David Coggins makes a pilgrimage to Harris, to immerse himself in the landscape from which the world's finest tweed is born.
Photos by Matthew Hranek.
No fabric fires our imagination like tweed. It’s functional, durable, elegant and singular. From professors to ghillies to dandies, tweed is as versatile as it is beloved. The only substance we feel such a connection to is Scotch. That’s no surprise - they both originate from the same place, and that place is, of course, Scotland. They both also get better with age, and, to keep the comparison going, I have more tweed jackets and bottles of Scotch than I can wear or drink. But that doesn’t keep me from wanting more.
Last year, I went to Harris to write an article for Condé Nast Traveler. After a flight, a drive and a ferry ride, my friends and I arrived on the Isle of Lewis, and then drove on to Harris. The landscape was striking, vast, lunar even. This is the land that famously features four seasons in a day. A morning hail shower would bring a laugh since it would inevitably be followed by vivid sunshine ten minutes later.
Producing Harris tweed is a closely regulated process. One of three local finishing houses buys wool from sheep in England or Scotland. That’s spun into thread, which is delivered to a weaver at his home, with a card that explains what pattern the tweed will be. This weaver (usually a man) has a loom in a building next to his house, about the size of a small garage. He might have a window looking out on the landscape, or a radio playing in the corner. This is where he spends most of his time.
After tying around 1600 knots (1600!) to connect the thread to a decades-old loom, he’s ready to weave. The loom is powered by his feet - when he’s working it looks like he’s riding a bicycle. Most of the sheds are unheated, so the exercise of pedalling keeps him warm. The weavers we met knew one another and visited for a cup of tea, or if somebody needed help repairing his loom.
It takes about a week (40-50 hours) to make a 50-yard bolt of fabric. This is serious work. Then the finishing houses send a truck around to the sheds to pick up the bolts. But the process still has a long way to go. Each finishing house has to approve the bolt. They wash each bolt of tweed, which softens it, then they stretch it across a light table and inspect it for any imperfections. This work is often done by local women and they are very precise with their darning and repairs. When the tweed is approved it is affixed with the recognizable Harris Tweed label and distributed worldwide.
Aside from the process, which is entirely carried out by residents of Harris, it’s amazing just how much tweed feels like it belongs to this place. The colours from the tweed we all love - burnt brown, heather green, pale wheat, and the rest - are present in the landscape itself. The palette is literally all around you, which of course is why the fabric was originally developed for those who wanted to hunt and blend into the surroundings. Before there was camo there was tweed.
Tweed that does not go through this specific process cannot be deemed Harris tweed. But there is plenty of wonderful tweed woven at independent sheds that is perfectly lovely. We went up a dirt driveway to visit a man who had woven for one of the finishing houses for years, and now sold privately. He casually unrolled a bolt of green and brown houndstooth and cut it with his big scissors as if he was a butcher measuring out the right amount of steak. It was terrific.
Another highlight was paging through the old books of tweed swatches at the finishing houses. You could see endless varieties of bold patterns and still-vivid colors, with their names all meticulously entered into immense books. Those tweeds were made into jackets that seemed nearly bullet-proof. They were terrific for their time and I have some old ones I cherish. But tweed jackets today are even more to my taste. They are made with a little less structure, so they’re at home inside as well as out. With an oxford shirt, cords and a knit tie you’re in business, ready for a dram wherever they’re pouring.