Spend a stormy December evening in the Outer Hebrides and you'll understand why the locals invented Harris tweed. For centuries, the inhabitants of these remote Scottish isles have handwoven the dense woolen fabric to keep out the biting North Atlantic wind and rain. Outsiders — stuffy toffs, dusty college profs, Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle — adopted it. By the mid-1960s, the foot-powered Hebridean looms were producing as much as 7.6 million meters of cloth every year. Then came the slump. As customers switched to lighter, more modern fabrics, mills were shuttered. By 2008, annual output had sunk to just 500,000 meters.
But on Lewis, an island of moss-coated moors and salmon streams, a startup is weaving a profitable future for the sagging sector, with a client list that ranges from design giants Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, and Alexander McQueen to cool up-and-comers like Glasgow's Deryck Walker.
The turnaround began in November 2007, when a new company called Harris Tweed Hebrides bought and reopened a mothballed mill, in the village of Shawbost, and launched a bold, design-driven campaign to restore the cloth to popularity.
Step one in HTH's strategy: Strip the twee from tweed. "The cloth's name and reputation is built and maintained by the people who wear it," says HTH chief executive Ian Angus Mackenzie. "It's traditionally been an older person's fabric. But if top designers use Harris tweed, it's sure to get onto younger people's backs."
So the company reached out to Walker, a 32-year-old Scottish rising star in fashion. Tattooed and impish, he is the antithesis of tweedy. His Glasgow studio is a graffitied warehouse he shares with indie bands, artists, and a break-dance crew. His designs boast eccentric details: elaborate origami collars, monklike hoods, supersize sleeves. Walker, who has worked at Versace and Boudicca, is a passionate evangelist for Harris tweed, gushing about what he calls its "mad history" as well as the archaic and arcane rules governing its production. (According to a 1993 Act of Parliament, the yarn must be spun and dyed in the Outer Hebrides and made into cloth in weavers' homes.) "It's got great heritage," Walker says, "but it basically needs a kick up the arse."
He believes that, with the right marketing and designer backing, Harris tweed could become a luxury brand. "You can go into a shop in Glasgow and pick up a jacket made of Harris tweed for 100 pounds [$150]," he says. "But it's handwoven and totally unique. It deserves more respect." And a higher price. So Walker commissioned four new patterns — including a black, blue, and yellow herringbone and a vibrant mustard-and-black check — for his 2009/2010 autumn/winter menswear collection, which debuted in Paris in January. His tweed pieces start at $750.
HTH has also teamed up with the Glasgow design consultancy Graven Images — which has created interiors for the Rezidor Hotel Group, owner of the Radisson SAS chain — to develop home furnishings. The items, including a lampshade and a jumbo beanbag chair, premiered at last November's 100% Design show in Tokyo.
The fabric is "incredibly easy to accessorize," says Graven Images director Ross Hunter. That's because the yarn in Harris tweed is spun from a blend of five or six differently dyed wools — a brown thread can contain speckles of indigo, orange, or mossy green. "You can put something bright in front of the tweed, and because the bright colors are already in there, it will really stand out," he explains.
HTH owes some of its success to the 2006 sale of Lewis's largest mill, Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd., which produced 95% of all Harris tweed, to English entrepreneur Brian Haggas. The new owner stopped selling to the apparel trade and cut production to just four tweeds for his own fusty range of men's jackets. He says the mill's old strategy of turning out "more and more patterns at cheaper and cheaper prices" damaged the fabric's upmarket reputation. His decision was perfectly timed for HTH. After exhibiting at the Paris textile show Premiere Vision last year, HTH received orders worth more than $1.5 million, many from companies that used to buy Kenneth Mackenzie tweeds.
In its first eight months, the reopened Shawbost plant spun out more than 200,000 meters of tweed. If the boom continues, supply, not demand, could soon become the problem. Years of decline have taken their toll on the artisan workforce. There are just 140 weavers left on the islands, down from 640 in 1980, and their average age is 60. "There's a stereotype of an elderly gentleman working in a drafty shed," admits Lorna Macaulay, chief executive of the Harris Tweed Authority, which regulates the industry. "It's a big job to attract young people."
But HTH's Mackenzie, for one, is certain that his company can lure a new generation of both weavers and wearers. He sees "a real sense of energy and enthusiasm that has been missing for 20 years." If he can spin that into sales, then this old yarn might have a happy ending after all.