Everything old is new again. The harrowing experiences of the past three years of economic uncertainty have reminded us of the values of the classic, of quality and heritage brands and makers. So we are told, and so we were told during the last crises in 2001. Will it last? As before, likely only as long as it takes the inexorable tide of fashion to wash back out again. And each time, this tide carries away a little bit of knowledge, of quality, it erodes the essence of what it holds dear. However, the formerly evergreen woolen Harris Tweed really has undergone a renewal against the backdrop of our reeling world. Lara Platman’s new book Harris Tweed: From Land to Street illustrates what remains of a menswear staple whose continued existence once seemed as bulletproof, unyielding and predictable as the material itself.
Most of my life I associated Harris Tweed with the drab, rough and harsh, in a kaleidoscope of colors, all of them the drab colors . The hoary, hairy sportcoat of a middle school English teacher, stinking with decades of spilt coffee and faculty meeting sweat. The century-old iconic orb label that identifies authentic Harris Tweed, handwoven on the islands of Harris and Lewis off the coast of Scotland, proudly stitched into the linings of forgettable dull sportcoats in the sorts of frightening forgotten men’s stores whose salesmen are nearly as old. Dull of cut, dull of appearance, dull of construction. Taken for granted. Tweed as a whole, Donegals and Shetlands and Cheviots in their random motleys of homespun did know a resurgence of interest in the last decade, particularly with the development of British designers such as Richard James and Vivienne Westwood carrying out a rediscovery of traditional materials and the re-emergence of interest in bespoke tailoring with, for instance, the mad seasonal patterns at Huntsman and Richard Anderson in the van.
Platman makes clear that her book is intended to provide a contemporary record of “photographic portraits” of the people and places now making Harris Tweed, not to provide a definitive history of the material. As such, the book tells its story mainly through its photographs of the different people now involved in handweaving Harris Tweed, each of them bringing a different personal history to this narrative: time spent off the island, interests in engineering or art school or simply in the unassuming routine of weaving that occupies free hours of retirement.
Platman provides a brief history of the origins of Harris Tweed, including the profile-raising move by Lady Dunmore in the mid-nineteenth century to outfit her servants in Harris Tweed livery. Harris Tweed’s true origins are in the essence of cottage industries and homespun, the need in rural communities to make one’s own cloth from bits of yarn and to make it last. Traditionally, hand weavers worked on single-width looms in sheds next to their houses; once Harris Tweed became an industry mills provided them with the yarn, historically made from sheep living on the islands, and the weavers returned to them woven cloth for finishing and sale. The “street” part of the title manifests in a few pages towards the end describing contemporary designers who have appropriated Harris Tweed in their collections. And she points out that Harris Tweed has outgrown the harshness of its earlier reputation: double-width looms allow faster, looser, and thus softer and lighter cloth, often made from a different breed of sheep than the original animals whose fleece went into Harris Tweed. Colors can be more varied: Platman mentions one designer seeking inspiration from the colors of Indian pickles in his supermarket, certainly as British an inspiration as the legendary country colors that led to many an estate tweed. All this occurs as postmodern atavists discover the joys of the original stuff, the incredibly stiff and rough fabric, sometimes seemingly an inch thick, at first glance as drab and sludgy as Giorgio Armani’s design palette, but over time, so much time, durably winking with so many other points of color.
Platman doesn’t dwell on the recent events that led Harris Tweed’s fate to hang, as it were, by a single thread: as mills gradually closed one by one, the number of weavers declined and supply bottlenecked. A providential white knight who took over one of the last remaining mills nearly delivered Harris Tweed a coup de grâce in cutting production from 8,000 patterns to just four, according to Savile Row Style magazine, and it took new investors and the efforts of a few dedicated industry professionals to come in and ensure the survival of the two other remaining mills on Harris and Lewis. The number of weavers is now on the upswing. One such industry supporter, Patrick Grant, the owner of Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons, writes an emotional foreword to this book.
Harris Tweed: From Land to Street’s lavish photographs suggest parallels between Harris Tweed and the isles from which it hails: rugged as their windlashed coasts, subtly colored as their fields of heather, timeless as their standing stones. This timelessness may be illusory: we know the lives recorded in these evocative portraits may be as precarious as the ways of life in more developed areas, teetering between being overrun by the dross or simply being washed away by the tide. Savor the book with a dram of Ardbeg Corryvreckan and a whisper of ice, and you may hear the isles whisper to you.
-Réginald-Jérôme de Mans