Harris Tweed update and book tips!

Regular readers will know that if there is a fabric of choice around these parts it’s tweed, of the Harris variety by choice (well, ok, we could be talking about denim as well, but not right now). I wrote a post about Harris Tweed almost a year ago, as a basic primer and intro to the wonderful woven wool. Since then the popularity of the Hebridean tweed has continued to gain popularity and production has now surpassed even the levels of the heydays of the 80’s.
Which got me wondering… After the previous peak in production, and subsequent decline, many weavers naturally gave up their home looms and took jobs with a more predictable and steady income. So how has production been able to increase so dramatically again, given that for years it was almost derelict? I’ll admit, I was more than a little suspicious. Is the tweed still being woven by the crofters, at home, using only foot-powered looms? Or is it being woven in factories, staffed by East-Europeans, preferring output to adhering to the legal premise that for it to be true Harris Tweed, it must be produced in the traditional way?
And also, where is all the wool coming from? Is the wool used in Harris Tweed all locally sourced?
So I sent an e-mail to the Harris Tweed Authority, high protectors of all matters related to Harris Tweed and asked some quite direct questions. And received a most gracious and long reply.
The Harris Tweed Authority confirms that production levels are constantly setting new record levels, from breaking the 1 million metres mark at the end of 2012, to 1.2 million metres at the end of 2013. That is a huge amount of tweed coming off the looms!

As it turns out though, the wool used in the tweed isn’t locally sourced. A lot of the sheep on the islands are of the Blackface variety, which are a hardy variety, but when the wool is graded, only a small percentage of a Blackface fleece would be the quality required for Harris Tweed. The locally produced wool fleece is shipped to the mainland and mainly goes into carpet manufacture.

The local production of wool has not been able to keep up with the levels required for the volume of Harris Tweed production, and in fact, with the price of wool having been so low, crofters on the islands were more concerned with the value of the meat, rather than the wool. And, as is the case with cows as well, there are different breeds for meat and milk. As the awareness of wool value is increasing, wool producers are seeing better sheep husbandry, resulting sheep with a better quality of wool.
So the wool actually used for Harris Tweed is British pure new wool. Which strikes me as a bit of a shame, but given the practical constraints it does make sense.
The Authority does confirm that the process of weaving is strictly adhered to, as is the demand that the woven cloth must be checked at all stages to confirm that it does conform to the terms of the act. It is quite clear that the focus is on producing genuine Harris Tweed, even in the face of a demand that must make it very tempting to be a little lenient with the process.
To quote directly from the email: “Watching the decline of the industry was too much for some, and as often happens in business, when people with a good idea get together, enthusiasm with a careful eye to there being an actual business to be made, results in success.
With the increased interest and production, more of the old patterns are being remade, fresh new patterns introduced, and new weavers seeing that there is a living to be made from the looms. From the slump of a few years ago, and the tragic meddling by Brian Haggas, the tweed industry is properly on the up again, with benefits for all involved, including the local community.
This does fill me with hope for the future of Harris Tweed, as I am sure it does for other aficionados and enthusiasts out there. I hope to visit the Hebrides this summer and will most definitely make a point of visiting the Harris Tweed Authority (and unless I’m rumbled I’ll probably poke around a few crofts to see what is really going on in their sheds!).
And while I’m on the subject of the Hebrides, I must recommend the books by Peter May. If you like Harris Tweed, and like me enjoy the stories behind things, these books are fantastic. The Lewis trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Chesssmen and The Lewis Man) are crime fiction in the classic British vein, but being set on the Hebridean islands gives them a unique twist.
May is very descriptive in his writing, so you get a real feel for the nature, weather and mentality of the islanders. The blackhouses, the ever changing weather, the peat and Stornoway. There is even the odd mention of tweed.
And if you don’t get enough sense of the place from the books alone, May has also produced an accompanying book of photography from the islands. If you hadn’t already cottoned on to what a singular place the Hebrides is, this really highlights it. A very worthwhile addition to the Lewis trilogy.
I’ve just read his latest book, Entry Island, and while set primarily on a Canadian island, it does link back to Lewis. While I enjoyed the book immensely, I do hope though that May picks up the thread of the trilogy again. There is much yet left to be unearthed in the peat moss on Lewis island.
Images on this page borrowed mainly from the photo album of the Facebook page of the Harris Tweed Authority, and from Peter May’s book, Hebrides.
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  • stan 11/02/2014 at 00:38

    I think the whole dyeing process and the process of weaving using the looms is more important than where the wool is from. Also I think I’d rather have a better quality base product even if it wasn’t from the islands.

    • Well Dressed Dad 11/02/2014 at 08:43

      No doubt the dye and weave is most important, but it would still have been a nice touch if the entire process was performed on the islands. Then again, as long as the tweed is according to the rules laid down, quality should be paramount. My real concern was whether they’d set up sweatshops to boost production, but it would appear all is as it should be.

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