Along the rugged northwest coast of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides cascade for a 130 miles. Nah Eileanan Siar in the local Gaelic, these remote islands, now officially called the Western Isles, are home to some 29,000 souls. The climate here can be relentless with wind and rain, chilling you to the bone. Wool is not only warm but because of its lanolin content it's also waterproof, providing comfort against the elements. In Gaelic, tweed is known as Clò Mór, "the big cloth", but it is the Isle of Harris for which the worlds' most famous tweed is named.
The population of Harris is around 2,000, nearly identical with that of the 1750s shortly after The Clearances began. The island's name is an English transliteration of the Gaelic Na Hearadh, from a pre-Gaelic name that was thought to mean High Island. Glaciers left only a thin layer of soil across the Western Isles so even with a sparse population crofting and tenant farming has always been a test of patience and endurance. As a result, tweed has always played an important economic, cultural as well as a social role for the inhabitants of these islands. From at least the 15th century rents were paid with bales of fabric and groups of women gathered to perform the task of waulking new tweed. Ancient implements for combing wool have been found in brochs and early settlements dating date back 2000 years.
There are a vast number of differences separating Harris and the endless variety of tweeds woven throughout Scotland; the subtle colouring is the first. 180 different shade mixtures are used, and there may be as many as ten colours in a single shade, four different colours in the warp and weft and as many as 40 colours might be used in a length The finished fabric nearly vibrates with the intensity of the colours. It is rumoured that the colour was the first thing Lady Dunmore - Catherine Herbert, widow of the then owner of the Isle of Harris the Earl of Dunmore, noticed about the local cloth. Lady Dunmore exploited her society connections in order to promote Harris Tweed for garments for hunting and other outdoor sports given its impervious qualities. As a result, by the end of nineteenth century her efforts had created the largest cottage industry in Great Britain and the Harris Tweed was firmly established as a status symbol.
The familiar Orb and Maltese Cross logo is taken from the Dunmore coat of arms. The Certification Mark, the oldest British trademark still in use, was originally granted in 1909, registered in 1910 and stamping of the rolls of tweed began in 1911.
Secondly, to sustain the cloth's authenticity, the Harris Tweed Act (HTA) mandates three points covering production; it must be woven in the Hebrides, (the islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist Barra and their "several purtenances"), in the home of the weaver and without the aid of any power. Additionally, the HTA mandates a maximum of two looms in a shed; three looms and the tweed would no longer be eligible to be called ‘Harris Tweed’.
Finally, the yarns are woven unaltered (left tousled and then given a random twist) to form Harris Tweed's characteristic quality. Finished rolls of cloth are submitted to an independent examiner, who certifies that the cloth conforms to the legal definitions as established by the HTA. Before the HTA stamps a bolt with the famous Orb, inspectors go over every yard of a length of cloth (usually 65 metres). A swatch of cloth is then registered along with the weaver's signed declaration:
Preserved against all odds, with a unique status in a world of high-tech fabrics, Harris Tweed is virtually the only clothing material in the industrialized world that is still hand woven but dramatic changes threaten the continuation and the very existence of the weavers and their communities. At one time some 5000 homes in the Hebrides had at least one loom, today (2007) less than 100 weavers still weave this astonishing cloth. Just as we choose to eat non-genetically modified food, and Fair Trade coffee, and embrace more environmentally-friendly ways of living, everyday we make choices about the clothing we wear. What our clothes are made of, and where it comes from, has never been more important to ensure this preservation of this uniquely Scottish icon.