With love from the Outer Hebrides

Harris Tweed heartsFrom the land comes the cloth” is the Harris Tweed Authority’s principal advertising slogan. In a typically Hebridean manner, this simple phrase is understated in its construction and yet, to those willing to delve a bit deeper, hints at the more complex relationship that exists between this wonderful cloth, the geography of the islands of the Outer Hebrides, and its importance to a proud, industrious, and humble local population.

As a material for use in the fashion industry, Harris Tweed ticks many boxes. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it is aesthetically very attractive. Gone are the days where olive green herringbones were the mainstay of production, with mills often now choosing to supplement these traditional colours with popular new cloths incorporating shocking pinks, deep purples, vibrant greens, and soft blues. In short, Harris Tweed has to some extent reinvented itself, and the fashion world (led by leading British designers such as Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood) has taken notice.

Harris tweed satchelAlthough a good place to start, an attractive colour palette is not enough. As anyone lucky enough to own a Harris Tweed product should be able to testify, this is also a very durable and versatile cloth. It is soft enough to be used in upholstery and clothing; strong enough to be used in luggage; and durable enough to maintain its flawless appearance after years of loyal service as, for example, a luxurious ladies clutch or make-up bag.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to the Harris Tweed story however is the fact that this global brand emanates from a community of only around 25,000 people in the islands of the Scottish Outer Hebrides. To anyone not familiar with the admirable heritage of Harris Tweed, this is not simply a referral to the cloth’s “roots” so to speak, but rather a current legal requirement under the terms of the UK’s Harris Tweed Act 1993 that stipulates that “only cloth 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”can be called Harris Tweed. To this day, Harris Tweed is the only cloth in the world to be protected by its own legislation.

Harris Tweed phone coversIt is little wonder therefore that islanders are very protective of their greatest export. Interestingly, however, and as the modern world and its ruthless economic juggernaut grinds forward, this heritage and tradition and the social, economic, and environmental benefits associated with Harris Tweed, are becoming increasingly relevant. To explain, in carbon terms, the supply chain is very short and geographically concentrated. The sheep from which the wool is sheared, the mill in which the yarn is spun, warped, and finished; and the home of the local weaver where the yarn is turned into cloth, are all island based. Although the finished cloth will likely travel to the UK mainland by sea, this journey will be via the relatively short crossing to Ullapool rather than the staggering 11,000 nautical mile trip from the Far East undertaken by most modern UK-bound factory produced products. In addition, Harris Tweed’s ecological credentials have been further enhanced by the somewhat unexpected benefit of being strictly woven by hand. Indeed, any yarn woven on an electrical loom is not allowed to be called Harris Tweed, effectively making the cloth the textile equivalent of cycling at the expense of taking the car.

Although the 1910 architects of the rules associated with Harris Tweed production would no doubt have raised an eyebrow at the fact that modern day industrialisation and globalisation have enhanced the cloth’s relative environmental qualities, I suspect that they would be less surprised to discover that the cloth is more than holding its own in our planet’s commercial “new world order”. Furthermore, it is important to recognise that, in social terms, buying a Harris Tweed product is certainly not about offering any kind of charitable support to a remote community far detached from Scotland’s politically dominant central belt (not to mention the global financial and fashion powerhouse that is modern day London). Far from it, buying a Harris Tweed based product is actually a celebration of the fact that this community realised some time ago that they had something special, and have fought commendably and ferociously to protect it through different generations and aggressively changing times.

Harris Tweed hip flaskIt is for this reason that I approach the challenge of using Harris Tweed in my products with a great deal of respect. Indeed, as a textile graduate with my own small but growing ladies bags and accessories business, there are fewer greater pleasures in life than taking delivery of an eagerly anticipated new batch of Harris Tweed cloth. My job thereafter is pretty simple, to do justice to the cloth’s heritage with a range of products that I hope will be used, admired, and importantly understood, by happy customers for many years to come. In short, I love it, and am confident that, given the chance, you will too.

Pauline Lothian

Pauline Lothian Designs, East Linton, East Lothian, Scotland



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