HARRIS TWEED

Tweed has been made in the Outer Hebrides for several centuries, initially for use and trade between islanders. From the mid-nineteenth century, the Countess of Dunmore, widow of the landowner in Harris, began to promote the island’s tweeds to her aristocratic friends. This was so successful and the demand for tweed for sporting-wear so high that an industry was launched.

The colours and patterns of Harris Tweed are inspired by the land- and seascapes of the islands. Wool from island and Scottish mainland sheep is combined and dyed before being spun, originally with dyestuffs available on the islands, but now with commercial dyes. As production grew, mills were set up in Lewis to process the wool and the finished cloth. To protect it from imitations, the Harris Tweed Association Ltd was formed in 1909 and the trademark orb and cross registered in 1910.

The industry was reformed in the early 1990s and given further protection by an Act of Parliament in 1993, stating that Harris Tweed is “Hand-woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.” 

Now there are three mills in Lewis and self-employed weavers create the cloth on hand-looms at their homes, returning it to the mills for finishing and distribution. Over the past century, tweed has grown from a fabric for country sports, to being favoured by fashion and interior designers.

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd.,
Designer Harris, 1980s-1990s; ref. no. GD14/7/5
© Tasglann nan Eilean

The close relationship between Harris Tweed’s textures and colours, and the island landscapes in which it is produced, inspires artists and photographers too. Photographer Ian Lawson writes, “I travelled to the Outer Hebrides to gain a deeper understanding of these ancient islands. Losing myself in the elements, I found a place abounding with life and deeply entwined in the age-old art of weaving Harris Tweed… As I began to photograph the landscape, the people and the cloth, I started to see patterns emerge. A beat began and the rhythm of Harris Tweed flowed into my consciousness and into my pictures. Herringbone, hound’s tooth, basket weave, bird’s eye, glen check, windowpane – evocative names for original Harris Tweed patterns. The closer I looked, the more beautiful and complex the patterns became. They are about the relations between and within – the ties of labour that bind Hebrideans to the weaving landscapes of their making.” Lawson’s photographic “story of landscape, people and tweed” across the Outer Hebrides has been published as Saorsa, Gaelic for “freedom” or “liberty”.   

Visit Ian’s website here.

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd. advertisement,
1935; ref. no. GD14/4/1/11/3
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd. advertisement,
1941; ref. no. GD14/4/1/11/3
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd. advertisement,
Punch, 1942; ref. no. GD14/4/1/11/3
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd. advertisement,
1953; ref. no. GD14/4/1/11/3
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd. advertisement,
1955; ref. no. GD14/4/1/11/3
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd. advertisement,
1956; ref. no. GD14/4/1/11/3
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd. advertisement,
The Ambassador,Autumn 1971; ref. no. GD14/7/5
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd.,
Upholstery in Harris Tweed, 1970s; ref. no. GD14/6/1/2
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ The Harris Tweed Association Ltd.,
Harris, Freedom and The American Way, 1980s-1990s; ref. no. GD14/7/5
© Tasglann nan Eilean

The Harris Tweed Association Ltd., The Laura Biagiotti Harris Portfolio: Harris Tweed for a New Age of Elegance, 1980s-1990s; ref. no. GD14/7/5
The Harris Tweed Association Ltd., Harris Horizons: sketching in future fashions, 1980s-1990s; ref. no. GD14/7/5
The Harris Tweed Association Ltd., The Designer’s Eye falls on Harris Tweed, 1980s-1990s; ref. no. GD14/7/5
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Gathering the flock for the Shearing’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/1
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Sheep Shearing. The women do most of the work here, as elsewhere!’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/2
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Shorn fleeces’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/3
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Washing before Dyeing (wool)’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/4
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Dyeing wool with the famous Crotal dye made from lichen which grows on the rocks beside the sea’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/5
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Drying the dyed crotal wool. The smell cannot be photographed. Note the poor over-worked crofter on the right’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/6
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Hand carding the wool. The mills of God may grind slowly but they are swift compared with this process’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/7
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Winding Yarns into hanks. Hand Spinning’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/8
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Beaming yarn for the looms’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/9
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘An old wooden loom in action. This old man is an expert and feels quite young at 93’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/10
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Examining the tweed for finish’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/11
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Washing the tweed. Note the young lady in the tub on the extreme right. She does a sort-of dance on the tweed!’,
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/12
© Tasglann nan Eilean

