A brief history of the Harris Tweed jacket
For centuries the woollen cloth, that would eventually become known as Harris Tweed, has been woven by hand in the Western Isles of Scotland. Originally this handmade fabric was woven by crofters for familial use, ideal for protection against the colder climate in the North of Scotland. Surplus cloth was often traded or used as barter, eventually becoming a form of currency amongst the islanders. For example, it was not unusual for rents to be paid in blankets or lengths of cloth.
By the end of the 18th Century, the spinning of wool yarn from local raw materials was a staple industry for the crofters of the Outer Hebrides. Finished handmade cloth was exported to the Scottish mainland and traded along with other commodities produced by the Islanders, such as dry hides, goat and deer skins.
In about 1830 a London merchant received a letter from a Hawick firm, in the Scottish Borders, referring to ‘tweels’; a pattern in which fabric is woven. It is believed that the word was erroneously read as ‘tweed’ in reference to the river Tweed that winds its way through the border towns. The cloth was advertised as ‘Tweed’ and the name became synonymous with the fabric.
When Alexander 6th Earl of Dunmore inherited the North Harris Estate from his father in 1836, production of tweed in Western Isles of Scotland was still entirely manual. Wool was washed in soft, peaty water before being coloured with dyes from local plants and lichens. It was then processed and spun, before being hand woven by the crofters in their cottages. The result was a tweed cloth with unique qualities and almost magical blend of colours.
On the death of the 6th Earl of Dunmore in 1843, responsibility for his estate on the Isle of Harris passed to his wife, Lady Catherine Herbert. It was Lady Catherine who noticed the splendid qualities of the Harris Tweed cloth produced locally by two sisters from Strond. Known as the Paisley Sisters, after the town where they had trained as weavers, the Harris Tweed fabric woven by the girls was of a remarkably higher quality than that produced by the untrained crofters.
In 1846 the Countess commissioned the sisters to weave lengths of Tweed in the Murray family tartan. She sent the finished fabric to be made up into tweed jackets for the gamekeepers and ghyllies on her estate.
Being hardwearing and water resistant, the new Harris Tweed clothing was highly suited to life on the Dunmore’s estate. Lady Catherine was quick to see that the Harris Tweed jackets worn by her staff would be ideal attire for the pursuit of country sports and the outdoor lifestyle that was prevalent amongst her peers.
The Countess took every opportunity to promote Harris Tweed as a fashionable cloth for hunting and sporting wear. It soon became the fabric of choice for the landed gentry and aristocracy of the time, including members of Queen Victoria’s inner circle.
With demand established for this high quality Harris Tweed, Lady Catherine sent girls to the Scottish mainland to better their weaving skills. She improved the yarn production process to create a more consistent, workable cloth and by the late 1840s merchants from Edinburgh to London were supplying the privileged classes with hand-woven Harris Tweed. The Harris Tweed jacket, the mans jacket that has come to define the ‘English Country Gentleman’, was born.