38018: The History of Harris Tweed

From Gleanings, The Genealogy of Kinloch, Isle of Lewis by Kinloch Historical Society, from records in the archives of Angus Macleod, Calbost/Marybank.

The art of weaving is one of man’s most ancient occupations, dating from his desire to have some protection against the elements. Explorations of sites of early Biblical times have unearthed samples of woven cloth dating back to 2,000-3,000 BC.

In Lewis, the origin of our Hebridean ‘Clo Mor’ goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years as was proven in 1941 when during wartime excavations of Stornoway Airport, a burial chamber was uncovered and in it were found a whorl, a weaving comb, a stone weight and fragments of pottery. It was estimated that the artefacts exposed were about 2,000 years old and that the bones were those of a woman – probably the older Lewis spinner/weaver known to us!

It was during the last 150 years that our Hebridean ‘Clo Mor’ community industry developed slowly into the sophisticated Harris Tweed cottage industry that it is today, supplying quality cloth to top fashion houses all over the world. One of the outstanding features of the history of the development of the Harris Tweed industry is the massive philanthropic effort contributed by a wide variety of people and agencies, on behalf of the community as a whole. Without that voluntary social work, the Harris Tweed Industry would never have developed into what it is today.

Lord and Lady Dunmore, proprietors of North Harris, took an interest in the excellent cloth that the local weavers were making. They asked the weavers to copy the Dunmore family tartan – the Murray tartan – and they were so impressed with the result that from then on they used the cloth for themselves and for their staff and also introduced it to their friends and guests from the south.

It is generally accepted that the commercialisation of the cloth began at that time, in the 1840s and that is whey the ‘Clo Mor’ became known as Harris Tweed. Oral tradition relates that the first wed of tweed that was sold commercially in the 1840s was woven by the sisters Marion and Christine Macleod who were born on Pabbay Island about 1810 and moved to Strond, Harris later on. Oral tradition in Kinloch claims that the first tweed sold commercially in Lewis was woven by Peigi Montgomery (Bean an Tailleir), 35 Balallan. Peigi was a daughter of Angus Smith, 50 Balallan.

The Dunmores also endeavoured to improve the quality and designs of the tweed by paying the expenses of Harris girls sent to Alloa for training in more intricate patterns.

Up until the early part of the 20th Century, Harris Tweed was entirely a hand made cottage product, with crofters using their own wool for domestic cloth and for making blankets and tweeds to sell.

It was arduous work; the sheep had to be shorn, the wool washed and dyed and then teased. To dye the wool, a variety of vegetable dyes was used, e.g. crotal, heather, bracken, bog myrtle, etc.

They then carded and spun the wool by hand. At first the spinning was done with the distaff and spindle and later on with the spinning wheel – a great step forward.

The earliest loom used in the cottage industry was a small one called ‘a bheart bheag’. Demand for the cloth increased towards the end of the 19th Century and in the first few decades of the 20th Century. Merchants and others purchased the cloth and sold it to buyers in the south. In Kinloch, Kenneth Macleod, 20 Balallan, Donald Macleod, 21 Balallan and John Mackenzie, 46 Balallan took an active part in this enterprise.

With the increasing demand for the cloth, carding and spinning became a problem as the output was low. It appears that as a result of this, a number of women were employed full time in Valtos House, Kinloch, carding and spinning. Those entrepreneur merchants bought wool supplies and farmed the wool out for hand carding and spinning. Thus the merchants entered into the production of the cloth, as the forerunners of the small producers.

Increasing demand for tweed by the turn of the century brought problems not only regarding the inadequate production process then in vogue but also the appearance of an imitation cloth on the market, which necessitated protection of the Harris Tweed by a registered Trade Mark. A Trade Mark was first proposed in 1890 but in the event, it was not registered until 1910 and the first cloth was stamped in 1911 as ‘hand spun, hand woven and finished by hand as a cottage product’. This was the first appearance of the famous Orb Mark.

Insofar as Lewis is concerned, the Harris Tweed industry developed mainly in Lochs and Uig to begin with, the two Lewis districts adjacent to Harris. Balallan, being strategically placed, became the centre of the tweed industry in Lochs because there were fairly large merchant buyers and small producers there. Jessie Platt of Eishken Estate also made a valuable contribution to the economy of Lochs by buying the local ‘Clo Mor’ from the crofters. The writer saw one of her record books which proved that she paid three shillings and sixpence a yard for tweed in 1889.

By the turn of the century it was felt that hand carding was slow and tedious and not able to satisfy the demand for yarn. Consequently, it became the practice of crofters to send their wool to mainland mills for carding. This was the first step the industry took on the long and controversial road to mechanisation. It was but a very short step to have their wool spun, as well as carded, on the mainland and yet another short step to get mainland spun yarn without sending their own wool.

The sending of wool to the mainland for carding caused some people concern for the good reputation that hand-made tweed had gained for itself in the market place.

To minimise the damage, Sir Samuel Scott, the proprietor of North Harris, opened a water powered carding mill in Harris in 1900 to serve the crofters. Aneas Mackenzie, who had a boat slip in Stornoway also installed a small carding machine within his works about 1903. Spinning machinery was installed in Stornoway about 1909 by Kenneth Mackenzie. By that time mill spun yarn was coming from the mainland.

