Harris Tweed has been woven by crofters on treadle looms for generations. It became fashionable "countrywear" in Victorian times, thanks to the Countess of Dunmore.
The Harris Tweed Act of 1993 was set up to protect this iconic cloth. Harris Tweed must be –
"Handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides."
The Harris Tweed Authority is responsible for overseeing production and inspecting the cloth, before every length is branded with the Orb – the guarantee that it is genuine Harris Tweed.
Originally, the wool for the tweed came from local sheep, and the fleece was spun into yarn by the women on spinning wheels. The dyes were made from plants and lichens found on the island and the colours were set by dipping the wool in urine. The woven cloth was then washed and "waulked" – thumped rhythmically on a long table by a group of women who relieved the boredom by singing waulking songs.
Nowadays, because there aren't enough sheep on the islands, most of the wool comes from mainland sheep topped up with local fleeces. Dyes are produced chemically, so that, in addition to the traditional cloth of greens and browns, vibrant colours are also available. The cloth is still woven on the old treadle machines, either in "single width" (30 inches) or "double width" (60 inches).
There has been a huge surge of interest in Harris Tweed in the last 10 years. Many famous fashion designers love using Harris Tweed for garments AND shoes, High Street chain stores now feature garments made of tweed, and there is a huge number of small craft businesses producing an ever-expanding range of products in beautiful colours – tea cosies, bags, purses, hats, Ipad covers, dog coats etc – all bearing the world-famous Harris Tweed label.