The History of Harris Tweed Fabric
There are few fabrics more celebrated or more storied than the legendary Harris Tweed.
With a history stretching back for several centuries (perhaps even millennia), Harris Tweed is synonymous not only with quality and endurance, but timeless style as well.
Woven in the islands of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides – Lewis, Uist and Barra as well as Harris itself – Harris Tweed fabric has a distinctive charm and appearance, reflecting the rugged environment in which it has been produced for so many years.
The indelible link between this tweed and its place of origin, evident in the coarse textures and traditional colours of Harris Tweed apparel, adds to its remarkable character and goes a long way to explaining why it has remained such a firm favourite.
But what’s so special about this Scottish tweed, and what makes it unique? In this guide, we’ll take a look at the history of Harris Tweed, including its origins, its distinctive characteristics and the factors that propelled the fabric to the prominence it enjoys today.
What is Harris Tweed?
Harris Tweed is a cloth made from yarn; dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides and handwoven by local islanders in their own homes. There are, as you might expect, very stringent criteria in place to ensure that the Harris Tweed sold by shops is the genuine article.
How to recognise genuine Harris Tweed
The Harris Tweed Authority (HTA) has legal powers to enforce their standards, and works both to protect the reputation of the material and to guarantee quality for the benefit of consumers.
It is essential that these quality standards are met in order to secure the HTA’s endorsement as genuine Harris Tweed. Among other requirements, it is essential that only wool of the highest quality is used in the manufacturing process!
You can always tell when an item is genuine Harris Tweed, as it carries the HTA’s distinctive orb mark as a seal of approval, granted by the inspectors who examine the material. If it doesn’t have this, it isn’t legitimate Harris Tweed.
The origins of Harris Tweed
The precursors to modern-day Harris Tweed long predate modern industry. Cloth has been manufactured by hand in the Outer Hebrides for countless generations, originally for domestic and local trading purposes.
The practical uses of this cloth, in this environment, are obvious: given the tough, cold and wet climate, the local inhabitants – predominantly crofters – needed some robust protection against the elements. The material known to the Hebrideans simply as ‘Clò-Mòr’ (‘the big cloth’) provided it.
Harris Tweed’s rise to global popularity
However, Harris Tweed only rose to commercial prominence in the mid-19th century, when its popularity suddenly and rapidly took off. It was in this period that a local speciality became a national, and then a global consumer commodity.
Here the intervention of the local aristocracy proved crucial. Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore – widow of George Murray, 6th Earl of Dunmore and landowner of Harris – had the family’s tartan weaved into Harris Tweed.
Lady Dunmore had noted its quality and astutely saw that this tweed material had major commercial potential, and thus became an enthusiastic developer and promoter of the product.
Lady Dunmore’s role was particularly important in popularising Harris Tweed among the wider British nobility, among whom it soon became highly sought-after.
Of course, the popularity of Harris Tweed among the upper class quickly caught the attention of the upwardly-mobile middle class
as well; carrying as it did these connotations of social sophistication, and wearing Harris Tweed became an effective way of demonstrating that you were on your way up in the world.
From here, it found its way to mass popularity.
The charm of a rich heritage
Though a mass-market phenomenon these days, the noble origins of modern-day Harris Tweed have given it a lasting and distinctive allure which it retains in full.
The A-listers of Hollywood’s mid-20th century golden era were also susceptible to the charms of Harris Tweed (including the leading Rat Pack stars Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin) and it was even widely worn, apparently, by the secret agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War!
Harris Tweed today
The timeless quality of Harris Tweed, its outstanding longevity and its remarkable versatility all ensure that it remains an enduring favourite.
The popularity of Harris Tweed has never been dependent on trends: regardless of what’s going on elsewhere in the fashion world, this classic tweed continues to appeal to those looking for something with a sense of long-lasting heritage, over and above the ephemeral twists and turns of fashion.
Now widely embraced by some of the world’s leading designers and fashion houses, and used in everything from jackets and hats to wallets and holdalls, Harris Tweed continues to set the benchmark for adaptability, durability, quality and style – and we can expect that it will do so for many years to come.
Here at The Edinburgh Woollen Mill, you’ll find an extensive range of stylish, high-quality Harris tweed apparel and accessories. Take a closer look today – see what we’ve got to offer.