Do you feel the need for Tweed?
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
You would be hard pushed to find someone who doesn't recognise the distinctive appearance of Tweed and associate it with Scotland. For a relatively small nation, that is an impressive claim!
What you might not realise is how diverse the range of Harris Tweed is. Historically, this notoriously coarse and scratchy fabric has been made in a mixture of murky colours, inspired by the land and terrain where its wearers walked.
These days, with modern capabilities and changing tastes, Harris Tweed has expanded into a world of bright and vibrant fabrics, creating a smorgasbord of traditional and novel uses.
Here at Bearded Seagull we have a photographer who is addicted to capturing all things Harris related and we have a tweed obsessed seamstress in our ranks who yearns for the chance to sew with the finest Harris Tweed available.
As we have accumulated some know-how in this somewhat niche area, we thought we would share some of our wisdom and pretty fabric pictures for your viewing pleasure.
So, without further ado, let's delve into the fascinating world of Harris Tweed...
What is Harris Tweed?
At its most basic level, Tweed is simply a woven woollen fabric featuring distinctive Scottish patterns (namely Plain Twills, Plaids and Herringbones)
To leave its description at that, however, would be a crime and Scots would, understandably, be up in arms. Why? Well, the fact they have been hand-making hundreds of variations of this national treasure for thousands of years comes into it. Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world that is produced in substantial commercial quantities, completely by traditional methods.
As you read on and discover how much a labour of love each piece is, you will come to realise how extraordinary and impressive that claim to fame is!
Unsurprisingly, given it is made from wool, Tweed is made to last. It is strong, curable, breathable and warm. If you invest in a Harris Tweed garment, you expect to be wearing it years later.
Consequently, it has the well earned reputation of being a quality product, "woven with love and care". It is famous for being hand woven by knowledgable experts, who hand down their expertise through their families, generation after generation.
It is an encapsulation of character and heritage.
How is Harris Tweed made?
Every stage of Harris Tweed creation happens at the mill, apart from the weaving. An Act of Parliament dictates that all of the weaving must be done by hand in the homes of Islanders.
The wool arrives and is dyed, using natural dyes, in large, closed vats, often recreating the colours of Scottish landscapes. It is unusual for wool to be dyed before it is spun but for Harris Tweed, this is the process. It is deliberately dyed unevenly using base colours.
Amazingly, only a few dozen base colours are used to dye the batches of wool. These base colours are then mixed in set recipes to create practically any natural shade. This allows for a plethora of colours to be blended into the yarn. Consequently, no two yarns are identically coloured - it is intentionally not perfectly uniform. Each is covered in a mixture of colours adding to the depth, complexity and richness of the fabric.
Now all pretty and colourful, the wool needs to be spin dried and then tumble dried. This ensures the wool is completely dry before it is mixed and mingled into yarns.
As mentioned before, multiple coloured wools are mixed, in exact proportions, to create the exact yarn colour required. Once they have been precisely weighed out they need to be pulled apart, by hand, to distribute the colours more evenly, ready for blending.
In the blending process, the mixed wool is sucked into a shredder so the fibres are more finely blended. This process makes the mixture much more light and fluffy, but the colours are still quite granular.
Teasing and carding help to straighten and sort the individual wool fibres. Ultimately, the spiked rollers in the carding machine turn the mat of fibres into ribbons of fine threads by straightening the fibres and fluffing up the wool. This stage in the process also removes any bits of plants or dirt, improving the integrity of the final yarn. This process is repeated for a period of time to gradually make the threads lighter and fluffier, ready for spinning into yarn.
A roving machine is then used to turn groups of fibres into loose threads. At this stage the thread is very weak and can be easily pulled apart by hand. The spinning process twists the threads repeatedly to build up tensile strength.
The threads are then setup on a warping frame, ready for the weaving process. "Warp" refers to the longitudinal threads and "weft" refers to the vertical threads. The threads are grouped together and positioned precisely, so the threads are in place for creating the pattern of choice for that particular fabric.
The Islanders then take the loaded looms to their homes to complete the weaving stage. All Harris Tweed is weaved by human power alone, no machines are involved. The setting up takes a long time, even for the most skilled weavers. This is because each yarn needs to be hand-tied to the tail-end of the previous weave.
The weaving process itself takes a while, gradually building up inch by inch. The weaver has to frequently stop to repair stray threads and replace the thread in the weft shuttles. A single weaving session can take 13 hours, a full day, to create a single piece of Harris Tweed. This is part of the reason it is such a premium and sought after fabric.
Once made, the fabric returns to the mill for a thorough inspection to check for imperfections on a light table. Any broken or stray threads are darned and mended by hand, making this a time consuming process. Usually there aren't many faults as the Islanders are so skilled and experienced in their craft. They take great pride in the fine quality fabrics they produce and maintain high standards.
As the fabric is made from natural fibres obtained from sheep fleeces, they inevitably contain some natural oils, including lanolin, and impurities. These are washed out in cold water, known as "waulking", on a machine which resembles a small water wheel. The rotations of the wheel both remove the impurities and stretch the fabric, matting it and making it softer and more resilient.
Traditionally, to achieve this effect people would have walked on the fabric, in the cold water, hence the term waulking. They also added urine to the cold water to introduce ammonia for a cleansing effect, unlike today's process which uses just pure water!
