In late 2004, Nike, the multinational sportwear company, completed a signature line of sneakers called The Terminator. They intended to update the retro style of The Terminator, a basketball shoe originally released in the 1980s. Typically, Nike will commission high-profile artists and designers to come up with the latest must-have for their devoted fans. In the past the company as used sports icons, graffiti artists, and A-list celebrities to create a key element of a limited release product that would ultimately be more collector’s trophy than actual shoe. For The Terminator, Nike decided to with the “champagne of fabrics”: Harris Tweed.
So, admittedly, I had never heard of Harris Tweed until coming across this story. Perhaps you may be unfamiliar as well. I ask you, then: What do Madonna, Sex and the City, the Queen of England, and Tom Hanks as the fictional Robert Langdon all have in common? Answer: Harris Tweed.
Harris Tweed is a specific type of cloth made from local virgin wool and hand-woven by the islanders in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. From the middle of the 19th century to 1903, the remote island communities on Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barra maintained a sustainable, local industry of tweed weavers who manufactured the fabric mostly for personal use and sold on a small market. The weavers had developed their methods over centuries, and while the rest of Scotland experienced the Industrial Revolution in the 1790s, the Outer Hebrides islanders remained committed to their traditional weaving heritage.
With the invention of the fly-shuttle loom in 1903, weaving became a much simple, quicker enterprise, and the Harris Tweed industry was booming by 1906. The production of Harris Tweed peaked in the 1960s, when nearly 2,000 people using traditional methods wove more than 7,000 meters (7.6 million yards) of cloth per year. At that time the coarse-checkered cloth was the chosen attire of Britain’s upper classes, American and Japanese businessmen, and even the Royal Family. (For a more comprehensive, authoritative history of Harris Tweed, see The Harris Tweed Authority website.)
The British textile industry collapsed as the order of high fashion changed, however, and the number of weavers and amount of tweed produced in the Outer Hebrides dropped to record lows. By the turn of this century, less than 200 weavers were spinning Harris Tweed. Many of them abandoned their traditional craft–“retired” if you will–and drifted off to other professions. As recently as 2004, it seemed that the exceptional Scottish heritage preserved in the centuries-old traditional weaving methods of a small population would all but disappear. Enter Nike.
In a highly unexpected twist of good fortune, Nike called Donald John MacKay, a weaver in Luskentyre at Harris, to spin them a few designs for a new product. Nike loved his work and within a few weeks had ordered 9,500 meters of fabric. MacKay, who as a one-man operation finished 100 meters of tweed a week, found himself with a monumental demand. He enlisted the help of KM Group, the mill that produced 95% of the islands’ tweed, and together they completed Nike’s order. (Unfortunately, The Terminator did not receive much acclaim from consumers and the KM Group has since shut its largest mill.)
This story, while only a few years past, raises a number of interesting issues in regards to cultural heritage.
Commodification — Oftentimes there is a deep concern that the commodification of cultural heritage (tangible or intangible) will ultimately lead to the degradation in the quality, value, and universal appreciation of that heritage. The worry is that if you place a monetary amount on the heritage you consequently denigrate it to something that can be bought and sold and traded as any other object, e.g. souvenirs, cultural tourism ventures. To some people, it would seem that commodification is the bane of cultural heritage, leading to greater instances of fakes and forgeries, illegal theft and clandestine looting, and disproportionate distribution of wealth and power as a result of its marketing, among other problems.
In contrast, Nike’s mega order served to revitalize a dying industry, albeit temporarily. Nike took a gamble by utilizing a product that had been fashionable over four decades earlier, but their strategy was to recall a retro style in favor of the usually high-tech, ultra-modern designs for which they are known. (I do not think this was a superficial attempt at all, and even some fashion critics lauded the “peasanty looking shoe” as “really interesting.”) Nike perhaps unknowingly initiated a revival of the Harris Tweed industry because the formerly retired weavers were called back to service to help MacKay with the order. These weavers may return to tweed weaving as a vocation as they receive further inquiries for their skills. In this case, commodification ended up as the best kind of advertising and promotion for the Harris Tweed industry. Nike can be thanked for raising the profile of MacKay’s weaving, who has also been commissioned to provide cloth for a line of Clark’s boots.
Preservation of Knowledge — This story also addresses intangible cultural heritage issues in regards to the preservation of knowledge. Harris Tweed is so rare and unique that by a special Act of Parliament, only fabric hand-woven in the homes of the Outer Hebrides islanders, using pure virgin wool, dyed and spun in the islands, can be called Harris Tweed. The knowledge in traditional weaving methods ensures that no other cloth can bear the same name. Is Harris Tweed weaving worthy of World Intangible Cultural Heritage status?
Material and Cultural Conservation — Lastly, the increasing demand for Harris Tweed has allowed traditional weavers to produce new designs that will also some day become part of Harris Tweed heritage. Hundreds of fabric designs have already been preserved, and the production of greater quantities of hand-woven fabric will present further opportunities to create original tweed designs.Scotweb, a Scottish specialty goods distributor, has devoted itself to “restoring ancient traditions” and “building up a physical archive of rare Harris Tweed fabric samples.” If sometime in the future traditional weaving knowledge becomes endangered (again?), this archive will undoubtedly provide the model for a recreation of these traditions. The archive thus offers a rich example of protecting material culture for the future.