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Fabric of the Community

A wardrobe staple during and after WWII, Harris Tweed faces challenges as it goes upscale and gets an update.

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Harris Tweed swatches.

Photo By Gerardo Somoza

LEWIS & HARRIS, Scotland – “Not too fast, not too slow.” Wedged between golf clubs, garden equipment and boxes bursting with household paraphernalia, Neil Macleod sits in his garage, weaving dreams into Harris Tweed. “It’s tremendously satisfying; I clear my mind and imagine all the places where this piece of Harris Tweed will wind up,” says Macleod, pedaling at his loom, before pausing to pat his sheepdog, who sits obediently in her basket at his feet. “And it only can be made here on this small island on the edge of the world.”

Known as the world’s only commercially produced handwoven tweed, Harris Tweed has been used by Ralph Lauren and Prada, and inspired Coco Chanel’s famous jackets. But the pure virgin wool fabric all but fell into obscurity two years ago as production plummeted to one manufacturer. It’s only now, with the a revival of another mill and the fabric once again coming into fashion—inspiring work of Tom Ford and Thom Browne—that Harris Tweed is embarking on a renaissance. And the fascination lies in the history of the fabric. Just a few hours’ ferry ride off the western shore of the Scottish Highlands, islanders like Macleod on jointly connected isles of Lewis and Harris—part of the Outer Hebrides—have been weaving Harris Tweed for as long as anyone can remember.

The heavy fabric is protected by an act of Parliament, which states that Harris Tweed must be “handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides” and “made from pure virgin wool, which is also dyed and spun” there. Only after it has been inspected by the industry authority and awarded the symbol of authenticity—the orb with the Maltese cross, one of Britain’s oldest trademarks, since 1909—does the cloth earn the venerable moniker Harris Tweed.

“It just takes a quick glance at the nature here to see where the fabric’s inspiration comes from,” says Macleod, showing off lengths of tweed speckled with a kaleidoscope of Hebridean colors. “There is no other place on earth like it. You just fall in love with the landscape.”

And who wouldn’t? Rolling moors dotted with white sheep and blanketed by violet heather, peaty streams teaming with pink salmon and bleeding into electric blue seas, endless stretches of sandy, lemon-colored beaches. Macleod is one of only 100 active weavers left on the island, from as many as 1,000 around a decade ago, producing a mere 300,000 meters of the famed fabric per annum, compared with more than a million meters of cloth back in its postwar heyday.

Harris Tweed all but ceased existing several years ago when the biggest mill on the island was put up for sale. A handful of entrepreneurs from the mainland stepped in to try to rescue the industry, albeit with different visions of how. In 2006, Yorkshire native Brian Haggas purchased the Kenneth Mackenzie mill in Stornoway, which at one time accounted for 95 percent of all Harris Tweed production.

“[Harris Tweed] was and can still be an iconic brand,” says Haggas from his offices. “We’ve got a great product where there’s real nostalgia and fondness, where people’s eyes light up when you mention the name.” Believing that Harris Tweed “isn’t a fashion staple” but “a classic,” Haggas, who made his fortune in textiles, reduced the mill’s 800 patterns of Harris Tweed to just four styles and cut wholesale distribution of the fabric, choosing instead to ship the cloth to China.

There it is made into jackets for sale at retail. He took delivery of the first shipment of 70,000 jackets in September. Concerned that Harris Tweed would no longer be available by the bale, three Scots invested in two other mills, bent on maintaining supplies to the wholesale trade and preserving the gamut of cloth designs, which they and many others on the island believe are part of the local heritage. Scottish oil trader Ian Taylor rescued the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill in the village of Shawbost on Lewis isle in 2007. It had been closed for nearly two years. The mill, which once supplied Prada, Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren, restarted production in May.

“We had to act quickly and catch the tail end of the season in order to tell customers that Harris Tweed is not lost forever,” explains Ian Mackenzie, the mill’s chief executive officer, as he strolls through the plant, where stacks of raw wool await dyeing beside murky vats of liquid. “It was the lifeline for the island for 100 years. Society here was built on the back of Harris Tweed. It is a social service, the fabric of the community,” Mackenzie says. “From the land comes the cloth.”

“Harris Tweed is its own brand,” he continues, with a quick stop to show off a mélange of chopped up wool in various colors, which in seconds will be spun into yarn and shipped to the weavers, for threading into a specific pattern. “We will push it to its greatest potential back where it should be in the high-end market,” he adds, showing off the final process where rolls of fabric are washed and finished before being stamped.

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