Harris Tweed is a unique fabric hand-woven by the islanders on Scotland’s Isles of Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barra, using local wool and vegetable dyes. Despite its rustic roots, this unusual cloth has risen to international fame. Known for its distinctive flecks of colour and peculiar scent, produced by the lichen dyes known as “crottle,” Harris Tweed is as much a material as it is a fascinating story about tradition, community, collaboration, and heritage.
For as long as they can remember, people living in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, have woven what is today known as Harris Tweed. Until 1846, the cloth remained a local phenomenon, used by islanders and sold at small markets on the islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra.
During the first part of the 19th Century Alexander Murray, Viscount Fincastle, later the 6th Earl of Dunmore was proprietor of the Isle of Harris. 1845 saw the untimely death of the Earl, leaving his wife Lady Catherine a widow with three children and another on the way. The Earl’s death led Catherine to inherit the Hebridean island, leaving her in charge with the running of a 150,000 acre estate that was facing desperate times. This prompted her to take a more active interest in the estate and she threw herself into the development of what would become the Harris Tweed® industry, as she began introducing finished tweeds amongst her aristocratic circle of friends and establishing connections with Edinburgh and London markets asked Harris-based weavers to recreate the Dunmore clan tartan, it sparked the legend of Harris Tweed. Soon, tweed was being sold throughout Scotland and islanders outside of Harris were needed to keep up with the demand for the cloth. With demand high and supply relatively limited, more people began to weave, using imported, mill-spun yarn and passing it off as the hand-spun Clo Mor (big cloth) that had been coming from the Outer Hebrides.
In 1906, merchants from both Harris and Lewis started taking steps to protect and regulate the production of the cloth. Those from Harris, who had made the clan tartan for Lady Dunmore, felt that a trade-mark should be granted only for tweed woven on their island, but the Trade Board disagreed. However, in 1909, the Orb Trade Mark was finally granted and the Harris Tweed Association was created to protect the use of the trade-mark and assure the quality of Harris Tweed.
In 1909, Harris Tweed was strictly defined as “a tweed, hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides.” In 1934, modifications were made to allow mill-spun yarn, which led to the explosive growth in production. In 1993, the Harris Tweed Act created the Harris Tweed Authority and set out slightly updated guidelines: "Harris Tweed means a tweed which has been handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.” While there are 3 mills, Harris Tweed is still reliant on individual islanders who are either commissioned by the mills, sell their cloth to the mills, or sell their cloth on their own. And, as stipulated by the Harris Tweed Act, Harris Tweed is woven in the islanders’ homes, rather than in factories or workshops.
Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world that is produced using “traditional” methods, but in commercial quantities. As well as having such varied designs: plaids, herringbones, houndstooth, stripes barleycorn weaves and an almost infinite number of colours, it’s unsurprising that it has become famous the world over.