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Scotland, Outer Hybrides, Harris Tweed (Credit: Credit: Kathryn MacLeod)

Harris Tweed: from island cloth to cutting-edge fashion

Uniquely made in the Scotland’s remote Outer Hebrides, Harris Tweed is beloved by fashionistas from across the globe, from Vivienne Westwood to Manolo Blahnik.

Luskentyre, on the Isle of Harris in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, is home to the kind of scenery more commonly associated with tropical locations: white sand and turquoise sea, framed by a row of hills in the distance.

Beautiful in any weather, it’s one of my favourite views on Earth. But on the grey spring day I found myself back in Harris, I wasn’t there to admire the view; I’d come to witness Harris Tweed weaving in action, something I hadn’t seen since my childhood in the neighbouring Isle of Lewis.

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It’s in Luskentyre, in the village by the beach, that Donald John Mackay has been weaving Harris Tweed since 1970. The handwoven cloth, unique to the islands of the Outer Hebrides, is soft and warm, available in rich colours and complex patterns that range from plain twills to traditional herringbones.

“My dad was a weaver, so we just grew up with it,” Mackay told me. In 1991, he and his wife Maureen set up the Luskentyre Harris Tweed Company, and in 2011 he was awarded an MBE for his services to the industry.

Working on an old single-width Hattersley loom in the shed by their home, Mackay designs his own patterns, and uses “the colours of the landscape, and the seascapes” as inspiration. That day in Luskentyre, Mackay made the intricate process of weaving look effortless, the clack-clack-clack motion of the warp and the weft coming together to create a tweed of brilliant blues and yellows reminiscent of the scenery outside.

“The palette reflects the landscape, where you were born and brought up,” said Sandra Murray, a Lewis-born couturier based in the Highlands who has dressed everyone from Nicola Benedetti to Queen Elizabeth II, and has used Mackay’s Harris Tweed. “Whether you like it or not, it’s part of your DNA."

Whether you like it or not, it’s part of your DNA

The similarity between landscape and cloth is not accidental. Harris Tweed, or Clò Mor (‘big cloth’) as it’s called in Gaelic, is intrinsically linked to the land that it comes from. Using local wool and natural dyes, islanders had been weaving the fabric for their own use for centuries, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Harris Tweed became a sought-after textile elsewhere, thanks to the marketing efforts of Lady Dunmore, whose late husband had owned the Isle of Harris. Now it’s the only cloth in the world with a protected provenance, governed by a British Act of Parliament that ensures Harris Tweed must be ‘handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides’.

There are about 400 islanders employed in the industry – which was first formalised at the turn of the 20th Century – and they’re involved at every stage of the process. And it’s a unique one: Harris Tweed is the world’s only commercially handwoven tweed, but unlike most commercial textiles, the process begins with the dyeing of pure new wool rather than spun wool, or yarn.

“We have a colour that is hard to surpass, primarily because we dye the wool,” explained Mark Hogarth, creative director at Harris Tweed Hebrides, currently the largest producer of Harris Tweed. “So even before you get to the complexity of the pattern and the weaving process, we have a real high-end, quality base product.”

Murray feels the same about the dye process. “It means you can have injections of all kinds of weird and wonderful colour combinations that gives you this mélange, which is much more difficult to get any other way. That makes it unique,” she said.

I caught a glimpse of this in action at the Shawbost Mill on the Isle of Lewis, home to Harris Tweed Hebrides. The low white building is nestled at the edge of a loch, with moorland visible beyond; the scent of new, unwashed wool met me before I even stepped inside and watched it being loaded into dye drums.

After being dyed at the mills, different colours of wool are blended to specific recipes, before being carded and spun into yarn and then sent out to the homes of weavers across the islands. Once woven, the cloth returns to the mill, where the length of tweed is ‘finished’ – small holes are darned, the fabric is washed and dried, stray hairs are cropped and the textile finally examined – before being stamped with the all-important Orb symbol, the trademark of Harris Tweed.

From there, Harris Tweed goes global. It’s shipped to buyers as near as London and as far afield as Tokyo, used in couture houses in Paris and seen on catwalks and city streets around the world. Mackay has created tweeds for Chanel, Clarks and Converse, and made headlines when Nike approached him in 2003; the resulting order for thousands of metres of tweed, used in a new range of trainers, helped to significantly boost the industry.

Despite the cyclical nature of the fashion industry, Harris Tweed is – and has long been – a fabric in demand. The colourful ‘Chelsea Set’ patterns were popular with tailors in 1960s London, when tweeds of all hues were used for the newly fashionable miniskirt. By the late 1980s, British designer Vivienne Westwood had rediscovered Harris Tweed, encountering an agent from the then-largest mill, Kennneth Mackenzie Ltd, one time in London. Her Autumn/Winter 1987 Harris Tweed collection, shown at London Fashion Week, featured fitted red tweed jackets; a tweed version of her signature ‘Mini-Crini’, a mini crinoline; and even a playful tweed crown. Designers like Ralph Lauren and Chanel have had similar fascinations with Harris Tweed over the years, too.

The process by which the cloth is made is not ‘trendy’ at all, but timeless

Today, Harris Tweed continues to appeal to the fashion world at all levels. The current season, Hogarth said, is a particularly exciting one for Harris Tweed, with clients including Erdem, Prada and Manolo Blahnik. Blahnik’s shoes, made from bright, jewel-toned tweeds, show the strength of Harris Tweed’s unique colours; the shade of a purple high heel bears more than a passing resemblance to the heather that blooms on the hills of Harris.

What makes Harris Tweed so desirable at the cutting edge of fashion is the fact that the process by which the cloth is made is not ‘trendy’ at all, but timeless – resulting in a luxury fabric that is deeply rooted in tradition, heritage and place.

“There has been a real shift in the consumer’s love of things handmade, of things of quality,” said Lorna Macaulay, chief executive of the Harris Tweed Authority, the statutory body that acts as ‘guardian’ of the Orb mark, and of the industry. “We are really lucky that we don’t have to concoct that story. Our job is retelling that story of this handwoven cloth from the Outer Hebrides, with real history, heritage and provenance, to a new generation.”

There’s a depth to the cloth, not just in its tones, colours and complex patterns, but in its history

When a customer buys something made from Harris Tweed – a coat, a pair of shoes, even a chair – what they are getting is a piece of the Outer Hebrides. There’s a depth to the cloth, not just in its tones, colours and complex patterns, but in its history and the journey it’s been on across these Scottish islands.

It’s one reason why I wear a Harris Tweed blazer myself, in a deep burgundy with flecks of red and purple. I can slip it on anywhere in the world – on a crisp autumn day in New York or a drizzly Edinburgh afternoon – and it takes me back, if just for a fleeting moment, to the moors, mountains and beaches of the place I call home, the Outer Hebrides.

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