LONDON – Japanese customers are helping breathe new life into a traditional cloth-making industry centered on islands along Scotland’s northwest coastline.
Japan, snapping up around 40 percent of the exported products, has become the biggest market for Harris Tweed.
Drawn by the quality of the handwoven fabric, Japanese customers have asked for the material to be made in all kinds of different patterns and colors, according to Lorna Macaulay, chief executive of the Harris Tweed Authority.
Officials credit the Japanese with helping to turn around an industry that was struggling to find its way in modern times.
“We are fantastically grateful to Japan. It has been crucial in securing the future of the industry,” said Brian Wilson, chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides.
Weaving tweed began on Harris Island in 1846 and the process is even governed by an act of Parliament.
New pure wool is made into yarn at three mills. The yarn is dispatched to 130 self-employed weavers who by law can only work on five islands: Harris, Lewis, Benbecula, Uist and Barra, collectively known as the Outer Hebrides. In reality, the tweed is weaved only on Harris and Lewis.
By law, islanders must weave their cloth at home and by hand. This is returned to the mills for washing before the authority inspects the tweed and stamps it with the orb trademark.
In the past, Harris Tweed was a popular fabric for gentlemen’s attire — usually in browns and greens — and was used to make sporting jackets for outdoor pursuits such as shooting and fishing.
It has always been popular overseas, perhaps fueled by the fact that Britain’s royal family was often seen wearing Harris Tweed. In more recent times, designer Vivienne Westwood has given the fabric a modern twist and introduced it to the high-end fashion market.
Production peaked at 6.91 million meters of cloth in 1966. But with the advent of central heating and the trend toward more casual attire, the industry declined and the home market is still relatively small.
North America and Germany have traditionally been strong markets, and until last year Germany remained the biggest offshore customer.
In 2008, recognizing that the industry needed a jolt, a new mill was formed — Harris Tweed Hebrides — and it has been instrumental in growing the export markets, particularly Japan.
Harris Tweed was promoted in a wider range of market sectors, including ladies wear, accessories and upholstery.
This has appealed to Japanese buyers and designers, who see much potential in the cloth, particularly regarding women.
In Japan, Harris Tweed is being used in everything from hats and shoes to ties, and is also being used to cover diaries and Kindles.
The richness of the colors is also why the material is popular with the Japanese.
The wool is dyed instead of the yarns, as is the case with other tweeds. This allows for more colors to be incorporated and greater depth.
To meet some Japanese customers’ wishes, Harris Tweed has been produced in purples, lime greens and bubble-gum pinks.
Wilson said Japan now accounts for more than 40 percent of his mill’s output of 1 million meters of cloth per year. In addition, a further 10 percent of exports to Europe eventually find their way to Japan, according to the firm.
The mill is already the largest on the island and accounts for 90 percent of total output.
“It’s popular because of the quality: It’s a luxury handwoven product. And I also think that the Japanese like the idea of provenance — you can trace your piece of tweed back to the individual weaver,” he said.
Apart from some Donegal tweed, the cloth from Harris is thought to be the only handwoven commercial tweed on the market, according to the industry.
Macaulay of the tweed authority said customers are willing to pay a premium for Harris Tweed because they know it will last and is high quality.
“Customers appreciate it has come from a rough, rugged and small island. It’s made from people’s own hands in an industrial age,” she said.