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A gentleman’s guide to Harris Tweed

What is Tweed

Tweed is a rough, woolen fabric, usually woven with a plain weave, twill or herringbone structure. Tweeds are an icon of traditional Scottish and Irish clothing, being desirable for informal outerwear, due to the moisture-resistant and durable properties of the material. They are made to withstand harsh climates and are commonly worn for outdoor activities such as shooting and hunting, in both Ireland and Scotland.

While originally made for wearing in the country, as styles have become more casual, Tweeds made it’s ways into the city, and today, a Tweed suit or sports jacket is by many regarded as one of the most stylish, timeless and gentelmanly things to wear.

What sets Harris Tweed apart

Harris Tweed, often referred to as the king of Tweeds, is handwoven by islanders in their homes in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It is made from 100% pure virgin wool, which also must be dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.

The Harris Tweed certificate of authenticity in one of my Harris Tweed jackets.

The name and the characteristic Harris Tweed Orb is protected by the Harris Tweed Act of 1993 and protected by the Harris Tweed Authority.

The History of Harris Tweed

The islanders of Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula and Barra have woven cloth by hand for centuries. It was originally made for their own use, and surplus was traded as barter, eventually becoming a form of currency amongst the islanders, but eventually made it’s way to London through export.

Gearrannan, the Outer Hebrides, Scotland

The original name of the cloth was tweel, Scots for twill, due to it being woven in a teill weave.

According to legend, the name Twill came around 1830, when a London merchant received a letter from a Hawick firm about some tweels. The London merchant misinterpreted the handwriting, understanding it to be taken from the river Tweed that flows through the Scottish Borders. The goodes were adverstised as Tweed, and the name has been used ever since.

As the Industrial Revolution reached Scotland, mainland manufacturers had turned to industrialized weaving, but the traditional hand weaving was retained in the Outer Hebrides, and although the fabrics were known for their quality weaving, the cloth was still produced mainly for home use or for the local market until the middle of the 19th century.

Even as the export market grew, supplying the upper classes of London with high quality Tweeds, the traditional hand-woven home production remained, and it was eventually protected in the Harris Tweed Act of 1993.

Harris Tweed inspection stamp. Photo: Giftzwerg 88 CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, every 50 metres of Harris Tweed are checked by an inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority before being stamped, by hand, with the Orb Mark, which guarantees it’s authenticity.

How is Harris Tweed made?

The creation of Harris Tweed begins with fleeces of pure virgin wools which are shorn from Cheviot and Scottish Blackface sheep.

Although most of the wool is grown principally on the mainland, local sheep wool is also added to the mix. The two types of wool are blended together to gain the advantages of the unique qualities and characteristics of both.

Dyeing and spinning

Once shorn the wool is scoured before being delivered in large bales to the mills of the three main tweed producers where it is then dyed in a wide variety of colours for blending.

The freshly dyed coloured and white wools are weighed in predetermined proportions and then thoroughly blended by hand to exact recipes to obtain the correct hue. It is then carded between mechanical, toothed rollers which tease and mix the fibers thoroughly before it is separated into a fragile, embryonic yarn. This soft yarn then has a twist imparted to it as it is spun to give it maximum strength for weaving. The spun yarn is wound onto bobbins to provide the ingredients of weft (left-to-right threads) and warp (vertical threads) supplied to the weavers.

This vitally important process sees thousands of warp threads gathered in long hanks in very specific order and wound onto large beams ready to be delivered, together with yarn for the weft, to the weavers.

Weaving

Tweed being handwoven on a traditional loom.

All Harris Tweed is hand woven on a treadle loom at each weaver’s home on a ‘double-width’ Bonas-Griffith rapier loom in the case of mill weavers, or normally an older ‘single width’ Hattersley loom in the case of independent weavers. The weaver will ‘tie in’ their warp by threading each end of yarn through the eyelets of their loom’s heddles in a specific order then begins to weave, fixing any mistakes or breakages that occur until completed.

Finishing and inspection

The tweed then returns to the mill in its ‘greasy state’ and here it passes through the hands of darners who correct any flaws.

Once ready the cloth is finished. Dirt, oil and other impurities are removed by washing and beating in soda and soapy water before it is dried, steamed, pressed and cropped.

The final process is the examination by the independent Harris Tweed Authority which visits the mills weekly, before application of their Orb Mark trademark which is ironed on to the fabric as a seal of authenticity.

Is Harris Tweed expensive?

No, surprisingly not. I would even go as far as saying that Tweed is currently grossly underpriced and a well-tailored Harris Tweed sports jacket can cost as little as $400 when bought in, or orderd from, Scotland. This is not much more than any other well made sports jacket from a reputable brand.

When factoring in the quality, longevity, history and hand made production, it’s a real bargain.