The Outer Hebrides are famous for Harris Tweed, a luxury cloth handwoven by islanders using local wool with characteristic natural hues and great textures. Long before the industrial revolution reached Scotland, inhabiters of the Wester Isles, like those in many other parts of Scotland, manufactured cloth entirely by hand for domestic and local use. Some islanders even used to pay their rent in lengths of the cloth and the tradition of hand weaving textiles still exists as strong today as ever.
The craft of weaving has been practised in the islands for a long time and the Hebridean sheep were bred for weaving rather than for knitting, as in Shetland. The wool is strong and makes a tough thread, ideal for the loom, and results in hard wearing cloth.
Originally everything was done by hand and the wool was dyed using various plants. It was boiled outside in a large pot until the required colour was developed. A mordant was then used to fix the die and the tweed was laid out on a table and thumped to shrink it and give it more strength.
As they prepared the cloth for the next step the women would sing ‘waulking’ songs, serious and slow at the beginning and end of the process and quick and jolly in the middle. They would judge how long it took to prepare the cloth by how many songs they would sing. No song was ever repeated while working on a piece of cloth, as it was believed this would bring bad luck, and milk was sometimes offered to ‘Ioireag’, a faery woman who was believed to be present at the waulking.
In 1842 the Countess of Dunmore, who owned much of Harris, became interested in the tweed and soon it became popular with sportsmen all over the country. By the late 19th century demand was greater than supply and gradually dyeing, carding, spinning and finishing all became mechanised, although all weaving is still done by hand.
The 1993 Harris Tweed Act states that the tweed ‘must be hand-woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides. The orb trademark symbol, which was registered in 1910, is the customer’s guarantee of genuine quality in a product ‘created for individuals by individuals’.
There are a number of places in the Outer Hebrides where visitors can purchase clothing, material and other items made of Harris Tweed. Located in Tarbet on the Isle of Harris, Harris Tweed Isle of Harris has a large selection of clothing, bags, hats, shoes, boots and other accessories. In front of the shop is a Tweed store selling the material, yarn and wool.
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- The Outer Hebrides Guide Book Third Edition by Charles Tait