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Charting the heritage of Harris Tweed

A brief history of the timeless heritage brand

Steeped in history, the unique Scottish cloth has come a long way since its early days as a practical fabric for the Outer Hebrides’ crofters. Here, we take a look at its story from the very beginning, all the way up to the present day.

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Where in the world?

West Scotland – on the islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra. For centuries, the islanders there have hand-woven the famous Harris Tweed, aka Clo Mor (that’s the original Gaelic), meaning the big cloth. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the cloth was mainly produced at home or for the local market. Traditionally woven by crofters, it made the perfect protection against the chilly climates in the North of Scotland. Any leftover cloth would be traded or used for barter and eventually became a form of currency for the islanders. In fact, it was not unheard of for rents to be paid in blankets or lengths of cloth.

 

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Fuelling an industry

The spinning of wool yarn from local raw materials became a key industry for the crofters of the Outer Hebrides by the end of the eighteenth century and it was often exported and traded to mainland Scotland.

 

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An easy mistake

Around about 1830, a London merchant received a letter from a Hawick firm in the Scottish borders referring to the pattern in the woven fabric as tweels. It’s thought that this word was misread as tweed – an easy mistake to make – since there’s a river Tweed that runs through the border towns. As a result, the cloth was marketed as tweed, and the name stuck.

 

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In the family

In 1836, North Harris was inherited by Alexander 6, Earl of Dunmore. At this point, the production of tweed in the Western Isles of Scotland was still completely manual. Upon the Earl’s death in 1843, his estate was passed over to his wife, Lady Catherine Herbert. She fell in love with the Harris Tweed cloth and in 1846 commissioned two sisters from Strond – known as the Paisley Sisters – to weave the family tartan. After sending it to be made into tweed jackets for her estate’s gamekeepers and gillies, she quickly realised they made the ideal country sport and outdoor lifestylewear for the landed gentry, including members of Queen Victoria’s inner circle.

 

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In demand

With an increasing demand for high quality Harris Tweed, Lady Catherine sent girls to the Scottish mainland for training, to improve yarn production. And by the late 1840s, merchants from Edinburgh to London were supplying the privileged classes with the hand-woven cloth. It was from this point that the industry grew rapidly.

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The stamp of approval

As the demand for Harris Tweed increased at a rapid rate, poor quality yarn made by inexperienced weavers began to slip through the net and affected the traditional market.  Subsequently, the good Harris Tweed name needed legal protection with an official trade mark. Groups of merchants from both Lewis and Harris applied to the Board of Trade for a registered mark and in 1909, the renowned Orb Trade Mark was granted to all islands of the Outer Hebrides. This was on the condition that all tweed was made in exactly the same way.

 

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The Association

Formed to protect the use of the Orb Trade Mark and all images and information, the Harris Tweed Association – a voluntary body – was born in 1910. But jump forwards eighty years and a new statutory body was established by the 1993 Harris Tweed Act of Parliament… the Harris Tweed Authority was appointed to guard the trade mark and replace the association. The industry reached its peak production figure in 1966, manufacturing a huge 7.6 million yards of fabric.

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Fashion appeal

From Maison Martin Margiela to Valentino, some of the biggest names in fashion have championed Harris Tweed over the years. But it was Vivienne Westwood’s iconic Harris Tweed collection of Autumn/Winter 1987 that put the fabrication firmly on the high fashion map. Since then, the cloth has been adopted by high end and high street brands alike, who continue to create timeless wardrobe staples to last a lifetime.

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Tweed x Tu

In case you hadn’t heard, you can get also get your hands on some Harris Tweed menswear at Tu. That’s sharp jackets, cosy gloves, smart wallets and more. This herringbone grey blazer will see you through season after season – try with some dark indigo jeans and a relaxed shirt for easy smart meets casual style.

Looking for ideas of things to do this November? Check out our top picks of this month’s events here.