For many, Harris tweed may conjure images of itchy jackets worn by your grandad, fictional sleuths such as Miss Marple, or the local vicar. But no longer. The hand-woven fabric is now enjoying a giddying surge in popularity; it is hip, desirable and back on the high street.
The traditional Hebridean cloth is now featured in the central men’s ranges of Top Man and preppy American retailers like J Crew, and can be found covering headphones, holdalls, North Face jackets, and Dr Martens and Converse boots.
Championed by Doctor Who star Matt Smith and the rapper Tinie Tempah, the tweed is being used on hand-stitched “hi-top” trainers and handbags produced by cottage businesses in Scottish market towns, but sold in Italian and Japanese luxury boutiques alongside Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs. This year, production is expected to exceed a million metres – the biggest production run for 15 years – every centimetre hand-woven at homes in Scotland’s Western Isles.
The surge in production is evidence of a remarkable resurrection. Five years ago, the future of Harris tweed was bleak after decades of under-investment and poor sales. Production was half of this year’s rate, at around 500,000 metres, and many feared the industry was in terminal decline.
The number of weavers – all self-employed, some crofters working part-time on their looms in sheds beside their homes as they juggled seasonal weaving with running smallholdings and other part-time jobs – had fallen below 100. Having learned their craft from parents or relatives, the remaining weavers were ageing. Few teenagers wanted to enter the industry. But now, after a five-year initiative partly headed by a former Labour energy minister, Brian Wilson, Harris tweed is enjoying a renaissance few had predicted.
There are now more than a thousand designs, from those blending in the traditional dull duns, purples and ochres of the Scottish Highlands, to brash patterns with bright reds, pinks and yellows.
“Probably the big success has been to transform the image of Harris tweed into a young fabric, a stylish fabric for a new generation,” said Wilson, who founded the radical West Highland Free Press newspaper in Skye in 1972. “Our client list now has just about every serious designer; every fashionable designer is now working with Harris tweed.”
Five years ago, Wilson and a small group of co-investors reopened a mothballed mill in the village of Shawbost on the west coast of Lewis. A Yorkshire textiles magnate, Brian Haggas, had bought what was then the island’s largest tweed maker in Stornoway in 2006, in what was billed as a last-ditch rescue for Harris tweed.
Controversially, Haggas had decided to cut tweed production to just four designs, purely to make a set number of tweed jackets. The Haggas takeover was “a blessing in disguise, albeit heavy disguise,” said Wilson. It made people focus on saving the industry.
The newly formed Harris Tweed Hebrides company, based at Shawbost, began targeting fashion shows, trade fairs and retailers. Wilson said the primary focus was to market Harris tweed’s history and its reputation for quality, particularly in its traditional market in the United States.
Harris tweed is one of the world’s oldest protected trademarks. Its distinctive “orb” label, guaranteeing its origin in the Western Isles and hand-woven production technique, was first licensed by act of parliament in 1910.Over the last five years, 40 new weavers have joined the industry, some returning to a craft previously practised by their parents. Some were spurred on by Donald John MacKay, given an MBE in this year’s New Year’s honours list after landing a remarkable contract to supply the sport shoes manufacturer Nike with 10,000 metres of tweed for their Terminator basketball range seven years ago, a period when the industry was in crisis.
The tweed industry – weaving, finishing and design – is now the Western Isles’ largest private sector employer. With 140 weavers now working full-time on producing tweed, it generates about £10m a year for the local economy, which has one of the lowest rates of wealth-creation in the UK. The Shawbost mill now accounts for 90% of Harris tweed production.
“It was a very definite objective to take it into places where it used to be known and had kind of lost its way. That means mainly the US, because that used to be the main market,” Wilson said.
He realised the company’s promotional campaigning had succeeded not when a major fashion designer began buying Shawbost tweed but when the British high street retailer Top Man did so last year. Top Man is again using tweed for its tailored jackets, blazers and waistcoats, and a rucksack and men’s shoulder bag.
Gordon Richardson, Top Man’s creative director, said there was a strong interest among young men in “noble” fabrics like Harris tweed: fabrics with a history and tradition. “There’s this whole mood for all things heritage,” Richardson said. “So one of our ranges is using something that has a history and has a past, and has a resonance with something which has existed before, rather than something purely futuristic. There’s also the whole British thing, so they love the whole heritage thing.”
At the opposite end of the industry is Jaggy Nettle, based at Lauder in the Scottish Borders, whose products, featuring hi-top sneakers in Harris tweed, are stocked in expensive boutiques on 22nd Street in New York, in Tokyo and in Italy, alongside Prada and Louis Vuitton. Started 18 months ago by Jason Lee, a painter, and his partner Emily Quinn, a textiles expert, as an “anti-fashion” clothes design firm, their tweed product range, made by craftspeople in Fife, has expanded.
Last week, Lee took possession of newly made tweed Chelsea boots and trainers. He chose Harris tweed, he said, because their clothes are not designed for one season or one trend, but to last. “I bought a Harris tweed coat from a charity shop in Hawick made in Galashiels. I have had that coat for eight years, and I’ve never had to wash it. That’s my real aspiration for a fabric: its lack of wear and tear, the way it repels water and dirt.”
Now, said Wilson, tweed-weaving is again central to island life for the Western Isles. Weavers are spread across the islands, boosting the local economy.
“The objective was to create a new generation interested in it: the great thing is you’re selling something which is truly genuine,” Wilson said. “It’s not like spinning a story around something which doesn’t exist. It’s completely genuine: the distinguishing features of Harris tweed are both quality and heritage.”