Harris Tweed: The Cloth of Scotland
Posted: Nov 10 2015
Harris Tweed is a fabric so textured that one can almost read its story running a finger over the intricate yarns; a story about Scotland, a land of strong accents and stronger resolve, but also of velvety whiskies and clear loch waters. The story is set in the Outer Hebrides, more precisely on the Isle of Harris, where temperamental skies, ice blue seas, sharp black stone and green pastures have inspired craftsmen handweaving Harris Tweed for over 170 years.
For almost as long (well...), we at Tailor On Ten have been dreaming of stocking these legendary fabrics - and we finally do, providing a refreshing touch to what is sometimes known as stiff old grandpa’s jackets. Ours come perfectly fitted, expertly finished with high-end linings, buttons etc, and all made in-house by our master tailors. But let’s get back to the subject; let’s dream away to Scotland for a moment and revel in the rich history and incredible craftsmanship that makes Harris Tweed a true sartorial icon.
Tweed, or clo mor (big cloth) as the islanders call it, was initially worn to face stern weather, all while blending in with nature. Scottish and Irish islanders hand wove thick, coarse tweed to protect themselves from the extremely damp weather conditions, while withstanding hard physical work. Tweed became so integrated into the islanders lives that it was customary to use surplus cloth to barter or pay for rent and bills with blankets. The jump from everyman’s functional object to desireable artisanal cloth was thanks to the country gentlemen of the time seeing value in the fabric, and commissioning estate tweeds.
Estate tweeds were used by gamekeepers and ghillies at first, but the weather resistant properties of the fabric quickly turned clo mor into a must have for the gentry, who had versatile hunting gear fashioned out of it. The muted earth tones of the intricate patterns also worked as camouflage, mimicking the dominant features of the landscape of each estate, and transforming tweed garments into the perfect wear for deer stalking.
The success of the tweeds from the Isle of Harris followed the same evolution after the beautiful cloth was brought to the attention of Lady Dunmore in 1846. Lady Dunmore was so impressed by the beauty of the cloth, that shortly after commissioning a tweed for her North Harris estate, she became an advocate for the craftsmanship of the islanders.
Over the years Harris Tweed became a cloth so revered, that British lawmakers protected it by introducing decrees as far back as the 1930s. Since that first decree, what defines a Harris Tweed has evolved, and today a simple sentence encompasses the history of this tradition;
“Pure virgin Scottish wool, spun, cut, and dyed in the outer Hebrides and woven by hand by the islanders in their homes on the islands of Harris, Lewis, Uist and Barra.”
To this day, Harris Tweed stands as the only fabric in the world with origin protection of its name, joining the ranks of other inimitable products, such as Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Being based in Thailand, we have a deep appreciation for hand woven fabrics, where cottage industries have produced wonderful fabrics for centuries, albeit at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum; light and bright, for life in the sun.
The Harris Tweed brand belongs to the Outer Hebrides’ islanders, and is symbolized by the iconic Orb, a label provided with every Harris Tweed garment, which guarantees authenticity, quality and the rich character the fabric is known for. The Orb is awarded and governed by the Harris Tweed Authority, or 'the Guardians of the Orb’. Their control procedures ensure that each bolt of cloth respects the standards imposed by legislation and enforced by the authority, making certain that all Harris Tweed is hand woven on a treadle loom at each weaver's home. The seal of quality also guarantees the Scottish origin of the wool, and the standards used during the spinning and warping processes. To achieve the deep hues the fabrics are known for, the wool is yarn dyed, and even a single yarn can contain several colors. The resulting fabric treads a perfect line between natural and vibrant.
Harris Tweed is hand made, using techniques largely unchanged since their inception. This gives the fabric its distinctive look and properties, making for a cloth as rough and coarse as the Scottish accent, but also of exquisite beauty, reminiscent of Scotland’s dramatic landscapes; of emerald highlands, blooming heather and wind-swept islands. The hand woven nature of the cloth leads to a rough texture, with slight irregularities that create a truly unique fabric. Its heavier weight harks back to a time long before the race for Super numbers, and you can feel the unhurried pace of life that forges this extremely durable fabric. The thickness of the fabric imposes a sense of safety, having provided protection for islanders from the elements for hundreds of years.
The fact that every inch of fabric is lovingly hand woven by a small number of skilled craftsmen means that the supply of Harris Tweed is very limited, adding to it a degree of preciousness. Like many exclusive things, it is also a sound investment, thanks to both its unrivaled durability and the its timeless style. Look at any menswear blog and you’d think that strong-color checked jackets was a recent trend, while, in fact, the islanders of Harris has been perfecting the look for centuries.
For all its practical benefits, the biggest reason we at Tailor On Ten love Harris Tweed is for its sublime beauty, which it inherits from the landscapes surrounding the craftsmen every day. The colors have an incomparable richness, the patterns draw their inspiration from the Scottish tartans to achieve a balance between colorful and classic, and even the tactile nature of the fabric is evocative of heathered fields. Harris Tweed is a fabric so infused with history and so strongly connected to the country that fostered it, that the geographic protection status it enjoys seems obvious. It is the sort of fabric that makes you long for harsh winters, walks along rugged shores and generous servings of peaty whisky.
We are very proud to stock a range of genuine Harris Tweeds, and we will be more than happy to take you on a journey to the highlands when you come to the store, when we visit your city with our trunk shows, in our lookbook, or when you browse our selection online.