THE future of traditional single-width Harris Tweed is under threat – with some weavers worried it’s at risk of extinction.

Harris Tweed is the only textile in the world to have its own act of parliament, with the legislation insisting that it can only be woven by hand and then finished in the outer Hebrides – meaning the cloth goes to the mill to be washed and pressed.

It is then checked and stamped with the famed Harris Tweed Orb.

For generations, Harris Tweed was single-width. The intricate cloth imbued with vibrant hue was handwoven with passion by islanders at their homes using traditional wooden looms and then, from 1921, the more industrial Hattersley looms.

But in the early 1990s, the industry looked to modernise itself and started producing double-width looms.

The National:

Now, most weavers work for one of three mills in Lewis – who produce the vast majority of Harris Tweed – on double-width looms to produce more cloth at a lower cost.

Traditional single-width weaving, meanwhile, has gradually decreased and accounts for approximately 0.5% of the Harris Tweed produced today. And the independent weavers – those who don’t work for the mills and champion this old-style method – are struggling to survive.

Independent weavers hanging by a thread

Harris Tweed has graced royalty and Hollywood icons. The cloth has scaled Mount Everest and walked catwalks and red carpets the world over. And the contribution of independent weavers to this success shouldn’t be underestimated.

Indeed, one of them – Donald John Mackay – reinvigorated the entire industry in the 1990s after collaborating with global sportswear giant Nike on a trainer called the Terminator (below).

The National:

Finishing tweed has always been a little challenging for independents because the mill prioritises its own tweeds. They are a business, after all. But while none of the mills have any obligation to do any work for independent weavers, traditionally, they have allowed them to buy yarn and get their tweeds finished.

But since Covid-19, washes have become more and more infrequent.

Shawbost, run by Harris Tweed Hebrides, is the only mill that still does washes for independents.

Sandy (not their real name), an independent Harris Tweed weaver, told The National that they “have always been very supportive”.

However, in recent years, weavers have sometimes had to wait months and months – which leaves potentially thousands of pounds of product in limbo.

The National:

Sandy said that this could prove disastrous for independent weavers. They added: “If you can't get your tweeds finished, then nobody's gonna be weaving single-width. It will disappear.”

Some weavers have even left Harris Tweed for good. One producer, Two Sisters Tweeds, now finishes its tweed on the mainland, according to its website. It now markets it as "luxury tweed" instead.

Its website reads: “Due to multiple issues with the finishing of our cloth it became financially unviable to weave Harris Tweed. Instead we are completely independent, weaving our handwoven cloth under the brand Two Sisters Tweeds. Our fabric is washed down in Galashiels which gives us far more scope and variety in our choice of yarns and colours.”

The Harris Tweed Authority (HTA), a public body created to safeguard the standard and reputation of Harris Tweed, said it is “disappointing” that those involved in single-width weaving are facing difficulties.

But several independent weavers have said they don’t feel supported by the authority, who responded to recent struggles by sending out a letter marked private and confidential saying that:

  1. The HTA can't force the mills to wash independent tweeds.
  2. The HTA had heard that some people were having tweeds finished on the mainland, and while they were not selling it as Harris Tweed, they were referring to it as "woven by a Harris Tweed weaver". According to the HTA, this is unacceptable.
  3. It had been mentioned that some people were questioning whether the act of parliament could be amended to allow off-island finishing, and that the HTA didn't appreciate this.

Several weavers told The National that the letter felt “threatening” and should have been handled differently.

“I'll be honest, when I got the letter I was furious. I didn't actually think it was being sent to everybody, I thought it had been sent to me,” Sandy said, adding: “It was very heavy- handed.”

Sandy explained that while independents recently had their tweed finished, there is a worry that single-width weaving’s future is at risk. 

“It's very much at the behest of the mill and their goodwill and hoping that they keep going. Which I think is one of the reasons probably why there is a fear from independents of speaking out too much,” Sandy said.

The National:

They added: “The reality is that they don’t have to. If you look at it from their business point of view, it's an absolute hassle. Every time, having to change up all the machinery and set everything up to run a wash which is not even for them.

