In the 1790s there were almost as many weavers in Harris as there were households. However, this was not considered a commercially viable industry. At this time there were in fact only eight ‘bred’ weavers for whom there was potential for monetary payments, each of which were reliant on the very limited ‘gentlemen’ class for business. For the most part weaving was a cottage industry, carried out by women and girls making cloth by hand for domestic use and as an asset in a local bartered economy. For these weavers the wage was typically paid in oatmeal as opposed to money.
This remained to be the case until around the 1840s when significant changes were manifest again largely due to the efforts of women, though of a distinctly different class. ‘Harris Tweed’ being first referred to by the Countess of Dunmore was further propelled into wider public notice by the philanthropic assistance of Highland ladies including Lady Dunmore, Lady Seaforth MacKenzie and Duchess of Sutherland (not to be confused with her much maligned predecessor). These interests were provoked by great social and economic distress in the Isle of Harris and throughout the wider Highland and Islands region in the mid nineteenth-century.
From these investments, born of necessity and urgency Harris Tweed has become synonymous with Highland culture and a byword for quality throughout the world. Indeed the reputation of Harris Tweed spread so rapidly that before the end of the Nineteenth Century power-woven imitations appeared throughout Europe and even as far afield as Japan. The rage of imitation led to a recognised need for a protective Trade Mark, and by 1910 the distinctive Orb Trade Mark was registered.
For over a century Harris Tweed has endured the numerous challenges and adapted to the manifold change in fashions, production techniques and global economic crises to remain a popular and sought after material the world over. In 1934 the Trade Mark definition was amended to include Hebridean mill-spun yarn under the Orb of Harris Tweed as the pace of modern production made such demands, though retaining the hand-spun yarns produced in the homes of the Islanders. By the 1990s these techniques were then considered obsolete and weavers were retrained to produce tweed from a double width loom and production standards became higher with a closer scrutiny of quality.
Now well into the Twenty-First Century, Harris Tweed enjoys a market reinvigorated by the value of quality over imitation and mass production. Harris Tweed is popular throughout the globe and the regard in which it is held has arguably never been higher. The longevity of Harris Tweed serves to demonstrate, though economics and fashions are changeable and fleeting, quality is adaptable and timeless.