By Iain A MacSween
There has been an explosive rebirth of Harris Tweed in recent years.
In the mid 2000’s it really did seem to most that the unique Hebridean cloth was destined for the history books – but, like a phoenix from the ashes, Harris Tweed is today vividly alive.
And across the world, agents of the main producer, Harris Tweed Hebrides, make it their business to sell the product – and they’re doing a grand job of it.
Currently in the USA, Harris Tweed is the ‘in’ fashion garment. Best-selling author Dan Brown, of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ fame, always has his main protagonist, Robert Langdon, bedecked in a Harris Tweed blazer. And a recent reboot of Dr Who, with the Time Lord festooned in the Hebridean cloth, has also added to its cultural allure.
But a real spike in interest came when it was revealed that Harris Tweed jackets were actually the unofficial uniform of the CIA when operatives were on overseas missions. Tony Mendez was involved in the rescue of six Americans hiding in Tehran after the storming of the US embassy in November 1979. In ‘Argo’, the Oscar-winning film about the rescue, Mendez is played by Ben Affleck, who wore tweed in the movie.
Mendez later revealed Harris Tweed was favoured by US spies during the Cold War. “The jackets were representative of our group. Those of us in the CIA who did overseas work, work in the field,” he said.
“If you were in the field during the Blitz, you wore a trench coat. If you were tracking Ivan (the Soviet Union and its allies), you had Harris Tweed.”
Similar quirky events have given rise to an increase in profile of Harris Tweed in America. Who could forget the trainers manufactured by sports behemoth Nike, that were also fashioned from the famous fabric? In 2004, looking for a way to update a trainer called The Terminator, a basketball shoe from the 1980s, Nike approached Donald John MacKay, a weaver in Luskentyre, in Harris.
After seeing test swatches, Nike ordered nearly 10,000 metres of cloth. Weavers throughout the Outer Hebrides were called into action to meet the demand, because Mr MacKay could only produce so much in the loom shed behind his house.
Yet, despite the boom in interest from “across the pond”, the United States is not the biggest importer of Harris Tweed today. That credit goes to Germany, Japan, and Korea.
In Germany, Horst Shrotberger has made his lifetime’s living out of promoting tweed there. Still sprightly at the age of 81, and with no plans for retiring, he is thrilled at the resurgence of Harris Tweed on the global market.
“I got involved in Harris Tweed in 1955 when the oldest Harris Tweed weaver of the day, David Tolmie and Co., asked if I would be their agent,” said Horst. “I’ve spent my working life with international weaving companies selling to clothing manufacturers across Germany.”
Of his country’s attraction to the cloth, he said: “The perception of Harris Tweed here in Germany is that it is a well-known, respected, international brand. That counts for a lot.”
In Korea, Angel Hwang is the representative for Mik Chung, a Harris Tweed agency based in Suwon. “Korea loves Harris Tweed! We think it is amazing,” he said. “I travel often to exhibitions across the world, but a real highlight was visiting the Harris Tweed head office in Scotland.
“Our company has made three books which are on sale in Korea, detailing what Harris Tweed is, and how it can be used. We are trying to get it used not only in clothes, but in hats, furniture, shoes, etc. There is so much potential for it. It’s an incredible fabric.”
Meanwhile, Lorenzo Moscato founded Pugliese & Moscato in Italy in 1985.
Based in Florence, he was forced to stop being an agent when Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd. was taken over by Brian Haggas in 2005.
However, following the remarkable rise of Harris Tweed Hebrides, he is now back in the business. “Italians love British fabrics, and they particularly like Harris Tweed,” he said.
“It is starting to be well-known between the young generations due to the use of Harris Tweed by fashion designers.
“However, it is an expensive product for expensive garments, so that can be off-putting.”
With a concentrated effort now being made to get Harris Tweed into the world’s four fastest growing economies – i.e Brazil, Russia, India and China - the future looks brighter than ever for the industry.
By Iain A MacSween