No one will tell you that it’s easy to live in the Outer Hebrides. Even in the 21st century, with central heating, Amazon Prime and regular flights to the mainland, these rugged, rocky Scottish Islands remain isolated, lonely places. Thanks to a latitude north of 58 degrees — the same as Juneau, Alaska — winters here are wet and dark, with little daylight and powerful storms blowing in off the North Atlantic.
In the summer months people flock to the Hebrides to take in the scenery. A few like me, however, come to see where Harris Tweed is made. It may seem strange to fly thousands of kilometres to marvel at a piece of cloth, but Harris Tweed is no ordinary textile. For one thing, it’s among the few single-origin textiles in the world — meaning every scrap in existence was made right here on the island of Harris and Lewis. For another, it’s woven by people on looms in their homes, not by machines in factories. This sturdy woolen cloth is as essential to classic menswear as corduroy or denim, but unlike those fabrics Harris Tweed has remained unchanged — untouched by the tides of fashion — for more than a century. I wanted to know why and how this came to be.
“You have to be a bit tenacious to live on an island like this,” says Kristina Macleod, office manager of the Harris Tweed Authority, the body that oversees production of the island’s most famous export. It is a sentiment expressed by almost everyone I encounter on Harris and Lewis. Like many islanders, Macleod can trace her family’s roots here back for generations, an identity she carries in both her name and in the singsong lilt of her accent. “It has a magnetic force to it, even if it can be horrible at times with the weather,” she says, pausing before adding, “But even that’s spectacular.”
Whatever their reasons for coming here, Harris and Lewis has never had a problem attracting people to its shores. It has been occupied at various times by Vikings, Scots, English and, some 5,000 years ago or more, a mysterious neolithic people about whom very little is known. Among the things they left behind are the Calanais standing stones, a precisely arranged circle of towering granite slabs thought to have functioned as a kind of lunar observatory. Like most of the people who have lived on these islands, the ones who erected these stones would have eked a life from the rocky land in whatever ways they were able. This meant fishing, farming, raising sheep and weaving a sturdy wool cloth perfectly suited to the island’s harsh climate. Before it was called Harris Tweed, and before it was known around the world, it was simply a way to survive in a place defined by its erratic weather.
“We’ve always been known for wool working,” says Macleod, pointing to evidence of woven fabrics found on the islands dating back 3,000 years. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s, however, that anyone realized that these traditional textiles, as integral part of life here as thatched roofs and peat fires, might become popular elsewhere, too. The woman responsible for turning this regional tradition into a global household name was Lady Catherine Dunmore, who inherited 150,000 acres of the isle of Harris when her husband, Lord Dunmore, died in 1845.
The 19th century was a hard time for the people of Harris and Lewis, who had been moved off their lands in a massive resettlement plan known as “the clearances.” In those days most islanders lived at the whims of wealthy landowners like the Dunmores, paying their rent by subsistence farming and raising cattle. When the landowners opted to put these lands to use raising sheep—a more profitable endeavour requiring fewer tenants—these farmers were relocated onto narrow plots called “crofts,” and forced to subsist on fishing, harvesting kelp, or however else they could. The islanders were desperately in need of a new way to earn a living and Lady Dunmore, who was sympathetic to their plight, found a solution in the form of Harris Tweed.
“She was ahead of her time, really,” says Macleod. “She saw the quality of the cloth that was being woven locally and she sent these two sisters away to the mainland to hone their skills and to come back and teach others. That was really the beginning of the Harris Tweed industry.”
Within a few decades, Harris Tweed became a phenomenal success and by the early 20th century it was a favourite among the British nobility, from the court of Queen Victoria to the tailors of Savile Row. Its reputation was such that the Harris Tweed Authority was established, in part to foil counterfeiters and in part to assure that the quality for which the real thing was known. Remarkably, not much has changed in the years since. Now, as then, Harris Tweed is still woven by islanders in their crofts on small pedal-operated looms, and the logo of a Maltese cross atop an orb is stamped onto every piece of Harris Tweed that’s made on the island. While the island’s blackface sheep can no longer provide enough fleece to satisfy demand, the cloth is still woven entirely from British wool. There are many more colours and patterns available nowadays, too, but the most popular ones remain classic tartans and herringbones in the earthy greens, browns and yellows of the island’s landscape.
“So have you touched a sheep yet?” asks Mike Briggs as we set off in his car along one of the island’s winding, narrow roads. “Well we’ll have to do that.” Briggs is a local guide, tennis enthusiast, yoga instructor and avid outdoorsman who arrived on the island from England 30 years ago and immediately fell in love with the place. He actually appreciates the long winters and storms bringing 100 km/h winds, he says. “It makes life more interesting.”