Production of Harris Tweed was greatly increased by merchants and small producers in the 1920s when the herring fishing was depressed. Mainland mill spun yarn was used extensively as there was no advantage in keeping exclusively to Hebridean mill spun yarn because neither of them qualified for the Orb Stamp.

Pressure was increasing to amend the Orb Mark in order to allow Hebridean mill spun yarn to qualify for the Stamp. Although the industry was build mainly on mainland yarn, there was no mention of acknowledging that fact and a fierce controversy arose about 1930. The merchants and small producers maintained that the local spinners were determined to secure a monopoly in yarn supplies and thus take over the crofter industry. Among those who imported mainland yarn then was James Macdonald, Habost, Lochs. He went into partnership with Gilbert Archer of Leith and they installed carding, spinning and finishing machinery in the disused canning factory that Lord Leverhulme had built but never used. James Macdonald then became the leading advocate for amending the definition of the Orb Mark.

On the weaving side, the industry relied on a small loom ‘ a bheart bheag’ and by the early 1890s there was a move to update the weaving process. It is said that James Mackenzie (Seumas an Thaboist), 4 Gravir was the first person in Lewis to acquire in the 1890s a big loom ‘beart mhor’ with the flying shuttle.

In 1987, the Congested District Board was formed and it helped crofters in many ways. They advanced interest free funds to purchase improved looms and they also provided large township pots for dyeing wool, some of which are still in the community. They also provided funds to enable practical instruction to be given in spinning, warping and weaving. A Mr Alexander Lamont was appointed Instructor and may have been stationed in Balallan for some time. Even at the beginning of the 20th Century, the methods of work in the Harris Tweed Industry were still quite primitive.

The Hattersley loom came in the 1920s but it was as a result of the amending of the definition of the Orb Mark in 1934 that the Hattersley loom came into its own as the production figures increased. In the 1920s, mainland mill spun yarn predominated in the production of Harris Tweed and therefore the 1934 amendment did not fully recognise the real situation in the industry at the time.

There was a raging controversy and three men of the cloth with Lochs connections played a vital part in the development of the industry. They were: Rev M Maciver, F.C., Crossbost; Rev N Macleod, C of S, Uig and last but not least Rev M Macrae, F.C., Kinloch. It was Mr Macrae in particular who fought for a clause in the definition of the Orb Mark to ensure that the weaving would continue to be carried out ‘at the homes of the islanders’. Later on Mr Macrae negotiated special favourable tariff concessions in America that benefited the island community considerably. He also served on the management committee of the reorganised Harris Tweed Association for many years after 1934.

From 1934, the stamping figures increased steadily until they peaked at 7 million yards in 1966. It was in 1964 that the Lord Hunter Harris Tweed Court Case between the Orb and the Shield took place. The result was full protection for the Orb Industry and so it would appear that the prospects for the Orb Harris Tweed Industry were never brighter than in the 1960s. However, it was in that decade that power woven double-width similar cloth to Harris Tweed began to be produced in Stornoway at a time when it was difficult to keep up with the demand for single-width Orb tweed.

It should be noted that the small producers made a very significant contribution towards the overall production of Harris Tweed even in the early 1960s but by the end of the decade, they were knocked out of the industry because of the mad cut throat competition by the Orb manufacturers in all the markets of the world. If they had co-operated with each other, that would have resulted in an economic market price compatible with the Harris Tweed image as a luxury cloth and the demand for it might have been enhanced. After the Lord Hunter case was over, the squeeze was applied to the small producers and they could not buy Orb yarn at a price that would enable them to process and sell the cloth at the ridiculously low price prevailing in the 1960s and 1970s.

Discussions began in the 1960s between the Harris Tweed Association, the HIDB and the Orb spinners to see if a suitable double-width manually operated loom could be developed. In 1974, the search for such a loom was abandoned and the establishment decided to concentrate on double-width power weaving. By that time, three of the six powerful Orb spinners were themselves knocked out of the industry because of the policy of devaluing their product by competing with each other at an uneconomic selling price. It should be noted that Orb Harris Tweed does not compete with any other cloth in the world as it can only be made in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland; it is a unique cloth, selling on the cachet of ‘hand-woven at the Islanders’ homes. There was one fly in the ointment of the improvers – they could not convert the industry from hand weaving at the Islanders’ homes to double-width power weaving in weaving factories belonging to the spinners without amending the Orb Stamp once again and that could not be done without the approval of the community in the shape of the weavers, because the Orb is a community mark.

The culmination of the restructuring proposals of the 1970s was a decision to set up three weaving factories; one in Shawbost, one in Ness and one in Back. Each one of the three surviving spinners was to own one of the weaving factories as well as the power looms – the weavers were to be Mill employees. That would have spelt the end of the single-width or double-width cottage domestic weaving and the complete takeover of all aspects of the industry by Orb spinners. This outcome was predicted by the strong anti-amendment lobby in 1934, ably articulated by people such as Kenneth Macleod (Coinneach a Cheannaich), 20 Balallan and many others.

They decisive weavers’ ballot of 1976 resulted in a 97% vote against the restructuring proposals. In 1986, John Griffiths designed a new manual loom and by 1988 the single-width rapier loom was ready. It was tested in Lewis and it was proven that the principle of propulsion of the new single-width loom would be practicable for a double-width loom. Thus, the new Bonas-Griffiths double width rapier loom appeared on the scene and is in use by weavers at the present day.

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