A Discussion with Harris Tweed

Photo By Ian Lawson

On Tuesday April 8th at the new Glasgow Caledonian University campus in New York, The Right Honorable Brian Wilson, the UK Ambassador for Harris Tweed (and former UK Trade Minister) sat down with Mark Hogarth, Creative Director of Harris Tweed and Doug Shriver, Senior Fabric Specialist from Brooks Brothers to discuss how the apparel industry is creating a positive change in the world. They also spoke about the partnerships between companies in New York and Scotland and how they are promoting ethical fashion through luxury brands.

We got on the horn with Mister Wilson this morning to hear more about the discussion and what was learned.

How was the event?

It was a superb event. I really was quite moved with the level of interest in Harris Tweed in America.

How so?

There is a lot of empathy for the brand and heritage of the fabric here. Explaining to an audience in Soho about independent weavers in Scotland who work from their homes near the mill was so unusual. We are so close to the subject we don’t see how unique it really is!

Our fabrics sustain the economy of a very remote place and sustains the skills that would otherwise be lost. It is beyond fashion, it is  style on a much deeper level.

I am sure that working with Brooks Brothers brings Harris Tweed to a much wider American audience too. How long has that collaboration been going on?

Brooks Brothers were ideal in the discussion since they have been working with us since 1932.

You also used the event to launch a new campaign. Tell us more about that.

Everyone loves Harris Tweed but relatively few people know the story that makes it so special. We hope this campaign will encourage interest not just in the product but also the place from which it comes and the process which creates it.

I doubt if there is another brand in the world with the fame of Harris Tweed which rests on the skills of so few people located within a single community. The key fact is that Harris Tweed survives and flourishes in the Outer Hebrides because an Act of Parliament says it cannot be made anywhere else.  That raises questions of global importance about the rights of communities to protect their indigenous industries.

You also exhibited a fantastic collection of photographs by Ian Lawson who lived in the Outer Hebrides to photograph the land of Harris Tweed in his book, ‘From the Land Comes the Cloth’.

Ian is a very interesting guy and amazing photographer. He lived in and among the people and became close to the crafters and weavers. The way it was possible through photography to illustrate the juxtaposition of the natural colors of the environment and the fabric of the tweed is beautiful. There was so much painstaking time involved on his end to get to know the entire process from sheep to mill.

One of the biggest concerns of many of the heritage brands we speak to is the age of their craftsmen. Is this affecting Harris Tweed?

One of the most satisfying bits of news I can relate is the visible change of age profile. The industry was in decline for so long and nobody had come into the industry for 20-30 years. Now young people are coming into the mill and the newest weaver to join the 140 weavers we have is 19 years of age! I met his father before we came out here and he said his pals are coming into the loom shed wanting to understand everything that is going on. It is a great feeling.

Below are four sustainable facts that make Harris Tweed so special:

  • It is the only fabric in the world which is protected by its own Act of Parliament. The Harris Tweed Act, updated at Westminster in 1993, guarantees that genuine Harris Tweed can only be made in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
  • Harris Tweed must be “handwoven by the islanders at their own homes in the Outer Hebrides”. This guarantees that it remains a cottage industry allowing self-employed weavers to determine their own work schedule, traditionally to fit with the demands of crofting agriculture.
  • The Orb symbol which authenticates Harris Tweed is the oldest British trade mark in continuous use. The Harris Tweed Authority works around the world to protect the name Harris Tweed and the Orb from unauthorized use.
  • Harris Tweed is made from pure virgin wool. Unlike most other fabrics, the wool is dyed rather than the yarn or finished cloth, giving Harris Tweed its depth and richness of color.

Brian Wilson, Mark Hogarth, Nick Sullivan, Doug Shriver, Glen Hoffs

 Feature image courtesy of Ian Lawson.