Fashion: Colorful fabrics, islands of green: Harris tweed revitalizes the Hebrides

Iain Martin is not even allowed to look away for a second.

Fashion: Colorful fabrics, islands of green: Harris tweed revitalizes the Hebrides

Iain Martin is not even allowed to look away for a second. Otherwise he would have to start from scratch with his filigree craft. Care and precision are required when Martin inserts the spindle in his small workshop. He weaves thread by thread, and slowly the characteristic colorful checks emerge that Martin's homeland is known for: Harris tweed. For the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago in the far north-west of Britain, it's more than a fabric. Harris-Tweed drives the Scottish Isles economy and holds society together in the remote region.

The Outer Hebrides produce almost two million meters of fabric every year. "It feels good and right," says Lorna Macaulay, head of the Harris Tweed Authority (HTA). Circumstances set limits to business. Only such material may call itself Harris Tweed, which was woven in a weaver's house from pure new wool and dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides. The British Parliament passed a law in 1993. Whether in Stornoway or half an hour's drive at Iain Martin's: they are proud of this unique selling proposition. The association checks the production and confirms the authenticity by imprinting the trademark, an orb.

Most of the 200 weavers work on behalf of factories also based in the Outer Hebrides. But Iain Martin and a few dozen others are their own bosses. The pandemic has driven his business, reports Martin - 20 percent plus in the past two years. Many young people in particular would now buy his tweed. "During the lockdown, they discovered their skills in making something of their own with sewing machines. Especially if it's something permanent." The association also sees it this way: "The world market has slowed down. Manual work, expertise and accuracy are recognized," says HTA boss Macaulay. In times when many people order fabric indiscriminately on the Internet and never know where it was made and how, the Hebrides focus on individuality.

Germany has always been an important market

The three factories - literally the mills - have increased their output significantly by up to 40 percent, says Martin. But that brings problems. Normally he gets his processed material back after three weeks. "This year we have delays of up to six months," complains the weaver. "That's a major headache for us independents." Because if he can't send any material, he doesn't get any money either.

Harris tweed is known and sought after worldwide. Germany has always been an important market, as association leader Macaulay reported at the meeting in the island's capital. Possibly also because millions of Germans know the characteristic squares from Rosamunde Pilcher films, for example. But fashion icon Vivienne Westwood, who first used the fabric for a collection in 1987, and fashion giant Nike, which brought a major order to the Hebrides in 2004, have also contributed to the rise of Harris tweed.

Because the substance has had some difficult years behind it. In the mid-1960s almost four times the current production was still being produced. "Each house should have had a connection to our branch of the economy," says the head of the association. But by 2009, the crowd had dropped to an all-time low of just 150,000 feet. Martin names mass production as the main evil. Not only the special tweed suffered, but the industry worldwide.

Once upon a time, the work was exhausting and poorly paid

The industry has long since adapted to the new requirements. "Accessories, furnishings, home textiles, upholstered furniture - all of these things are in high demand again in Europe," says Macaulay. A lot of fabric is used for tablet covers and laptop bags. "These are new, younger markets compared to those that we have traditionally looked at," she says.

With this tailwind, the industry also wants to fulfill another role: to be a pillar of society. While the production of Harris Tweed was once exhausting and poorly paid, young people can now find good work and wages here. The emigration could be stopped - and with it a bloodletting of the islands with their 26,500 inhabitants. The weavers live almost exclusively outside the main town. "If they had to come to Stornoway to look for work, the villages would die out, the village schools would close, the village shops would close," says Macaulay.

The main island of Lewis and Harris is the main beneficiary of the tweed boom. It is the economic center of the archipelago, this is where the factories are located and by far the most people live here. Until the 1980s, the material also came from other islands, such as Uist. But the topography and weather also made transport difficult - because the ferries required for this cannot always operate. Now the production is almost idle. There is one factory left with Uist Wool. However, it has long since ceased to be manufactured for the world market, but only for internal use.

Vivienne Westwood on Harris Tweed

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