As visitors to Lewis and Harris will easily learn, there is a lot of local pride in the renaissance of Harris Tweed. This is the one industry which is utterly unique to these islands – a status that is underpinned by an Act of Parliament. To be the genuine article, according to the Harris Tweed Act which was updated and reinforced at Westminster in 1993, the fabled fabric must be made from pure virgin wool, handwoven at the home of the weaver in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The woven tweed is then returned to the mill where it is authenticated by a stamper with the Orb trade mark.
The stamper is employed by the Harris Tweed Authority which exists, under the Act, to protect the trademark and safeguard the integrity of the product. The Harris Tweed Orb is the oldest British trademark in continuous use, dating back for more than a century. This is indeed an industry which has a long and distinguished story to tell.
A decade ago, Harris Tweed was in the doldrums. It had forgotten how to tell that story to the world. The North American market, on which Harris Tweed was highly dependent for more than half a century, had diminished in the face of competition from man-made fabrics. There had been too little diversification away from the traditional mainstay of using Harris Tweed to make men’s jackets and little else.
Harris Tweed Hebrides was established in 2007 and took over a derelict mill at Shawbost on the west side of Lewis. This was a time of sharp decline for the industry and there was a real danger of precious skills being lost. But the new company never doubted that the Harris Tweed name remained strong around the world among people who knew anything about textiles. With investment and good marketing, a revival was perfectly possible – and that is exactly what has happened.
In 2015, production reached its highest level for 20 years with Harris Tweed Hebrides accounting for around three-quarters of output. The company now employs 90 people at Shawbost and provides round-the-year work for 150 home-based weavers, a huge contribution to the local economy. Once again, the looms are clicking merrily from morning to night in order to meet demand from over 60 countries.
Much of the company’s success has been based on repositioning the image of Harris Tweed and directing it towards a younger, fashion-conscious market. Wearing well-cut Harris Tweed is highly fashionable for both men and women. Last year, the Harris Tweed Hebrides client list ranged from Chanel to Vivienne Westwood and from J Crew to Zegna. It also works regularly with a number of leading UK based designers including, Nigel Cabourn, Margaret Howell, Hackett, and Scottish designer Elizabeth Martin. Where brands like these lead, many others follow.
There has been a major diversification of end uses in recent years. Alongside men’s and women’s fashion, there is also a huge range of accessories. Even your pets can now join in the Harris Tweed trend! Another big growth area has been interior design. Harris Tweed is an excellent fabric for furnishings and Harris Tweed Hebrides has developed a particularly successful partnership with Tetrad, a high quality furniture maker in Preston, Lancashire.
While the Harris Tweed Hebrides business is mainly about selling fabric to a wide range of customers who do lots of interesting things with it, the company is also very proud of its flagship retail store in Stornoway which sells an excellent selection of high quality Harris Tweed products. And, of course, you can also buy lengths of our famous fabric, ready for your own bespoke use. The shop is located in the centre of Stornoway.
As a busy manufacturing mill all public access is limited and unfortunately HTH are currently unable to offer any mill tours. But the helpful and knowledgeable staff in the Stornoway shop will be only too happy to provide you with more information about the production processes at the mill, the fabric patterns and its provenance. There is an excellent short video which summarises the fascinating Harris Tweed history and process.
The name of Harris Tweed Hebrides also features prominently on Scotland’s premier shopping street for visitors from around the world – the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The company has teamed up with a leading retailer, House of Edinburgh, to create a store which specialises in Harris Tweed products using only fabric from the Shawbost Mill. You will find it near the top of the Royal Mile as you approach Edinburgh Castle (495 Lawnmarket).
Then there is an important new Harris Tweed outlet as you head south on the M6, just off the Penrith Junction. Located at the Rheged Centre, Harris Tweed Hebrides have teamed up with The Westmorland Family to offer the finest Harris Tweed fabric and high quality accessories as part of their newly opened Harris Tweed shop. You can also see their Harris Tweed collection at their other outlets including Tebay Services and Gloucester Services – definitely worth a stop.
But really, the Harris Tweed story is primarily about its home here in the Outer Hebrides. It’s something worth learning more about during your visit because it is not only critical to the local economy but also reflects the wonderful landscape around you. That is what has always inspired the depth of colour and intricacy of patterns.
Thus, the Harris Tweed you take away on the ferry or plane will not only offer years of practical use – but will always remind you of the fabulous setting from which it comes.