Vintage Harris Tweed: Its History, How to Buy it and its Bizarre Uses

  • Post category:Fashion

There are not many classic materials that are so connected to their roots that they have Acts of Parliament created to protect them, but that is exactly what happened to Harris Tweed in 1993. As the major private sector employer in the Outer Hebrides, it was decided that the Harris Tweed Act 1993 should establish the Harris Tweed Authority to ensure the “integrity, distinctive character and worldwide renown of Harris Tweed.”

The standards set out in the Act mean that, when you spot the distinctive mark on the label of your garment, you can be sure that the material will be of exquisite quality and have come from the heart of communities in the Western Isles of Scotland, who have lovingly created this special fabric. 

Harris Tweed

You can still buy all manner of newly manufactured Harris Tweed products in shops around the world today. However, vintage Harris Tweed also holds an enduring allure, with a host of menswear, womenswear and accessories available to snap up.  

The History of Harris Tweed

The Harris Tweed Act describes Harris Tweed as having “been handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.” This has been the case for centuries. Originally, the residents of Harris, Lewis, The Uists, Benbecula and Barra called the fabric Clò-Mòr, meaning “big cloth”. 

Initially, the islanders used the fabric themselves, and some of them even used it as currency to trade for other items. This happened on the islands, but some islanders began taking them across to the mainland to exchange too. 

Lady Catherine Herbert, on taking over the run of her Harris estate following the Earl of Dunmore’s death, is said to have had a hand in popularising the tweed further afield in the 1840s. She loved the fabric, with its characteristic flecks of natural dye throughout the rugged material, and commissioned some local sisters to weave lengths of tweed with the family tartan. She had this turned into uniforms for her gamekeepers and spotted an opportunity to market the results as the ideal component for outdoor sport and living.  

In the following years, Lady Catherine threw herself into promoting Harris Tweed and even aiding local manufacturers to gain new skills. This proved a huge success, with many members of the aristocracy starting to wear the tweed for their country pursuits. 

Massive popularity followed, with the famous orb trademark granted in 1909 to protect the brand. To this day, a Harris Tweed Authority inspector checks one in every 50 metres of Harris Tweed fabric for quality. 

Vintage Harris Tweed Jackets

Vintage Harris Tweed jackets are amongst the most iconic items that manufacturers create with the material from the Outer Hebrides. You tend to find two distinct styles of vintage Harris Tweed jacket – the boxier cut from the 1950s and 60s, and the more shaped style from the 70s, which usually bears wider lapels and just two buttons. 

Of course there are many variations, but these are the most common types of jacket you will find at vintage fairs and shops. 

Vintage Harris Tweed Jacket

The appeal of these vintage Harris Tweed jackets is that you can wear them in a number of different ways. Casual with a jumper and jeans underneath. Formal with a shirt, tie and slacks or tailored trousers, and everything in between! The quality of the jacket shines through however you wear your Harris Tweed. 

How to Buy Vintage Harris Tweed

Manufacturers have created a huge range of products from Harris Tweed over the years. You can find Harris Tweed bags, purses, slippers, lampshades and even a Harris Tweed dog collar! 

The first thing to check when you buy vintage Harris Tweed is the orb mark. This shows you it uses genuine tweed from the Western Isles. Some less reputable traders might try to pass off a lesser tweed as Harris. But all genuine items should carry this distinctive mark. 

When buying in person, you can check the item thoroughly, but it is not possible online. You should ask the dealer about the condition of the tweed as well as the lining. Find out if there is any damage or evidence of moths. Any reputable seller will be more than happy to answer your questions. 

Bizarre Uses of Harris Tweed

As well as creating beautiful products, Harris Tweed manufacturers have turned their hands to a range of bizarre tasks. In 2016, designer Emma Sandham-King created a three-piece Harris Tweed suit for a racehorse. Morestead posed with AP McCoy to promote the start of that year’s Cheltenham Festival. Staying on the sporting theme, in the same year Joan Macleod used yarn donated by the Carloway tweed mill on Lewis to create a yellow jersey for the winner of the island’s first Harris Tweed bike ride. The event saw competitors cycle whilst wearing the local cloth from head to foot. Project Kahn has even modified a Land Rover Defender with Harris Tweed bucket seats! 

To browse the Harris Tweed products on sale at the Discover Vintage Marketplace, use the Search box above.