Posted by: christinelaennec | April 23, 2014

The Harris Tweed Shop in Tarbert

I have known about Harris Tweed since I was a child growing up in Portland, Oregon.  My father had a Harris Tweed jacket, and I knew that such a thing was a fine acquisition.  I also remember my mother being given, circa 1970, a length of Donegal tweed, from which she made a stunning cape with a satin lining.  I knew of it as a fabric that was hardwearing, desirable, and from far-away places.  (Though I couldn’t have told you exactly where the Outer Hebrides were.  “About as far as you can get from anywhere else,” would have been my answer at 10 years old.)

Since becoming a regular visitor to the Outer Hebrides over the past 20 years, I have learned a bit more about this beautiful fabric.  True Harris Tweed must be woven on the “long island” of Harris and Lewis, by weavers using a treadle loom and working from their own home or croft.  The wool comes from sheep on the islands and the mainland, and is “dyed in the wool” before weaving.

I’m told that in the past, the sound of the looms was all around the islands in the summer.  Once woven, the fabric used to be soaked and then “waulked”:  a group of women would gather around a table, and pound the wet fabric, passing it around in a circle.  Anyone who has felted or fulled a knitted garment will know how hard on the hands this must have been!  When I was studying Gaelic, we learned “waulking songs” – Gaelic work songs for waulking the tweed.

Nowadays the tweed is finished in a more modern way, but it still must be made on a treadle loom at the weaver’s home.  It then must pass inspection by the Harris Tweed Authority.  If it is deemed to have met the criteria, the cloth will be stamped with the orb.  You see the orb over the door of the Harris Tweed shop in the photo below:

The Harris Tweed Shop, Tarbert.  April 2014.

The Harris Tweed Shop, Tarbert. April 2014.

Tweed is indeed an extremely hard-wearing fabric.  My first visit to the Outer Hebrides was to Benbecula, where I spent two weeks in 1994.  My hosts and Gaelic teachers are now dear friends, Annie and Alasdair.  Alasdair told me about his father’s business selling tweed suits by mail-order.  He said that 50 years ago it wasn’t unusual for his father to receive in the post a tweed jacket purchased 20 or more years previously, with a request that it be “turned”.  “Turning” meant taking out the lining, unpicking the seams and remaking it using the other side of the tweed, which had spent the last 20 or so years protected behind the jacket lining.  I don’t think Alasdair was putting me on!  It could be done.

Many times on our visits to Harris, we’ve stopped by Donald John MacKay‘s weaving shed.  Donald John is a very busy man indeed, at his loom six days a week and his only holiday seems to be the trade show week once a year.  Despite this, he welcomes visitors with a friendly greeting, is happy to speak Gaelic with tourists like ourselves, and seems pleased by our admiration of the gorgeous fabrics he weaves. I have several lengths of tweed woven by Donald John that I haven’t yet made up, as I’ve done so little sewing in the past few years that I need to practice on some less precious fabric first.  One year he mentioned to us that he was weaving cloth for running shoes – for Nike.  “Oh!” I said.  “Nike’s based where I’m from, Oregon!”  After that, we were in admiration of his business acumen as well of his weaving skills.  His promotion of Harris Tweed has been of benefit to other weavers on the island as well, and he was honoured with an MBE (link above).

I didn’t get a chance to stop by Donald John’s weaving shed on my recent visit to Harris, and I had almost decided not to go into the Harris Tweed shop.  I knew very well that it is full of great temptations.

Sign on the Harris Tweed shop.

Sign on the Harris Tweed shop.

But on the morning of my last full day in Harris, I succumbed and went inside.  They sell the cloth by itself (see the bolts on the right in the background?) as well as finished items.  They also sell knitting wool – this is where a few years back Michael fell in love with wool that I eventually made into a jumper for him.  He still loves that jumper!

Inside the Harris Tweed shop, Tarbert.  April 2014.

Inside the Harris Tweed shop, Tarbert. April 2014.

As well as clothing made of Harris tweed, they sell a wide variety of bags, phone cases, purses, homewear – and even shoes made of Harris Tweed!  Sorry I don’t have a photo of those but you can see them on their website.

The Harris Tweed shop with unsuspecting fellow tourist.  April 2014.

The Harris Tweed shop with unsuspecting fellow tourist. April 2014.

While I was there, a crofter came in to pick up an order of tweed for his wife.  I enjoyed eavesdropping on the Gaelic conversation he had with the shopkeeper, about the weather and how his lambs were doing.  And then, guess what happened?  I saw a beautiful purple tweed sleeve in amongst the jackets.  I actually tried on the jacket it belonged to – and, after thinking it over, I bought it!  As I texted a good friend from Harris:  “I wasn’t really planning on making a major wardrobe investment on this trip, but I have no regrets.”  His reply:  “It’s a good place to make an investment!”  And so it is.

Can you see how very beautiful the tweed is?  I haven’t really managed to capture the depth of colour in any photos.  I knew that it was a Now-or-Never moment, and that this particular fabric, in this mix of colours, might never be produced again.  (Am I right in thinking that the weave is a Russian twill?)

Look what came home with me!

Look what came home with me!

An interesting postscript to this tale is that, when I was unpacking at home, I found in my suitcase an envelope that I’d tucked away in case I found something special on my travels.  It contained money gifts I’d set aside, from my Dad at Christmas, and my mother at my birthday (bless them).  I’d completely forgotten that I’d taken this money with me.  It paid for over half the jacket!  What pleased me most was that I’d bought the jacket anyway, without remembering the money from my parents. I thought it was good that I felt able to treat myself.

