Textiles of the World: Harris Tweed

Hi Sewcialists, I’m Emma Capponi @emmacponysews, and as someone who has adopted Scotland as her home, I thought I’d write about one of Scotland’s most fiercely guarded fabrics, Harris Tweed.  For those of you who haven’t come across this fascinating textile, it is a thick wool tweed with a slightly rough texture and a lovely drape, woven on hand looms exclusively on the islands of the outer Hebrides. It has a long history and is a great example of how a cottage industry can thrive in a capitalist society when given the right protections.

A close up of Harris Tweed, with browns, grays, yellow, and green. A white outline of the Orb and Cross logo is on the fabric.

Wool tweed, or Clò Mòr (‘big cloth’ in Scots Gaelic), has been produced on the islands of the Outer Hebrides as far back as our knowledge of textile history goes.  It was a staple industry of Crofters, people who run small farms on rented land, and was a major export to the mainland. Rumor has it that bolts of the cloth were popularly used as a valuable trade item with a relatively fixed price, making them a sort of currency in the area. However, as the industrial revolution swept through Scotland bringing mechanized weaving and mass produced cloth, the livelihoods of the locals and the unique cloth they manufactured was under threat.

The story of Harris Tweed as we know it today starts in 1840 when the Countess of Dunmore, along with a host of other patrons and organisations, took notice of this vital cottage industry and started an organization to promote the cloth and to protect the industry, especially the islands and the people who live and work there.  It also included a training program to ensure the high quality of the product and the livelihood of the crofters who made it. It was largely a philanthropic project, with the ownership of the different stages of manufacture staying largely in the hands of locals.

As the popularity of Harris Tweed grew, so did the imitations. For a time it was being manufactured all over the world, as far away as Japan, and the local business was being drowned out by mass-produced imitations. This lead to the formation of the Harris Tweed Association Ltd. in 1909, who registered the famous Orb and Cross trademark to protect the integrity of the name Harris Tweed. There have been various amendments to the definition of Harris Tweed over the years, and in 1993 the Harris Tweed Act of Parliament was passed and the definition became “Harris Tweed means a tweed which has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides”

A Harris Tweed label with red and black machined embroidery. "Hand woven cloth", "Harris Tweed Authority", "Certification Mark", "Outer Hebrides of Scotland" , and "100% pure new wool" are in black text. The label features registered trademark symbols and the Orb and Cross logo.

As the definition states, Harris Tweed is a woven fabric made from 100% wool. Interestingly, the wool is dyed before being spun. This means a wide range of bright colours can be combined to produce more subtle shades with a huge depth and texture before the yarn is even woven. Traditionally, these colour palettes have been inspired by the spectacular landscapes of the islands.  The fabric can be woven in a variety of designs, most often twills and herringbones, but also checks, tartans, and flecked weaves.  If you look closely at a relatively muted piece of Harris Tweed, you will be amazed at the richness of the colours that make up the cloth, a bit like an impressionist painting.

A very close up view of Harris tweed, with visible browns, yellows, and oranges in the fabric.

It is a fairly thick fabric that nonetheless has a lovely drape and a very slightly elastic quality due to the nature of the weave and the properties of the wool. Because it is 100% wool, it will keep you warm even when wet, unlike cotton or linen. Wool also has the very handy property of not getting smelly when worn repeatedly without washing.  The moisture wicking, breathable nature of the fabric means you sweat less while wearing it, and that means you need to wash it far less than synthetic fabrics. Harris Tweed is also more water repellent than most wools, as more of the lanolin is left in through the process. Wool is a natural fibre and when farmed in an environmentally suitable way is an excellent renewable resource. The material suits being altered and remade into new garments as styles change, and eventually the fibres will break down if composted, making it a good choice for a sustainable garment.

Jacket from Dunn & Co made from Harris Tweed, on a dress form with a shirt and tie.

Harris Tweed really comes into its own when used in traditional tailoring. It is mostly made into jackets, outerwear, and accessories as it has a rougher texture than machine woven wools and suitings.  I have witnessed firsthand the way the fabric softens and moulds to the wearer’s body as the garment is worn. Harris Tweed sews up beautifully. The fabric doesn’t scar when sewn, meaning it will take alterations well. Another point to keep in mind when sewing with wool is that it responds almost magically to steam, meaning you can really manipulate the fabric to add shape to a garment. Harris Tweed is quite a rough texture and often irritates bare skin, so you will need to think about backing or lining it if you are going to use it in a sewing project.

If you are interested in sewing with Harris Tweed, there are many patterns you could try:

Heather Blazer from Friday Pattern Company – sizes go up to B: 60″, W: 53″, H: 63″.
A black woman wearing a tailored blazer that has a velvety look. The blazer has pocket flaps and closes with one button.
Jasika Blazer from Closet Core Patterns – sizes go up to B: 46″, W: 39″, H: 48″.
A gray tailored blazer on a dress form. It closes with three textured silver buttons.
V8333 Vogue Jacket – sizes go up to B: 45″, W: 38″, H: 47″.
A white woman with long, wavy hair wearing a calf-length red coat over a white blouse and loose, wide-striped pants.
Rumana Coat from By Hand London – sizes go up to B: 51″, W: 44″, H: 54″.
A black woman wearing an ankle length coat that has lapels and pocket flaps. The coat has a bold, plaid design and is blue, yellow, gray, and orange.
Hunter Coat from Fibre Mood
A white woman with short brown hair wearing a grayish brown coat that has no pocket flaps or collar. The coat has side pockets.
The Strand coat from Merchant and Mills – sizes go up to B: 41.75″, W: 35″, H: 44″.
An older white woman stands in front of a wall tapestry wearing a rust colored cape that is closed with 6 buttons.
Camden Cape from Seamwork  – sizes go up to B: 54″, W: 46″, H: 56″.
Norris Danta Ford, a Black male designer, wears a turtleneck, belted trousers, and a brownish-gray, two-button blazer.
Simplicity Men’s Jacket S8962 (Men’s chest up to 52”)
An older white male standing in a forest. He is wearing a double breasted black peacoat.
Goldstream Peacoat from Thread Theory (Men’s chest up to 46”)
An older white man sits at a bar wearing a buttoned shirt with rolled up sleeves and a waistcoat (vest) over it. The waistcoat has small brown buttons.
Belvedere Waistcoat from Thread Theory (Men’s chest up to 50”)

Harris Tweed is not only a beautiful, sustainable textile, it is a great example of how we can protect and nurture cottage industries, even within our late capitalist society. The benefits to the community, the environment, and the local culture are innumerable, and we get the benefit of gorgeous textiles. The story of Harris Tweed should be held up as an example of how, with just a bit of protection from government regulations, these sustainable indigenous industries can truly thrive, and how the world is a richer place for it.

Emma works as a made-to-measure specialist in a tweed shop in Edinburgh. Originally from Australia, she has chosen Scotland as her adopted home. She has a history working as a corsetiere and in costume, and is now focusing on tailoring. You can find her at @emmacponysews on Instagram.