Protecting Heritage - Harris Tweed

Kaul, Ekta Khokhar a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, is currently engaged pursuing her Masters in Textile Design at the School of Textile and Design, Heriot-Watt University, Scotland. She was awarded the Scottish International Scholarship, 2005/06 as well as Charles Wallace Wallace Trust India Scholarship, 2005/06. For her Masters project she is engaged in developing synergies between technology with textile traditions. Prior to embarking upon the Masters programme, Ekta had a successful stint at the industry, working with some of India’s most revered designers.

A tan and brown tweed jacket hangs in a far corner of my husband’s closet and gets frequent reverent glances from him. It is his grandfather’s. My curiosity at the jacket’s ageless appearance turned to marvel when I discovered the familiar orb and cross mark stamped on the inside. The label read “Handwoven Harris Tweed, woven in Outer Hebrides from Scottish grown wool.”

Outer Hebrides or Western Isles comprise a group of islands on Scotland’s North West coast. Characterised by harsh climate and rugged landscape, the islands are famous for Harris Tweed. Called ‘Clo Mor’ in Gaelic i.e. the big cloth, Harris Tweed is synonymous with a continued celebration of the handmade tradition.

“Harris Tweed is cloth that has been hand woven by the islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra in their homes, using pure virgin wool that has been dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.” This is the definition of Harris Tweed contained in the Harris Tweed Act of 1993 and it ensures that all cloth certified with the Harris Tweed Orb symbol complies with this definition and is genuine Harris Tweed, the world’s only commercially produced hand woven tweed1.

Origins of Harris Tweed date back to 15952. It was woven for domestic purposes by women in the islands and the tradition continued till the late 19th century. It was in 1884 that Harris Tweed began to be woven as a commercial product, a change largely credited to Lady Dunmore, the widow of the Earl of Dunmore who owned the estate of Harris. Lady Dunmore took an active interest in promoting Harris Tweed amongst her friends in London and Edinburgh. Because of its high quality, rugged appearance and ability to keep warm in extreme cold, the fabric gained popularity amongst the aristocracy as an ideal material for outdoor clothing.

Harris Tweed continued to gain popularity in the twentieth and twenty first centuries as its repertoire of colour, width, weight and styles widened. In post-industrialised Britain, when most cottage industries closed down, Harris Tweed continued its tradition of being handmade. It was hailed by the likes of William Morris and John Ruskin as being the antithesis of ‘dehumanisation’ caused by the Industrial Revolution. Harris Tweed continues to be popular even today and is seen regularly in the collections of many renowned designers and fashion houses like the Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, etc.

What makes Harris Tweed unique is its ability to have retained its craft legacy inspite of competition from a growing mill sector and cheap imitations. In order to safeguard the interests of the islanders and their livelihood, Harris Tweed certification mark was registered in 1909. The original definition stated, "Harris Tweed means a tweed, handspun, hand woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides."3 The definition was amended subsequently in 1934 to include mill spun yarn, resulting in a tremendous boost to production. The registration of the brand ‘Harris Tweed’ and its certification mark are deemed as the most significant factors in preserving the craft. Sustained marketing efforts, financial support from government and industry bodies followed, ensuring continued popularity of the fabric.

The success of Harris Tweed brings an immediate parallel to mind; that of Banarasi Brocade. Perhaps registering Banarasi Brocade as an area specific craft product is the answer to the problem. The mark would provide a guarantee of the product being authentic and differentiate it from imitations. This would need to be augmented by a public awareness campaign about the certification mark and its value. Could we use the Harris Tweed example as a case study for protecting Indian crafts? Simply introducing a certification mark cannot solve the complex problem our crafts face today, but it can certainly make a beginning.

  1. http://www.harristweed.com/what_is.htm
  2. F. Thomson, The Story of Hebridean Community, pg 57, 1969
  3. http://www.scottishtextileheritage.org.uk/onlineResources/articles/

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