Wednesday, 25 November 2009

It’s a Tweed thing

Most readers of my ramblings will be aware that I have an obsession with Harris Tweed and that we have recently been endorsed by Harris Tweed Hebrides and are working in collaboration with them. So last week I took a plane, and then another plane and then a drive all the way to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides to visit the only existing mill producing Harris Tweed.

The purpose of my trip was for me to see the tweed designs that we are working on for AW10, check the colours and finalise the last of the development. I also wanted to take the chance to spend some time in the mill. I have a real attraction to the processes side of design as I believe that good design comes from understanding the boundaries and I always feel a better understanding of what can be done if I can see it for my self. I love the smells and noise of industry, handling the raw materials before they are transformed and the energy of true craft. This may sound dramatic but the reason we are so committed to the use of Harris Tweed is because we believe that craft is luxury and Harris Tweed epitomises this. Let me explain a little about this iconic cloth and why we place so much value on it.

Harris Tweed is probably the most famous textile in the world. It is the only cloth that is protected by an act of parliament and it can only be produced on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The Harris Tweed Act 1993 states that Harris Tweed must be hand woven by the islanders at their own homes from pure virgin wool, spun, dyed, and finished on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Only cloth that fully conforms to this definition is entitled to bear the world famous “ORB” trademark which was granted to the islanders in 1910.

The origins of the cloth are centuries old. It was first made by the inhabitants of the isles from the wool from their own sheep and made into practical garments to protect them from the harsh element of the Outer Hebrides. All processes were done by hand with each and every member of the household having their particular role to play.The wool would first have to be washed and then dyed, using natural materials such as the crotal, scraped off the rocks on the shore. Various plant materials were also used and the dyes were set using urine which would be collected and stored for this purpose.

The dyed wool was then carded by hand, using two flat combs. The spinning was done on a wooden spinning wheel and the yarn was then warped in preparation for weaving. The weaving was done on a wooden loom which was used for many years until the arrival of the Hattersley domestic handloom in the 1920s. The woven cloth was then washed and it was during this process that the famous "waulking" of the cloth took place. Several people, almost always women, would work the wet cloth back and forward across a table, usually accompanied by Gaelic song allowing a whole genre of music to develop around this activity. After drying, the cloth was ready for use or sale.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Isle of Harris was owned by the Earl of Dunmore and it was his wife, lady Dunmore, who first saw the potential of selling this fabric, produced by her tenants, to her aquaintances in London. Thus Harris Tweed was first marketed and, as the reputation of the fabric grew. The success of the fabric also led to imitations and it became necessary to seek protection for the genuine article. This led to the formation of the Harris Tweed Association in 1909 and the granting of the trademark in 1910. The Association became the Harris Tweed Authority with the Act of 1993.

(Guess what colour we're channeling for AW10!)

Harris Tweed is the only handwoven fabric produced in commercial quantities. The yarn production process uses specially blended yarns produced to secret recipes and then warped up to exclusive designs before being sent to weaver's homes to be handwoven by weavers using skills handed down from generation to generation. The cloth is then returned to the mill to be finished in a new finishing plant to a very high standard. The final process is examination by the independent Harris Tweed Authority, before application of the famous "ORB" trademark which is ironed on to the fabric as the ultimate seal of approval.

See below for photos of me at Harris Tweed Hebrides! I am actually weaving our very own Sara Berman Harris Tweeds! It was a great privilege to spend time at the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill and I would like to thank all the team for making me feel so welcome and for all their hard work and enthusiasm. It was a real highlight for me.

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