The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Harris Tweed weaving

 

The hand-weaving of ‘Harris Tweed’ in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

Harris Tweed has its own Act of Parliament and is protected, promoted and authenticated by the Harris Tweed Authority (HTA). Harris Tweed must be made from 100% pure virgin wool, dyed and spun at one of the HTA’s 3 mills, hand-woven by a registered weaver here on the Outer Hebrides, finished at one of the mills and finally inspected and authenticated by a member of the HTA.

 

Status Currently viable
Craft category  Textiles
Historic area of significance  Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Area currently practised  Outer Hebrides, Scotland (by an Act of Parliament, ‘Harris Tweed’ can only be produced in the Outer Hebrides)
Origin in the UK
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  201-500 (across the industry as a whole, including producers’ retailers, admin workers, mill workers and the HTA)
Current no. of trainees
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  234 (August 2016) – 193 double-width weavers and 41 single-width weavers.
Current total no. of craftspeople  201-500 (including mill workers and weavers)

 

History

The inhabitants of the Western Isles of Scotland like those in many parts of the country manufactured cloth, entirely by hand, for domestic and local use, long before the industrial revolution reached Scotland. ‘Clò-Mòr’ (‘Big Cloth’), later called ‘Harris Tweed’ was one of the fabrics manufactured by hand, by the islanders, from their own wool, in their cottages during the long winter evenings.

It is generally accepted that Clò-Mòr was first referred to as Harris Tweed when the Countess of Dunmore, widow of the landowner of Harris, the Earl of Dunmore, took an interest in the cloth about 1840, choosing to have their clan tartan replicated by Harris weavers in tweed. The tweed was so successful that Lady Dunmore took it upon herself to marketing the tweed to her wealthy friends on the mainland, as well as closer to home. The island cloth soon became an established product with merchants across the country.

There are many different products on the market today using Harris Tweed. Locally, with a number of independent artisans making products such as bags, purses, tablet and phone cases, key rings, cushions, ties, hoodies, clothing, furnishings etc.

Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world governed by its own Act of Parliament. From start to finish the cloth is in the hands of skilled and experienced artisans who oversee every stage of production utilising generations of knowledge to produce a product worthy of the name Harris Tweed. Harris Tweed must be made from 100% pure virgin wool, dyed and spun at one of the Harris Tweed Authority’s (HTA) 3 mills, hand-woven by a registered weaver here on the Outer Hebrides, finished at one of the mills and finally inspected and authenticated by a member of the HTA.

 

Techniques

The wool is dyed prior to being spun (as opposed to dying spun yarn), allowing the different colours of wool to be blended, creating a myriad of shades and hues. The wool is then carded between mechanical, toothed rollers which tease and mix the fibres thoroughly before it is separated into a fragile, embryonic yarn.

This soft yarn is then spun to give it maximum strength for weaving. The spun yarn is wound onto bobbins to provide the ingredients of weft (left to right threads) and warp (vertical threads). This vitally important and very skilled process sees thousands of warp threads gathered in long hanks in very specific order and wound onto large beams ready to be delivered, together with yarn for the weft, to the weavers at their homes.

All Harris Tweed is woven on a treadle loom at each weaver’s home, not at a mill, as required by the Act of Parliament. The warp and yarns for the weft arrive from the mill, and then the weaver sets to work hand-tying the new yarns to the tail-ends of the previous weave, to make it easier to thread onto the loom. It is then a matter of steadily weaving the cloth, always observing and therefore being able to correct and mend their creation until it is complete.

The tweed returns to the mill in its ‘greasy state’ and here it passes through the nimble hands of experienced and sharp-eyed darners who correct even the smallest of flaws. Once ready, the cloth is finished. Dirt, oil and other impurities are removed by washing and beating in soda and soapy water, before it is dried, steamed, pressed and cropped to a perfect, flawless condition.

 

Local forms

By an Act of Parliament, Harris Tweed can only be made in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The HTA and all three mills and are located on the Isle of Lewis. Currently, all registered weavers live throughout Lewis and Harris.

 

Sub-crafts

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Harris Tweed does depend on the market and fashion trends to ensure that there is a demand for the cloth.
  • With Harris Tweed having its own Act of Parliament, we have to ensure that all of our cloth is made from 100% pure virgin wool, dyed and spun at one of our 3 mills, hand woven by a registered weaver here on the Outer Hebrides, finished at one of the mills and finally inspected and authenticated by a member of the HTA. However, a lot of people find this part of the charm of Harris Tweed.
  • Obtaining a loom is currently the greatest challenge for all wishing to enter into the sector, and this is something that potential weavers have to source before they can begin training.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

The Harris Tweed Authority maintains a database of all the registered weavers in the industry

 

Other information

As of August 2016, there are:

  • 193 double width weavers
  • 41 single width weavers
  • Additionally, each of the three mills has its own team of designers, warpers, carders etc., and each stage of production has someone overseeing the cloth
  • Including weavers and the the producers’ retailers, admin workers, mill workers and the HTA, you’re looking at 201-500, which the industry is sitting happily at. This figure does not include the independent crafts people all over the world, who make products with our cloth. These answers are based on the Harris Tweed industry alone, here on Lewis and Harris.

 

References

  • Lawson, Ian. From the Land comes the Cloth.
  • Hunter, Janet. The Islanders and the Orb.
  • Platman, Lara. Harris Tweed, From Land to Street.