^ ‘Washing tweed,’
1920s-1930s; ref. no. GD14/9/5/1/13
© Tasglann nan Eilean

Many of the photographs, below, of Harris Tweed production in Tasglann nan Eilean are by Gösta Sandberg of Alingsås, Sweden. He is a retired museum photographer who visited the Outer Hebrides on holiday in summer 1977 when he was a recent graduate and donated his photographs to the archive in 2017.

< Raw wool before washing, Shawbost Mill (Kenneth MacLeod Ltd), 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/4/31
© Tasglann nan Eilean

> Washing wool in a large vat; there are packs of plastic-wrapped raw wool in the background; Shawbost Mill, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg ; ref. no. GD034/4/17
© Tasglann nan Eilean

< Large machine for drying off the wool after washing, Shawbost Mill, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/4/18
© Tasglann nan Eilean

> The dyed wool is lifted out of a dye-pot and is lowered into the machine which will dry the wool, late 1970s-1980s; ref. no. GD14/9/4/2-13t
© Tasglann nan Eilean

< Coloured wool after dyeing, Shawbost Mill, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/4/30
© Tasglann nan Eilean

>Carding machine with wool running through it and two more carding machines in the background at Shawbost Mill, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/4/22
© Tasglann nan Eilean

< Spinning machine with wool running down onto spools, Shawbost Mill, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/4/24
© Tasglann nan Eilean

>From six spools of slightly different coloured wool, the warp is prepared for delivery to the weaver to set up on their loom; Shawbost Mill, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/4/19
© Tasglann nan Eilean

< John MacDonald checking tweed on the loom inside his weaving shed with bags of dyed wool, bobbins and scraps of tweed, Shawbost, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/3/62
© Tasglann nan Eilean

> Clansman Holdings van collecting tweed from weaver, Shawbost, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/3/27
© Tasglann nan Eilean

< Checking tweed for flaws at Shawbost Mill, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/4/4
© Tasglann nan Eilean

> The first stage of the mill finishing processes where the cloth is scoured (washed) to remove oil added during yarn production;
1950s-1960s; ref. no. GD14/9/4/2-8t
© Tasglann nan Eilean

< After washing, the tweed is ‘milled’ by machine, taking the place of ‘waulking’ by hand. Heat, moisture and pressure are applied to squeeze out excess water, before the cloth is washed again for four-to-five minutes and then rinsed,
1950s-1960s; ref. no. GD14/9/4/2-7t
© Tasglann nan Eilean

> The ‘milling’ process on a more modern machine with two lengths coming through at the same time. At this stage the tweed is also untwisted and laid out flat before it goes through the ‘tenter’ which dries the fabric;
late 1970s-1980s; ref. no. GD14/9/4/2-9t
© Tasglann nan Eilean

< ‘Tenter’ machine which dries the cloth at the end of the washing process, possibly at one of the smaller mills,
1950s-1960s; ref. no. GD14/9/4/2-11t
© Tasglann nan Eilean

> A more recent version of the ‘tenter’ machine. The cloth then goes through a cropper which shaves off the hairy surface fibres; Shawbost Mill, 1977.
Photograph by Gösta Sandberg; ref. no. GD034/4/6
© Tasglann nan Eilean

< ‘Checking the fineness of the weave,
late 1970s-1980s; ref. no. GD14/9/4/2-6t
© Tasglann nan Eilean

> The final stage is examination of the cloth by an independent Harris Tweed Authority inspector. When satisfied with the quality of the tweed, the orb certification mark is ironed onto the reverse of the fabric at regular intervals;
late 1970s-1980s; ref. no. GD14/9/4/2-16t
© Tasglann nan Eilean

<Cutter, Neil Owen, chalking and cutting out a Harris Tweed suit, Campbell’s Tweed House, Beauly, Inverness-shire,
late 1970s-1980s; ref. no. GD14/9/4/2-14t
© Tasglann nan Eilean

