Thursday, September 29, 2011

"When Harris Tweed Isn’t" by James Taylor

There are many pleasures associated with buying vintage clothing. There’s thrill of the hunt as you enter a new thrift store or trade show, wondering what treasures (if any) await among the musty drabness, the tingle of excitement when a ‘phone call or email comes in from someone who knows I collect vintage clothing, asking if I’d like to look at the stuff Grandad left in his attic before it heads off to the thrift store or landfill. There’s the pleasure in finding a long-unloved tweed overcoat, and spending time making the minor repairs to bring it back to use, keeping someone warm. And there’s the speculative pleasure involved in wondering how something got where it did—I still have no idea how that mint-condition chocolate-brown Poole topcoat ended up in the back of a Church thrift store in small town Ohio. And even if something is beyond rescue—a much-stained 1960s sports jacket in bleeding Madras, or a moth-eaten dinner jacket, custom made in 1956—there’s still the simple pleasure of imagining what events these clothes might have been worn at, and what manner of man had them made.
And these speculative and avaricious pleasures are joined by another type of pleasure entirely—the pleasure of the education that a mysterious label can sometimes bring.
In my own case this started with the label on a Harris tweed jacket. If you’re reading this blog you’ll probably be familiar with both Harris tweed and its classic trademark “Orb” emblem, which looks like this:

But in one jacket I found the label looked like this:

This was weird. This was clearly marked as Harris tweed, marked as handwoven, and came from the right area of Scotland. But it wasn’t an Orb. It was a Shield. And the name of the company behind the trademark was weird, too—The Independent Harris Tweed Producers, not the Harris Tweed Authority.
What’s going on? Is this Harris Tweed, or not?

A hint to the answer came from a 1958 edition of The Glasgow Heraldwhich reported that a newly-formed company, The Independent Harris Tweed Producers, were challenging the Harris Tweed Authority’s monopoly on calling their cloth Harris tweed. Why? Because there was a strong demand for Harris tweed in the American market, and the IHTP wanted in. And, yes, you can guess what was driving the demand then—not just post-war American prosperity, but the increasingly popular (then as now) Ivy League look, in which Harris tweed was a mainstay!
There were differences between the Shield tweed of the IHTP and the orb tweed of the HTA. The latter was only from Scottish wool, while the newcomers used wool from elsewhere the latter was spun, dyed, and finished in the Outer Hebrides only, whereas the newcomers would spin, finish, and dye anywhere in Scotland, and the Orb tweed was to be spun in crofters’ own homes, whereas the Shield tweed could be factory-made.
So, what happened? Lawsuits, filed by both sides--in 1961 by the Shields and 1962 by the Orbs. (Clearly, America was influencing more than just tweed production!)

And what happened? Well, take a look around your closet—do you see any Shield labels there, and, if you do, are they recent? The case went to the Edinburgh High Court, and was decided against the Shield faction, with Lord Hunter holding that for a cloth to be Harris Tweed it had to conform to the definition of the Board of Trade, namely that for a cloth to be Harris Tweed it must be  “a tweed, hand spun, hand woven and finished by hand in the Outer Hebrides, with ‘Made in Harris’ or ‘Made in Lewis’ or ‘Made in Uist’ etc. added as appropriate’.” The Shields’ tweed didn’t meet this definition, and so was not Harris Tweed….. And hence no more Shield Harris Tweed labels would legally be produced.

So, if, while searching through vintage tweeds, you find something labeled Harris tweed with a Shield label, rather than an Orb, you’ve found a rare relic of a almost-forgotten but very heated dispute concerning the real nature of this canonical fabric.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes Harris Tweed isn’t! 

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What an amazing tale of history! Happy hunting!