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Harris Tweed: A revival is looming

Harris Tweed may have a 105-year-long tradition, but its strategy is thoroughly modern.

Hi-top trainers and iPad covers might not be synonymous with Harris Tweed, but it is this sort of diversification that is allowing this artisan industry to thrive.

Harris Tweed Hebrides - the company that accounts for 85% of production of the cloth - was set up in 2007. The fabric has traditionally been produced for men’s tailored jackets and outerwear, but the company has focused on diversifying its customer base in an effort to give those employed in the manufacture of tweed on the islands of Lewis and Harris a more secure, year-round job.

The company’s mill in Shawbost, on the Isle of Lewis, is continuing to work with high street retailers: for autumn 14 its collaboration with Topman on waistcoats and skinny-fit tailored jackets will return to stores for its fourth season (a Topman Harris Tweed green moss blazer retails at £150), as will its tie-up with Next, for the second season, in the form of three women’s jackets (a Next Harris Tweed brown check women’s jacket retails at £175).

Brand development director Margaret Macleod says the mill is looking to grow its womenswear business: “The cloth has great potential for women’s fashion both in terms of colour and weave.”

The bulk of Harris production is featherweight (470g to 500g per running metre), although a superfine variety (390g to 420g) is available.

The featherweight cloth appeals to Stephen Allen, head cutter at Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons: “You can shrink, stretch and manipulate it to achieve a good fit. It is also naturally waterproof and hard wearing.”

The company has also created a medium-weight cloth for interiors (500g to 530g), as used by upholsterer Tetrad to decorate Glasgow’s Blythswood Square Hotel.

As many as eight different shades can be blended into a single yarn. The resulting colour depth and pronounced texture makes Harris Tweed appear richer in comparison to standard tweeds, says Anda Rowland, vice chairman of Prince Charles’s tailor Anderson & Sheppard.

Harris Tweed Hebrides weaves to order in excess of 500 patterns in more than150 yarn colours, as well as working on bespoke designs for clients.

The Harris Tweed Act of 1909 (which was reconfirmed in 1993) stipulates the fabric must be made from pure Scottish wool dyed, spun and finished in the Outer Hebrides and handwoven by the islanders in their homes. A weaver takes up to two weeks to finish 200 metres of cloth.

The Harris Tweed Authority inspects each piece of cloth before it can be stamped with the official Orb symbol. A 56p levy on each metre is used to fund the legal protection of Harris Tweed from copyright infringements worldwide.

Among the Harris Tweed producers prices vary significantly. But according to Drapers’ research, the fabric wholesales for about £25 to £27 a metre for clothing, depending on style and volume ordered.

Harris Tweed production peaked in 1966 at 7.6 million metres, but plummeted to 450,000 metres in the year 2008-09, following the acquisition of the Kenneth Mackenzie mill in Stornaway in 2006 by Brian Haggas, the Yorkshire businessman who owns mainstream menswear brand Brook Taverner. The mill was previously responsible for 98% of production, but Haggas slashed the cloth designs from 8,000 to four, all for his own business, leading to more than 100 job losses.

Scottish businessmen Brian Wilson and Ian Angus Mackenzie drew on this redundant expertise, and with the help of head designer Ken Kennedy, went on to found Harris Tweed Hebrides in 2007. As chairman and chief executive, Wilson and Mackenzie spearheaded the growth of the company, the largest of three commercial mills producing authentic Harris Tweed. Also based on the Isle of Lewis, The Carloway Mill has been part-owned by China’s Shandong Ruyi Technology Group since 2013. Haggas is still in control of the Kenneth Mackenzie mill, but has since changed his strategy to make larger quantities for wider consumption.

This year’s production of Harris Tweed is set to hit 1.3 million metres, up from 1.2 million in 2013, and now there are 140 freelance weavers, 130 staff working across the three mills, and about 40 other people employed in related jobs in logistics, small craft operations and retail.

Over 60% of the cloth is exported to key destinations such as Japan, Germany, Italy, France and the US. It seems both at home and abroad, people will pay for authentic, special quality.

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