|Mills producing Harris Tweed dot the landscape at Ballalan, Outer Hebrides, date unknown
(photo credit: Harris Tweed Authority Archive)
Three years ago I wrote a piece about the apparent decline of the Harris Tweed weaving industry in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides (see: “Nike Helps Revitalize Harris Tweed Industry”). As the number of the islands’ weavers dropped from 2,000 to 200 over a forty year period, and production dwindled to an all time low, it seemed Harris Tweed was losing an important heritage battle. I touched on a few critical issues such as the commercial commodification of a traditional art form, the preservation of authentic local knowledge in the islanders’ native weaving process, and cultural conservation and identity recognition.
With these issues still relevant, I am humbled to find news of a tweed revival, of sorts. Donald Martin, Chairman of the Harris Tweed Authority, credits the resurgence of Harris Tweed to a rethinking of market values vis-a-vis heritage and authenticity. “The main thing to do was to change the image,” he said. “We started associating with good young Scottish designers. We started sending out different messages about Harris Tweed, and to some extent we had the luck that it was in line with what the market was doing with an emphasis on heritage and quality.” Whereas twenty years ago older weavers were walking away from their craft, today, a new generation is weaving just like their ancestors over a century earlier, encompassing the “virtuous circle” of native knowledge and tradition. Blending versatility and creativity with both formal and informal training, these young, market-savvy weavers are responsible for thousands of new patterns already in wide use, from designs of global fashion giants to upholstered Land Rover interiors to iPad and Kindle covers.
Check out the very cool Harris Tweed Archive to see photographs of early tweed production, vintage advertising, historic labels, and early film.