The island of Harris in Scotland's Outer Hebrides may be somewhat inaccessible, but Harris tweed, as the locals will proudly tell you, goes round the world—seven million yards of it every year. And every scrap is handwoven in tiny crofts (or farms) that nestle in the island's wild rock-and loch-strewn landscape, where smoke rises from peat fires and sheep graze on the heather hills.
Harris tweed is made from a mixture of blackface and Cheviot wool, carded in a way that traps air and gives it its characteristic warmth. Harris was famous for its tweed as early as 1500, when it was known as "Clo Mor," or great cloth. The wool was clipped from island sheep, scoured, dyed with local plants, hand-carded, hand-spun, hand-loomed, then shrunk, or "waulked," by teams of women chanting special work songs.
The resulting tweed was so dense and thick that it had the ability to resist the nonstop drizzle the Highlanders like to call "soft" weather. During the Hungry '40s of the 19th century the crofters were near famine, and local lairds tried exporting the tweed to help them earn a living. Their fame soon spread, and by 1909 a distinguishing mark was adopted to balk imitators. The Harris Orb has since become world-renowned and signifies a fabric "produced in Scotland...and handwoven by the Islanders at their own homes in the islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist, Barra and their several purtenances...."
Nowadays there are some 1,500 weavers at work in the islands, but to prevent mass-production methods only one loom is allowed per croft. Some machine work is now done during the nonweaving steps: dyeing, spinning and working. A sportsman who wants a tweed entirely croft-made from shearing to sewing must track down one of the half a dozen women of Harris who still work in the old way. Mrs. Alex Macdonald in the village of Drinnishader is one of these. She is so skilled that she was chosen to weave a length for Queen Elizabeth II in 1959. If you don't find Mrs. Macdonald in her store, her kitchen or her weaving shed, you may glimpse her scrambling about the rocks of the loch's shore with a bucket and spoon, scraping off the gray rock lichen called crottle, which she uses to make dye for the deep-russet crottle tweed. She also makes up her own vegetable dyes: light yellow from iris root, deeper yellow from bog myrtle, blue from indigo, tammy brown from peat soot.
April 12, 1971
How fast can she get a tweed ready for you? It might be several months, perhaps a year or more. Next autumn's output is already accounted for to customers as far away as New Zealand. But leave your order. In due time she'll get to it, and for $3.60 a yard you can afford to wait.