THE image of Harris Tweed has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years – and now the industry is being viewed as an attractive career prospect for young people in the Outer Hebrides for the first time in decades.
Over the past decade the hand-woven fabric has gone from being associated solely with fusty brown jackets to a fashionable must-have, available in a variety of colours and used for everything from bags and keyrings to wedding bouquets and hoody tops.
A new generation of would-be weavers is being encouraged to learn about the industry through courses taking place in local schools.
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In the past eight years, the average age of the workforce has already dropped from an “unsustainable” 61-years-old to 50.
Lorna Macaulay, chief executive of the Harris Tweed Authority, the body which oversees the industry, said it once offered far from attractive career prospects.
“When I was growing up it was seasonal, it was fraught with cyclical lay-offs and poor working conditions and something we saw only our grandfathers doing in draughty loom sheds,” she said.
“That is no longer the case – it is the most talented, brightest young people desperately wanting to work in the Harris Tweed Industry. It is now seen as a very attractive career option on the island. It is recognised there is a global sector on the doorstep.
"You don’t need to be a weaver – you can be involved in the design side, or the accountancy side or the business side – there are all manner of career types.”
There is now a recognised SQA qualification in Harris Tweed, the National Progression Award, which is being undertaken some pupils in Harris and Lewis in years S5 and S6. It provides an insight into the history of the industry, as well as weaving and designing and making and promoting products using tweed.
Pupils attending The Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, Lewis, the largest school in the Western Isles, can also take a ‘taster’ elective course in S2 as part of Gaelic studies, which Macauley said was usually “totally oversubscribed”.
She added the demographic surveys of the industry showed the average age of the workforce was now 50-years-old compared to an "unsustainable" 61-years-old in 2009 – but added “there is still more work to be done”.
Harris Tweed suffered years of decline and uncertainty until a turnaround began in the mid-2000s, when it started becoming championed by famous names such as Doctor Who star Matt Smith and rapper Tinie Tempah and designers such as Vivienne Westwood.
In order to carry the Harris Tweed label, the fabric has to meet strict criteria set out in the Harris Tweed Act of 1993. All stages of manufacture must take place in the Outer Hebrides and every metre of the fabric is still handwoven by islanders.
A BBC Alba documentary, which will be broadcast tomorrow at 9pm, follows the experience of a family of Russian artists making an installation of a disused loom to reflect on the changing times for Harris Tweed.
One of the participants in the programme is Alison Macleod, who has been running her own business selling designs made from Harris Tweed – including wedding bouquets and Christmas wreaths – for nearly a decade.
She told the Sunday Herald there had been little awareness of Harris Tweed when she was growing up and it wasn’t until she studied textiles at university in Dundee she began to realise the potential of the fabric.
Macleod, 37, from the Isle of Lewis, who runs Tiger Textiles, said: “When I was in school, there was nothing – we didn’t learn about it, there was nothing like the shops we have in town now selling tweed and we didn’t own anything tweed.
“[Pupils] learn more about the whole industry now and it is something in their heads as a career.”