, before it is dried, steamed, pressed and cropped to a perfect, flawless condition.
The final process is the examination by the independent Harris Tweed Authority, before application of the famous "Orb Trademark" which is ironed on to the reverse of the fabric as the ultimate seal of approval. Only then can it be called Harris Tweed.
Harris Tweed and Fashion
Thanks to its subtlety and depth, Harris Tweed has been much sought after by the major fashion houses of the world. Harris Tweed Hebrides fabric has been used by Alexander McQueen, Chanel and Vivienne Westwood. Today Harris Tweed is just as likely to be featured on the catwalks of New York, London, Paris and Milan as it is to be worn by the crofters and fishermen of the Outer Hebrides.