Despite putting down roots here, Briggs is not considered an islander, nor will he ever be. To be from the islands is not just to live here, or even be born here necessarily, he explains, but to trace your lineage back generations. Despite this, he knows enough of the island’s weavers to make introductions, which is how we came to arrive in Luskentyre, a village that’s home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and one of Harris Tweed’s most famous weavers.
“Like the calling of gannets and the crash of waves, the clatter of a Hattersley loom is an unmistakable sound of Harris and Lewis.”
Donald John Mackay has been weaving since he was a teenager, the third generation of his family to practice the craft. Now in his late sixties, he has developed a reputation as a master. “Tailors and dressmakers are my best customers,” he says over the rattle of his loom, which sits in a shed overlooking the white sand and azure waters of Luskentyre Bay. Over the course of his career, Mackay has seen the fortunes of Harris Tweed fall and rise again. Thanks to changing tastes, synthetic fabrics and textile production’s migration overseas, the Harris Tweed industry declined through the second half of the 20th century. Following a rekindled interest in traditional tailoring in the aughts, however, plus a significant investment from private mills and local government, demand is now surging again.
Mackay likes to tell a story about the day in 2004 when an order came in to produce a custom tweed for a limited-edition run of shoes in America. He had never heard of the company, and was shocked when they ordered 10,000 yards of cloth — an unheard of quantity for one man in a shed to produce. Still, he went to work, enlisting the help of every other weaver he could, and met the deadline. Then they ordered more. The company it turns out was Nike, and McKay describes this as the moment he knew that Harris Tweed had become fashionable again.
“You’ve come all this way just to speak to weavers?” asks Heather MacLeod, somewhat incredulously. Across the island in East Tarbert, down a narrow road where a massive black draught horse grazes alongside a tiny shetland pony, Macleod, works in a converted shipping container with a postcard-worthy view of the Atlantic. While there used to be over 1,000 weavers across the island, the world’s supply of Harris Tweed is now produced by around 200 people. Macleod is among the newest recruits.
“My grandpa was a weaver, and I think that was in the back of my mind,” says Macleod, who learned her trade on a three-month course sponsored by Harris Development Limited, a local nonprofit. “I’d always wanted to do something that was connected to the islands and I’d always wanted to be my own boss as well,” she says. Unlike most of the island’s weavers who sell directly to the mills, Macleod is an independent operator who takes orders from customers online. After five years, Macleod has developed a robust customer base around the world. “England, Scotland, Germany, America, Canada, Spain, Italy, Germany…” she says, listing the lengths her cloth has traveled. She pulls out her phone to show me a photo of a smiling man with a heavy moustache holding up a length of tartan tweed. “I had done a custom order for a guy in New Zealand and he just sent me pictures,” she says. “He’s a Maclachlan and was very passionate about getting something authentic. I’m guessing he’s going to make a kilt out of it.”
To learn how to weave involves not only mastering the complex dance of warps, wefts, shuttle and pattern, but also the mechanics of the Hattersly loom, a piece of machinery that hasn’t changed significantly since the days of Lady Dunmore. Like the calling of gannets and the crash of waves against the rocks, the clatter of a Hattersly loom is an unmistakable sound of Harris and Lewis. While the din of duelling Hatterslys used to fill the air in every village in summer, it’s much quieter these days. “There’s not a huge amount of people left on the islands who know these looms,” says Rebecca Hutton, another independent weaver and graduate of the Harris Development course, adding that learning to maintain her Hattersly was more of a challenge than learning to weave. “Every one is slightly different and every one has its own temperament.”
Part of the resurgence in Harris Tweed is due to the wide range of uses that makers on the island and around the world have found for it. While it was once used predominantly for outerwear, and still appears in collections from brands like Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith, Harris Tweed now goes into much more than blazers and flat caps. Interest from streetwear brands like Supreme and Stone Island has spurred its evolution into a range of products from shoes and baseball caps and hoodies to technical jackets. In addition to clothing, the Harris Tweed made by weavers like Hutton and McLeod also ends up in everything from iPad covers and headphones to key chains, upholstery and lampshades.
One reason that Harris Tweed has been able to weather the ebb and flow of supply and demand over the last century is simply due to the nature of life here: in a place like this very few people have the luxury of doing just one job. Crofting, the practice of making a living from your tiny plot of land in whatever ways you can, has been a way of life here for as long as anyone can remember. Most everyone keeps sheep or chickens, or weaves for the mills or works in tourism in addition to whatever other work they do, meaning they can adapt to the whims of fashion just as they adapt to the island’s ever-changeable weather.
“It’s never been a land of plenty, that’s for sure,” says Briggs. As a result, for thousands of years the people of the Hebrides have been tied to their land by the ingenious ways they find to make life work. This, perhaps more than any other reason, is why Harris Tweed continues to survive and thrive: like the islanders themselves, it’s tough, practical and infinitely adaptable. These qualities, plus a good sense of humour and a tolerance for damp weather, are essential to life here. The island, as it has for millennia, will provide the rest.