Here I am wearing my new jacket:

2014-04-18 15.41.47-1

It’s a good jacket for church.  For those of you who are sewists, below are a few more views.

Easter Sunday 2014 - my jacket from the side

Easter Sunday 2014 – my jacket from the side

Back view

Back view

And another one showing the front!

And another one showing the front!

So now, if you’ve read this far, you know perhaps more than you ever wanted about Harris Tweed.  I love my jacket, and I expect to wear it happily for many years to come.  (I hope not to have to “turn” it though.) It embodies all the happy memories I have of our visits to Harris over the years:  the colours of the landscape, the creativity of the weavers, the enduring quality of the things in life that are good and unchanging, and how much the people of Harris seem to understand those values.  All that in a jacket – smaoinich!  (imagine!)

Check your closets and wardrobes – perhaps you have something made of Harris Tweed yourself.  If so, perhaps you can appreciate it in a new way now.

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Responses

  1. Lovely post about one of my great temptations when I visit Harris. Love your new jacket. The colours are just beautiful and as you said that particular mix might never be woven again- so special. 🙂

  2. What a delightful post of one of my favourite things Harris Tweed, I love the jacket the colour and style really do suit you. Wearing it will hold dear memories of a wonderful well deserved break.

  3. You’ve done something I’d love to do myself one day, buy a real Harris Tweed jacket, and yours is lovely. I think I’d have been very tempted by a wee purse or a bag, they are beautiful and a great investment because they last so long. How lovely to have had some of the jacket paid for with money from your parents, too.

  4. Oh how wonderful! Your jacket is just beautiful! The perfect color! And what a special treasure from your journey! Thanks for posting the shop pictures! My friend from Airdrie was just there a few weeks ago and sent me a lavender dog and another passel of scraps (!!!) and a bag of wool threads leftover from the weaving. Now I know where she was and what the store looks like! I can’t imagine finishing the wool by hand. Such difficult work. But, every tweed I see is just beautiful. I don’t know how I would resist the bolts of cloth at the back of the store. Tweed is something that “captures” me in many ways. Must find time to get back to a tweed project…….

  5. Oh well done! That is a lovely lovely jacket in the perfect colour and fits you so well 🙂 A definite good investment in yourself!

  6. My dad bought a lovely blue-green Harris Tweed jacket and wears it often. He regrets he didn’t get to keep his father’s Harris Tweed suit which was apparently much heavier than modern ones and really warm. I adore tweed. That’s a great jacket, so classic and really suits you. Their knitting wool is astonishingly good value.

  7. That jacket absolutely suits you perfectly, Christine!

  8. That jacket absolutely suits you perfectly, Christine!

  9. Oh, it’s beautiful. The jacket fits you so well. I also knew about Harris Tweed as a child, my dad had a jacket in the ’60s, and I got some gorgeous handwoven tweed in Galway in the ’70s. I recently found a Harris Tweed men’s cap being discarded from an auction (it doesn’t fit any of us!) What in the world should I do with it? Take it apart? Too good to throw away, but not a lot of fabric in it, either…

  10. Christine, I love your jacket. The colour is perfect, and it is beautifully cut. I’m so glad you treated yourself.

  11. Over the years the PPW (price per wear) will reduce the cost to pennies, and the jacket will still look beautiful. PPW is a very useful concept, especially when explaining to a husband just why an apparently expensive item of clothing was in fact a bargain. Although it sounds as if Michael didn’t need convincing – sensible man.

  12. Thanks for giving us the history of Harris Tweed. I remember seeing that label in a jacket of my father’s when I was a child. Even then, I knew it was
    special. You made the right decision by obtaining that gorgeous jacket!
    Not only is the color perfect, but the fit is perfect for you!
    So very glad you had such a wonderful trip….

  13. I’m glad you bought that beautiful jacket, it will always remind you of the wonderful time you had this year. I wish you good health to enjoy it. (my granny always said that to me when I got some new item of clothing!) x

  14. I love seeing you. Hello, you. Isn’t it fun to see a little bit of our friend’s lives with our own eyes. I love it.

  15. Checked my wardrobe – no Harris tweed 😦
    And no colours which are anywhere near the lovely purple of your jacket (actually nothing except black in my wardrobe).
    I appreciated the story about finding the money from your parents after you’d bought the jacket and thought the most significant sentence in this post was:
    I thought it was good that I felt able to treat myself.
    Here, here.

  16. Thank you for your brilliant Harris Tweed post, and what a wonderful treat (investment!). Your jacket looks lovely but I understand what you mean about not getting the full depth of colour – purple is one of the hardest colours to photograph! 🙂

  17. Thank you everyone! The most amazing thing about how the jacket fits is that the sleeves are just the right length. Other jackets that I’ve bought have needed to be hemmed up at the sleeves.

    Mandala56 – have you considered making simple frayed squares to use as coasters? This is a popular gift item of tweed that one sees for sale in the islands, and a good use of small pieces of fabric. You can really appreciate the weave that way.

  18. your jacket is gorgeous and it suits you. I am sure that will be a lovely reminder of your special trip to Harris.

  19. Tweed is one of my favorite, favorite things, Christine. I used to have a tweed suit (jacket, slacks, vest, skirt), but lost it in the storm. It’s not very common here in the South, as you can imagine. I would just die to get my hands on a Harris Tweed jacket – I’m so jealous. xo

  20. The jacket is lovely!

    I love tweeds, plaids and tartans!!

  21. I enjoyed learning more about the production of Harris Tweeds, and admire the pretty purple jacket you chose, Christine :)[My mother always said one should look for the highest quality in coats and shoes especially so that they would last a long time. She would have approved your choice of jackets, I’m sure!]


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