Thursday, 14 February 2008

What is Harris Tweed

I am often asked what it is that makes a fabric Harris Tweed.

Harris Tweed is known across the world as a hard-wearing woollen fabric traditionally used to make mens' sports jackets, but there is a lot more to it than that.

Certification is managed by the Harris Tweed Authority which is based in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. To qualify as Harris Tweed a cloth must meet the following criteria:-

  • it must be 100% pure new wool.
  • all the wool must come from Scotland.
  • all parts of the process of making the cloth (cleaning, carding and spinning the yarn, preparing the warps, weaving and finishing) must be carried out in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
  • the cloth must be hand-woven at the weaver's own home.
  • it must meet the quality requirements set by the HTA.

Hand-woven is a bit of a misnomer. It really means that the weaving must be done on a loom that is powered by the weaver - no electrical or mechanical powering. There are two types of loom commonly in use for weaving Harris Tweed. The traditional Hattersley loom is used for making the single width tweed (75cm). It is powered by two foot pedals that get pumped up and down. In recent years many weavers have moved over to a rapier loom so that they can produce double width cloth (150cm) . This type is also operated by foot pedal, but in this case they are rather like the pedals on a bicycle and it is not quite such physically demanding work as the Hattersley loom. In both types, the pattern is controlled by means of a chain with different holes that give instructions to raise or lower the 4 heddles.

The main weave patterns used are either a simple twill or a herringbone although other weaves are used for some tweeds. When these different weave structures are combined with varying colours of yarns arranged in different patterns it means there is an almost infinite variety of tweeds available.

Traditional earth-toned colours tend to be what springs to mind for those who don't know much about Harris Tweed, but there are tweeds produced across the whole spectrum, from pastels to brights, from neutral colours to vivid rainbow shades. There are lots of plain self-coloured tweed produced (twill weave) as well as patterned, but "self-coloured" is another misnomer. The wool fibre is dyed prior to carding and spinning. Different qualities of fibre pick up the dyes to a greater or lesser extent and these will all be mixed in together in the final yarn. Also, small amounts of other colours will be added to the mix for carding so in any given tweed you will find at least 4 or 5 different colours and shades of fibre. (To see what I mean, look at the photographs on the HTA website.) For example, a green tweed will likely have blue, yellow and brown fibres along with 2 or 3 shades of green. These mixes make for very lively looking fabrics - nothing "flat" about Harris Tweed.

We try to keep about 100 different colours and patterns in stock at any given time, but this stock is constantly changing. We tend to buy fairly small quantities of each colour so that we can give our customers lots to choose from, but that does mean that repeats are not easy. We are unlikely to be able to match anything that is more than a couple of years old. In addition, last year a Yorkshire company bought up the main mill on the islands - Kenneth Mackenzies and they are now only producing tweed for making up their own range of clothing. As many of our plain tweeds came from there, we are now having to source elsewhere. Fortunately, this change of direction opened the way for two other mills on the Isle of Lewis to re-open under new managements - Harris Tweed Textiles Ltd and Harris Tweed Hebrides. Both these companies are now catering for makers such as myself and new colour ranges are coming on stream.

There are also several independant weavers and whenever possible I try to source tweed from them. My next trip across to the islands is likely to be in early April. I go mainly to visit my mother, but we both really enjoy visiting the weavers and mills and selecting tweeds - it feels like Christmas when we get back to her house and start opening up all the gorgeous tweeds we have found. My appliqué technique gives me lots of scope to team up different tweeds - whether I go for tone on tone or strong contrasts, the scope is endless and exciting. Look through our website and you will get an idea of the range of colours. Or download the catalogue and browse at leisure - in the introduction you will find out a bit more about Harris Tweed and see a photograph of a small selection of the tweeds from a previous shopping trip.

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