The Amazing History of Harris Tweed
There's nothing quite like Harris Tweed.
If you've ever owned a garment cut from authentic Harris Tweed, you know what I mean. The rugged hand feel, the dense texture, the life-long durability, the mesmerizing flecks of color... It's an all-natural product that takes years of training to produce and can only be handwoven by the islanders in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
It's not just the look and feel of this cloth that make it special. It's also the history, tradition, and century old farm-to-fabric heritage that has become a way of life for the islanders of Northern Scotland. It's a commodity so unique that in 1933 an Act of Parliament was passed to protect it's authenticity and quality standards from counterfeiting, making it the only fabric in the world protected by a law of Parliament.
Originally Harris Tweed was woven by farmers for familial use, as it was ideal for protection against the coastal climates of Norther Scotland. The quality became so well regarded that surplus was often used for barter, eventually becoming a form of currency for the islanders. For example, it was not unusual for rents to be paid in blankets or lengths of cloth.
As the demand for Harris Tweed expanded in the first decade of the 20th century, there was an influx of weavers into the industry seeking to capitalize on the popularity of this natural product, and soon a poorer quality tweed was being made by inexperienced weavers from the mainland and beyond.
This sparked the Harris Tweed Act of 1993, its purpose being "to promote and maintain the authenticity, standard and reputation of Harris Tweed; for preventing the sale as Harris Tweed of material which does not fall within the definition." Today, every 50 meters of Harris Tweed is checked by an inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority before being stamped, by hand, with the official trademark.
Over the decades Harris Tweed was embraced by the world. In its rise to prominence, Harris Tweed scaled Everest, graced the Silver Screen, sailed the Seven Seas and was showed off on red carpets and catwalks by the world's most renowned designers. But with the rise of synthetic fabrics in the 70s, and cheap mass retail in the 90s, the industry had a downturn as consumers turned to cheap alternatives and a "quantity over quality" mode of thinking.
More recently, however, the free flow of information and knowledge has created a much-needed return to quality for consumers, which is in part what has sparked the resurgence of classic menswear. With that, Harris Tweed has seen a rise in demand from around the world. This means the local farmers and weavers are seeing more jobs, better pay, and younger weavers choosing to continue and age-old tradition. And for us, the designers, it means an increased selection of weights, colors, and textures of these beautiful fabrics.
Filmmakers Nick David and Jack Flynn recently traveled to the islands of Lewis and Harris in Outer Hebrides of Scotland to document the resurgence of Harris Tweed, and the impact it's having on the local community:
For more on the actual process of making Harris Tweed, check out the video below from the official Harris Tweed Hebrides website, where you can also directly purchase cloth by the yard (which you can send to AOS to commission a bespoke garment).
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Yours in style,