Business card for William Macdonald, Tweed Manufacturer, 3 Main Street, St Kilda, early twentieth century

Business card for William Macdonald, Tweed Manufacturer, St Kilda, early twentieth century; acc. no. 2003.1.3
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

The four islands making up the archipelago of St Kilda have been inhabited for at least two thousand years. They are home to huge colonies of seabirds, as well as two early types of sheep, the Soay and Boreray, named after two of the smaller islands. The village on the largest island, Hirta, comprises one long line of houses, ‘Main Street’, facing the sea. It was laid out in the 1830s and the houses improved in the 1860s. A church and a manse were built in the early nineteenth century.

^ Gunnie Moberg, Main Street, St Kilda
© Gunnie Moberg Archive, Orkney Library & Archive

Tourists began to visit St Kilda in the nineteenth century and bought cloth and other island produce. “Plaid and tweed manufactured at St Kilda, the most remote of the British islands” are listed in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition in 1851, shown by D. MacDougall of Inverness.

As a result of depopulation, illness and an increasing sense of isolation after regular contact with the outside world ended after World War I, the remaining residents of St Kilda asked to be taken off the islands and were evacuated in 1930.

Jacket and waistcoat, St Kilda, early 1930s, wool

Jacket and waistcoat, St Kilda, early 1930s, wool; acc. no. 1999.55.1-2
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

Waistcoat, St Kilda and Edinburgh, early 1930s, wool; acc. no. 1999.55.2
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

This man’s jacket and waistcoat are made from a length of tweed purchased in St Kilda in 1930, shortly before the evacuation of the last residents, and probably woven by Kirsty Macqueen. The horn buttons were made in Harris and were a gift to the owner of the jacket – the late Mr Eric Cornish – by the author Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) whose most famous novel, Whisky Galore (1947), was a fictionalised account of the real-life wreck of the SS Politician on Eriskay in 1941 with a cargo of whisky.

The waistcoat was made from the St Kilda fabric by R.W. Forsyth Ltd, a Glasgow tailoring firm set up in 1872. In 1897, a department store was built on the corner of Renfield Street and Gordon Street in Glasgow, and, in 1907, R.W. Forsyth opened a store on Princes Street in Edinburgh, where, from the label, it appears this waistcoat was made.

Length of Harris Tweed,
designed and woven by Donald John Mackay, 2004, wool

Length of Harris Tweed,
designed and woven by Donald John Mackay, 2004,
wool; acc. no. 2008.7
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

In October 2004 Nike launched a new range of trainers made with Harris Tweed. Donald John Mackay and his wife Maureen of Luskentyre Harris Tweed were approached to supply 9,500 metres. Working on his Hattersley hand-loom, Donald John’s usual weekly output is one hundred metres. To be able to fulfil the order the Mackays contacted the KM Harris Tweed Group and the order was outsourced to over fifty weavers throughout the islands.

^ Nike, One of a pair of ladies’ trainers, 2004,
Harris Tweed, leather and rubber; acc. no. 2013.1
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

The limited edition Nike ‘Terminator’ trainers were made in 2004 for the USA market from Harris Tweed created by weavers including Donald John Mackay in Luskentyre, Isle of Harris. In 2010 Nike collaborated with Harris Tweed again on its ‘Air Royalty’ trainers. Nike’s interest in the fabric is an example of how the traditional Harris Tweed brand has expanded beyond its associations with country sports to contemporary sport and fashion.

^ Caroline Townsend, Mandarina Shoes, One of a pair of ladies’ sling-back shoes, 2004-2012,
Harris Tweed; acc. no. H19
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

Like the Nike trainer, this sling-back shoe uses Harris Tweed in an unconventional way, taking it from the moors to the street. The shoes were commissioned by Harris Tweed, Isle of Harris in Tarbert between 2004 and 2012, and made by Caroline Townsend at Mandarina Shoes in Forfar. Designers including Vivienne Westwood (b. 1941), Margaret Howell (b. 1946) and Nigel Cabourn (b. 1949) have featured Harris Tweed in their collections since the 1980s. During London Fashion Week 2016, Margaret Howell commented, “A lover of wild open spaces, I feel an empathy with Harris Tweed. Weaving on hand-looms creates a depth and complexity of texture that can’t be imitated by a mechanical process. The resilient wool, the designs in earthy colours, reflect the landscape, the climate and the skills of the local people who produce it.”

