Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Harris Tweed: A Journey to the Heart of the Hebrides

Looking into a piece of Harris tweed with a magnifying glass is like chasing down a fractal: you never quite seem to reach the end of the colours and textures in its depths. The cloth reflects its origins on Scotland's beautiful but exposed western Atlantic fringes. From the vast peaty moors of Lewis to the beautiful beaches, mountains and inlets of Harris, the Outer Hebrides are so interwoven with the tweeds they produce that its hard to appreciate the one without the other.

The white beaches of Harris

Harris tweed colours

Earlier this year I was privileged to be a guest of The Harris Tweed Authority on a journey to discover this most wonderful of tweeds. I knew, of course, that the cloth is woven in the homes of islanders, but the details of its story had escaped me. I gave a visual tour of its production on my Instagram account at the time and reproduce a few images here. 

To be a true Harris tweed, stamped with the Harris Tweed Authority seal of approval, the Orb, various legal requirements have to be met; in particular the need for it to be woven at home in Harris and Lewis, rather than in a mill. It's a product of a close partnership between three mills and a group of individual weavers who produce the cloths which are so appreciated around the world.

I visited one of the mills that prepare and dye the wool (Harris Tweed Hebrides in Shawbost; see images below), spin it into yarn which is warped onto beams which are sent out to the weavers for the cloth to be woven. The weaver adds the weft to the warp and returns the cloth to the mill to be finally washed and checked, stamped with the Orb and distributed. This isn’t a mass-produced product, it’s a home-made cloth that contains the essence of the islands in which it’s made. The depth of colour results from the wool being dyed before spinning, rather than the yarn being dyed after it's been spun. The process is illustrated below:

Dying the wool

Blending colours to make the tweed required

Spinning the yarn

Warping the yarn onto a beam to be sent to the weavers to complete the cloth in their homes

Once back from the weavers the cloth is carefully finished (washed to make it softer), checked for defects and has the famous Orb applied before being packed and despatched all over the world.

The weavers return the woven cloth to the mill for finishing and checking

Checking the cloth to ensure it's perfect

The orb is applied - I was given a length of this very cloth

I also visited some of the weavers in their homes (below). Most work in weaving sheds next to their houses on modern looms that weave full width cloth. Some still use older Hattersley looms, which produce half width cloth. Some carry out the whole process, from warping to weaving, rather than relying on a mill to deliver the warped beams. These few produce limited runs of unique cloth that are much sought after. 

At present the future of Harris tweed and the craft of weaving looks secure; but it would be more so if we all appreciated the value of this product and went out of our way to support it by buying Harris tweed off-the-peg clothing, furnishings and accessories or by asking our tailors for it by name

Weaving the cloth

A Hattersley loom

Donald John McKay MBE, with his Hattersley loom (top) and his own tweeds, used by tailors such as Brita Hirsch

I was pleased to be given a length of Harris tweed during my visit to Shawbost. I'm collaborating with bespoke tailor Brita Hirsch to make this into a jacket showpiecing the best of tailoring and the best of Scottish tweed; but that's another story: keep an eye on my Instagram account and on here for more.

I'm grateful to Leica UK for lending me a Leica Q for the trip. I'm no photographer, but the quality of the images it captured, often in dark weaving sheds, was quite outstanding. The top two and final three images here are taken with the Leica Q, the remainder with my Fuji X100S.

I'm very grateful indeed to the Harris Tweed Authority, whose guest I was. I received no payment. All views are my own.

Harris Tweed Authority - here you can find out more about how the tweed is made

Harris Tweed; From Land to Street by Lara Platman - a photographer looks at everyone involved in making the cloth.
From The Land Comes the Cloth by Ian Lawson - a sumptuous photographic record.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I have a few Harris Tweed jackets and love wearing them in Winter. It is not just the colors in the tweed but the texture as well. Great to look at and great to touch.

I had heard that the Harris Tweed cloth range had gone from several thousands of patterns down to only a handful a few years ago. Has this changed?


Matthew Pike said...

What's the story behind the orb? I'd love to hear more about ot actually, as it's something I see but never really understood much about the design.

I'm also using the Leica Q at the moment, still not quite mastered it though.

Buckets & Spades

Keith Douglas said...

A very interesting article, about a wonderful product. I purchased my first Harris jacket while at Agricultural college in 1981, where everyone wore them. I now have around a dozen, which are great for working outdoors, indoors, going to classical concerts, shopping, travel and so forth. Tweed, it's all a chap needs!

Myrmecia said...

I bought my first in 1967, a Daks hacking jacket in a colour and cut I have yet to find bettered. I always appreciated the craftsmanship that went into the fabric and the detail work inside with the lining. I hope the Tweed Ride people - some of whom look rather foppish - appreciate the very un-foppish (even dour) and committed people who make our tweeds - and make them possible.

grey fox said...

Thank you all for your memories and thoughts on Harris tweed it does that to people and we grow fond of it.

I don't now the story of the orb and will try to remember to find out.


Jacket Man said...

In respect of the first comment, yes, for while a few years ago, there was only 4 patterns being produced. This was due to a chap from yorkshire buying the one working mill and telling everyone he could make the industry profitable again - economies of scale i guess. Whilst he was unpopular, many islanders said he forced them to reflect on their product and the way it was produced and sold. Thankfully two other mills started production again and now with the good times back, there are lots of patterns to chose from. My advice , check out Walker Slater, Margaret Howell and Nigel Cabourn as they use more rare patterns with superb levels of quality.

grey fox said...

Indeed - things are looking up. Thank you Jacket Man.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...