The tweed is then dried, pressed, checked again and trimmed ready for the formal inspection. An inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority visits the mills regularly, to check that the newly manufactured pieces meet the quality criteria set out in the Act of Parliament. If they do, they are assigned the famous orb stamp on both ends and the legal certification paperwork is issued.
The fabric is then assigned its own unique label, rolled up and dispatched to its new owner.
Where is it made?
Harris...that much is obvious, but in case you are not familiar with the layout of Scotland...
The Isle of Harris is an island about half way up Scotland's chain of Outer Hebridean islands.
Where are the Outer Hebrides? Okay, if you only know Edinburgh and Glasgow...head west and up. When you look at a weather forecast map you might have noticed a scattering of islands in the top left of the British Isles, that's the Hebrides. You might presume the weather up there is always wet and miserable but in reality they have some glorious weather too.
As the name suggests, the Outer Hebrides are the line of islands furthest out (the last ones before the expanse of the Atlantic ocean stretches out towards America).
I say Harris, but in actual fact "Harris Tweed" is made across a few northern Outer Hebridean islands. The mills are mostly situated on Lewis, whilst many of the traditional weavers are Harris residents, operating from looms in their garden sheds! The industry also stretches into North Uist and Barra, but the heart of the operation is most definitely between Lewis and Harris.
History of Harris Tweed
Harris Tweed has been made in the Hebrides for a very, very long time. It was only half way through the 19th Century though that it ventured beyond local communities.
In 1846 Lady Dunmore, a wealthy landowner on Harris, commissioned local weavers to create a version of her family clan's tartan in tweed. Happy with the results, she told her wealthy friends about it and before long merchants were trading Harris Tweed across the country.
Having established its place as a sought after fabric amongst the upper classes, its position as an expensive, high quality fabric was confirmed. Demand started to soar and the islanders (across Harris, Lewis, Uist and Barra) responded by increasing their manufacturing capabilities.
In the early 1900s a lot of change and progress in the industry occurred. New carding and spinning mills popped up across Lewis and a certification process was established in 1909. The industry was lucrative and a financial lifeline for the islanders, so they wanted to protect their creations from being copied and devalued.
Their solution was to introduce the Harris Tweed orb emblem, still seen today on genuine Harris Tweed goods. In order to be awarded this certification mark, the tweed has to be made by traditional methods on the islands and has to pass stringent quality inspections. This means the material has to be spun, dyed and hand-woven on the islands.
The Trademark Definition was updated in 1934 to allow mill-spun yarn to be used, alongside the traditional hand-spun yarn, enabling increased production to meet global demand. By 1966 this demand had reached its peak of 7.6 million yards!
Demand isn't anywhere near as high any more, but following a slump it has seen a resurgence in the last decade. Between 2009 and 2010 around 1 million metres of cloth were manufactured, the highest amount for 17 years and over double the previous year's figure.
Bear in mind that these days there are only around 150 self-employed islanders weaving in their homes and 125 workers in the Lewis mills, the fact they manage to make as much as they do is amazing.
The Uniform of a Spy
Interestingly, during the Cold War, US spies operating behind the Iron Curtain wore Harris Tweed jackets as a secret uniform, allowing them to easily and discreetly identify one another.
Japan is Calling...in a Limo
One of the fabulous things about visiting these beautiful islands is the fact you can discover so much about the local goings on and the history of these extraordinary places. A particular favourite tale of mine was courtesy of a local legend, "Don Jon" of Luskentyre Harris Tweed.
Donald John, to use his full name, is famous for being one of the best Harris Tweed weavers. He operates from an unassuming, purpose built shed perched on the front drive of his house, located along the single track road to Losgaintir (Luskentyre to non-Gaelic speakers).
Apart from the occasional car passing to go to the beach, this road is a quiet idyll overlooking the magnificent blue waters of the expansive bay and mountains behind. The neighbouring crofters and their sheep dogs can be spotted tending to their sheep in the hills and Taransay island (of BBC Castaway TV fame) juts up from the ocean.
Unlike other industry leaders exploiting their fame and reaping in the cash, Don Jon just happily goes about doing what he loves here in this zen spot, weaving some of the finest Harris Tweed in existence, with a hand written sign in the window inviting passing people to pop in and watch if they wish.
So imagine his surprise when one day, in quiet rural Harris, near the end of a long dead-end track, a limo rolls up outside his door. I think it is safe to say the Outer Hebrides are probably low on limousines driving on their rural roads cutting through moon type rugged landscapes!
Out of the limo climbed a well dressed Japanese man, who it turned out had flown in especially to see Don Jon's tweed in person. Why? This gentleman worked for Nike, that rather famous sports brand, who wanted to feature DonJon's Harris Tweed on their next limited edition trainers!
What happened next helped to boost the popularity of Harris Tweed and launch it back into the mainstream. Nike ordered nearly 10,000 metres of fabric, an incredibly big order for such a small operation, to be delivered in only half a year!
Don't believe me? Check out this news article from back in 2004...
If this post has whet your appetite for all things Harris related, check out our online shop at www.beardedseagull.com, where you can find some lovely greetings cards and prints of Harris wildlife, including the popular white horses running along Luskentyre Beach.
We are Bearded Seagull Arts & Crafts Collective - a group of artists and crafters who have joined together to share and promote the products we make, selling a few along the way and inspiring others as we go.
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