An interview with Kenny Maclennan about the workings of the single-width, or Hattersley loom.
Once common in Lewis and Harris, the double width has replaced the Hattersley in the production of Harris Tweed, but the sight and sound of these remains an iconic part of island history.

Shetland tweed

Shetland tweed sample book, early twentieth century; acc. no. TEX 1992.609
© Shetland Museum and Archives

Commercial weaving in Shetland began around 1900. Before that, as in Orkney, weavers were locally-based and created cloth for the people who lived around them.

Shetland has its own native breed of sheep which is noted for its fine and soft wool. This translates into tweed with a soft drape and feel, with yarn traditionally woven in natural colours.

^ ‘Pure Shetland Tami Nori’ Standen & Co. Ltd. brochure, 1950s; acc. no. TEX 1996.48
© Shetland Museum and Archives

The early twentieth-century sample book shown here was compiled by one of the first commercial tweed companies to enable weavers to replicate previous designs for re-orders. Metal shears were used to trim ends, naps and wayward strands from the cloth, while the gauge counted ‘picks per inch’ to check the fineness of the weave. The later swatches from the 1960s and 1970s were shown to customers so that they could order blankets or rolls of fabric.

T.M. Adie & Sons began as a grocer in Voe in the 1830s and expanded in the twentieth century to become a general merchant dealing in supplies for farming and fishing, selling foodstuffs and hosiery, and manufacturing and tailoring tweed cloth and blankets. Many of Adies’ textiles were marketed and shipped to the USA between the 1920s and 1950s.

Gauge, 1925-1950; acc. no. TEX 1992.407
© Shetland Museum and Archives
Shears, 1925-1950; acc. no. TEX 1992.506
© Shetland Museum and Archives
Stencils used by T.M. Adie & Sons for marking jute-covered bales containing cloth being exported to the USA,1920s-1950s; acc. no. TRA 1994.725
© Shetland Museum and Archives
‘Handwoven Shetland Tweed’ swatches, 1960s-1970s; acc. no. TEX 1992.550
© Shetland Museum and Archives

Shetland Museum’s collection includes the firm’s scales, used to weigh cloth, and stencils for applying weights and destinations to jute-covered bales of cloth for export. These labels are all from Adie & Sons, but some feature the names of retailers for whom the firm made cloth, including Jenners in Edinburgh. The USA labels for retailers and clothiers, such as Brooks Brothers and Saks, were attached to tailored garments like blazers made by Adie & Sons. The firm was wound up in the early 1990s.

Shetland sheep have not been exclusively bred in the islands so ‘Shetland’ tweed could be and still is woven in other parts of the country. Today there is much stricter regulation of wool quality across the breed, but there are very few tweed-makers in Shetland.

T.M. Adie & Sons, garment labels for UK and USA, 1950s; acc. no. TEX 1992.570/571/574/576
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Tony Herculeson, of Vidlin, Lunnasting,
at work warping a loom in T.M. Adie & Sons’ weaving shed, Voe,
late 1950s, photographed by E. Adie
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ James Johnson (1878-1948), of Gateside, Levenwick, weaving in his own shed, 1946, photographed by Jack Peterson
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Shetland Woollen Industries Association Ltd. label
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Tweed drying on battens, upper floor of T.M. Adie & Sons’ scouring house, Voe,
late 1950s, photographed by E. Adie
© Shetland Museum and Archives

John Mooney, The Argarden Orkney Tweed Saga,
with illustrations by Stanley Cursiter, 1947

^ John Mooney, The Argarden Orkney Tweed Saga, with illustrations by Stanley Cursiter, 1947
© Orkney Library & Archive

In 1933 a mill was set up in Kirkwall by local merchant Robert Garden, son of Robert Garden senior (1846-1912), who had founded the eponymous company. The mill employed weavers brought over from Stornoway, as well as local men. Garden’s aim was to rival Harris Tweed with his own Argarden Orkney Tweed.

