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The History behind Harris Tweed

The original name of the cloth was tweel, Scots for twill, it being woven in a twilled rather than a plain pattern. A traditional story has the name coming about almost by chance.

About 1830, a London merchant received a letter from a Hawick firm about some tweels. The London merchant misinterpreted the handwriting, understanding it to be a trade-name taken from the river Tweed that flows through the Scottish Borders textile area. Subsequently, the goods were advertised as Tweed, and the name has remained ever since.

During the economic difficulties of the Highland potato famine of 1846-7, Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore was instrumental in the promotion and development of Harris Tweed as a sustainable and local industry. Recognising its sales potential, she had the Murray family tartan copied in tweed by the local weavers and suits were made for the Dunmore estate gamekeepers and ghillies. Proving a success,

Lady Dunmore sought to widen the market by removing the irregularities caused by dyeing, spinning and weaving (all done by hand) in order to bring it in line with machine-made cloth. She achieved this by organising and financing training in Alloa for the Harris weavers and by the late 1840’s a London market was established which led to an increase in sales of tweed.

With the industrial revolution the Scottish mainland turned to mechanisation, but the Outer Hebrides retained their traditional processes of manufacturing cloth.

Until the middle of the 19th century the cloth was only produced for personal use within the local market. It was not until between 1903 and 1906 that the tweed-making industry in Lewis significantly expanded.

Production increased until the peak figure of 7.6 million yards was reached in 1966. However, the Harris Tweed industry declined along with textile industries in the rest of Europe.

Harris Tweed has survived because of its distinctive quality and the fact that it is protected by an Act of Parliament limiting the use of the Orb trademark to hand woven tweeds made in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.