We have friends all over Europe…that could be the motto for the Harris Tweed industry and for the largest producer, Harris Tweed Hebrides in Shawbost in particular. 

In April this year the company featured in a glittering showcase of British and Italian fashion, held in Florence under royal patronage.   

The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall toured the event, which was organised by the British Embassy in Rome and the Campaign for Wool.  Prince Charles is patron of the campaign and all the garments featured were, like Harris Tweed, made from pure wool.   

An elite selection of leading British and Italian brands were invited to exhibit at the event, which was held in the Sala Bianca of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, described as 'the birthplace of Italian fashion', catwalk shows held there in the 1950s having set the tone for classic Italian brands to flourish. 

Chief executive Ian Angus Mackenzie said: "We greatly value our prestigious Italian clients and participation in this event will help ensure that the well-earned reputation of our Shawbost fabric will be further enhanced in the leading fashion houses of the world". 

Earlier in the year, Harris Tweed Hebrides told how it teamed up with one of Europe’s leading fashion and design schools to ensure that a new generation of the industry’s future leaders are ambassadors for the iconic fabric. 

The relationship with the Institute of the Applied Arts in Vienna is part of the award-winning company’s wider campaign to boost sales in Europe’s leading fashion markets including Italy, France and Spain.   

Harris Tweed Hebrides was also involved in major promotional events in Madrid and Paris.  In Paris, the company teamed up with The Whisky Shop in the Place de la Madeleine to host a reception during the spring edition of Premier Vision, the main international fashion and textiles event. 

The European initiative was boosted when the Italian super-brand Prada included four Harris Tweed “looks” in their main Autumn/Winter 2017 collection. 

The Vienna design school draws elite students from all over Europe and is presided over by the highly-regarded British-Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan, while alumni include Andreas Kronthaler, creative director at Vivienne Westwood.   

Harris Tweed Hebrides creative director Mark Hogarth said: ‘When we visited Vienna to explain Harris Tweed to the students, fewer than half of them had previously heard of it, but they were really enthused to learn of its qualities and provenance.  That sums up the need for this kind of initiative. 

Course co-ordinator in Vienna, Claudia Reifberger, said: “We are very appreciative of the collaboration with Harris Tweed because our students now have the opportunity to turn high quality, handmade fabrics in outstanding colours and designs into their personal visions of contemporary fashion”. 

Chief executive Ian Angus Mackenzie said: “As far as we are concerned, Brexit means that we need to put even more effort into European markets, to make clear that we place a very high value on future relationships.  At a time of global uncertainties, Europe should be more important than ever to us.” 

Meanwhile, one of the key figures in Harris Tweed Hebrides since Shawbost mill re-opened in 2007, Ken Kennedy, retired after a lifetime in the industry. 

Ken’s skills in creating Harris Tweed colours and designs have been at the heart of the company’s success over the past decade.  The biggest challenge has been to ensure that the knowledge he carries in his head is passed on to those who follow. 

“I have to go some time,” he says, “but for sure I will miss it, after all these years”.  He does point out, however, that he will be “only a phone call away” and home in Bragar is also pretty close to the Shawbost mill. 

The company stated: “Over the past 12 months we have seen a number of colleagues moving on for many different reasons.  The company takes this opportunity to thank them all for having helped Harris Tweed Hebrides to flourish over the past 10 years.” 

That success has enabled investment to continue with two new buildings to the rear of the mill in west Lewis almost complete.  The first is the new Blending Department which is currently at the fit-out stage as plant is installed and commissioned.  Next door is the new Dyehouse – complete with the latest technology to carefully fibre dye the wool, a crucial first stage of the process. 

This £2.5 million investment project at the Shawbost Mill will help secure its long-term future through the latest technology and the production flexibility required to serve their international customers. 

The company’s awards include UK Textile Brand of the Year and Scottish Exporter of the Year. 

Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world governed by its own Act of Parliament, passed at Westminster in 1993.  It must be made from pure virgin wool, handwoven at the home of the weaver, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  The Orb stamp, which denotes genuine Harris Tweed, is the oldest British trademark in continuous use – since 1911.