“So you just have to hope that somebody doesn't decide to be too hard-headed about business and keep some of the historical and cultural side of Harris Tweed going.”

Carloway – one of the other mills on Lewis – also sells single-width tweed but has refused to wash tweeds from independents in recent years. 

Tim Aldred from Carloway said the issue with independent weavers wouldn't spell the end of single-width Harris Tweed. 

He added: "Carloway mill is committed to making tweed in the most traditional of ways and that’s why we pioneer in our own way single-width tweed production 

"I’m now aware that there are some issues around helping other businesses to finish and promote their own tweeds or products 

"I’ve not been formally approached about it but can see the problem and ways around the problem.  It could be as described this way by some, that  smaller producers of a branded product under licence who choose for financial reasons to carry out only part of the process of making Harris Tweed, would like the larger producer to carry out the costlier parts of the process they don’t choose to do or can't.

"I can see it must be an alarming problem and somewhat stressful but It must be made very clear this is not the entirety or the end of single-width tweed or traditional weaving as it doesn’t affect the whole industry and we will carry on.

"I am aware of the great generosity of Harris Tweed Hebrides to carry on finishing fabrics of other businesses in such a charitable way whilst they are busy in their own work, doing such work should be commended as its not easy providing this goodwill service and I am sure it's sometimes very demanding.

"Although I have not been approached formally to help, I wish the independent weavers well, and I would love to help as much as I and we can . All of our tweed is produced in this old fashioned way and much of it is single-width which is, of course, the older way which we will continue to keep alive. Some of our craftsmen weavers are the best you will find.

"We could certainly help with the problem which could continue life to this part of the industry, and although its one of the National Heritage products  of Scotland, Harris Tweed isn’t something the government value and they have made a point of  refusing such support.

:There are also so many practical circular ways to attract employment and save waste in our industry but these are rejected quite deliberately  by the Scottish Government."

"We are also happy for single-width weavers to weave for us and keep their skills alive, this isn’t then a problem to keep their traditional skills alive and doesn’t put anyone out of work. 

"If we work together instead of an independent approach, perhaps by working together we might get a voice and be able to jointly spread the value of traditional heritage goods and the real and somewhat hidden benefit of these to the economy."

The Association of Harris Tweed Weavers, a membership-based organisation representing weavers in the industry, said that the relationship between independents and the mills is a “private commercial matter”.

A spokesperson said: “The overwhelming majority of association members are engaged in weaving for the mills on double-width looms.

“We have had one recent membership application from an independent single-width weaver, who has raised the issue of delays in the finishing of their cloth.

“However, we’ve not had a response to our offer of a meeting with this weaver to encourage further engagement with independent weavers of single-width Harris Tweed.

“The individual relationships that independent weavers have with the mills are a private commercial matter and the Association is therefore unable to comment further.”

Lorna Macaulay, CEO of the Harris Tweed Authority, said: “For many decades, the vast majority of Harris Tweed has been made on the Outer Hebrides using double-width weaving by islanders in their homes.

"Single-width weaving now accounts for approximately 0.5% of the Harris Tweed produced. It is disappointing that those involved in single-width weaving are currently facing difficulties having cloth finished by the mills on the island, but we entirely respect the freedom of the mills, which operate independently of the Authority, to decide what work they do and do not take on. This has no impact on the success which Harris Tweed continues to enjoy in the UK and around the world.

"The Harris Tweed industry is cherished by all of us on the Outer Hebrides. The Harris Tweed Authority was created by a 1993 act of parliament to act independently of those involved in the industry to have regard for the long-term protection of Harris Tweed.

"From time to time, it is suggested that precious elements which make Harris Tweed so very special are changed or removed, such as moving parts of production away from the Outer Hebrides.

"The Authority would not have the power, under the 1993 act, to certify cloth finished on the mainland as being Harris Tweed. It is not considered to be in the interests of the people of the Outer Hebrides now or for generations to come to do so."