Marketing material for Garden’s from the early 1930s invited customers to view Orkney Tweed being made to “satisfy you that we are producing the genuine article.” They also sold knitwear, with particular specialities in Fair Isle and Shetland hand-knitted goods, including Shetland shawls.

In this booklet by director of R. Garden Ltd, Town Councillor, and local historian John Mooney (1862-1950), illustrated by Stanley Cursiter, Argarden Orkney Tweed is described as “woven in the Orkney Islands from yarn made from selected wools. This blend gives the characteristic softness which makes this tweed ideal not only for sportswear but also for town wear.”

^ John Mooney, The Argarden Orkney Tweed Saga, with illustrations by Stanley Cursiter, 1947
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ R. Garden Ltd weavers and spinners, Laing Street, Kirkwall, 1940s-1950s
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ R. Garden Ltd weavers and spinners, Laing Street, Kirkwall, 1940s-1950s
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Argarden label ribbon
© Orkney Library & Archive

Norsaga Orkney Tweed jacket and skirt, 1960s-1970s, wool

Norsaga Orkney Tweed jacket and skirt, 1960s-1970s, wool; acc. no. 2012.41.1-2
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Roll of Norsaga Orkney Tweed labels; acc. no. 1977.45
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Length of Hand-woven Norsaga Orkney Tweed, wool; acc. no. 1977.49
© Orkney Islands Council

With the flourishing of Argarden, and high demand for tweed from Orkney, local draper John Sclater set up Norsaga with John MacLeod, a weaver from Stornoway, in 1948. At its height of production there were six full-time weavers at the premises in Mill Street.

Argarden and Norsaga tweeds were available as fabric and ready-made garments through Garden’s and Sclater’s, as well as being exported to mainland Britain, Europe and the USA. However, by the 1970s, the popularity of traditional tweed had waned and sales had dropped to unsustainable levels. Both Argarden and Norsaga stopped production.

^ Norsaga Orkney Tweeds trademark
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Norsaga Orkney Tweed samples, 1960s-1970s
© Orkney Library & Archive

Scarf by Old Handweave, Stronsay, wool

^ Scarf by Old Handweave, Stronsay, wool; acc. no. 2000.200
© Orkney Islands Council

Tom Shearer established Old Handweave in Stronsay in 1979, making small-scale tweed items, such as scarves and ties, for tourists. He also constructed his own looms and was invited to reassemble George Merriman’s loom for display at Corrigall Farm Museum in the 1980s.

There is renewed interest in Orkney tweed and, although the wool is currently sent to Shetland for processing and weaving, it is made locally into accessories, home furnishings and gifts.

^ Tom Shearer (Old Handweave) at his loom in Stronsay
© Orkney Library & Archive

Quilt or bed cover (unfinished), Orkney,
early twentieth century, wool and synthetic

Quilt or bed cover (unfinished), Orkney,
early twentieth century, wool and synthetic; acc. no. 1986.81
© Orkney Islands Council

Nothing was wasted in the Orkney household, and this unfinished bed cover was made from sections of tweed from sample books by Mary Isbister, Hall of Gorn, Holm.

Another use for scraps of fabric was in rag rugs, providing warm coverings for areas of bare flagstone. This unfinished rug was made by Bessie Moar of the Post Office in Hoy. Unused scraps and cloth sample books were donated with the rug to Orkney Museum’s collection.

^ Partly-made rag rug, Orkney, 1980s; acc. no. 2002.58
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Pile bedcover, Shetland, 1865; acc. no. TEX 2011.91
© Shetland Museum and Archives

In Shetland pile rugs with a woven backing and tufts stitched in were made as bedcovers, often for a prospective wedding, by the bride-to-be and other women in the house. The example here may have been made for a wedding in 1865. Known as ‘taatit rugs’, they are part of a Nordic tradition of pile bedcovers which extended from Finland to Ireland, using natural dyes to create bold, colourful designs, sometimes incorporating symbols from Nordic and Shetlandic folklore. They took a huge amount of time to create and were never produced commercially.