IT is the globally recognised brand and believed to be the only cloth on Earth to be both defined and protected by an Act of Parliament.

Now Harris Tweed has been held up to a global conference on rural development and well-being as a case study in how manufacturing can be retained in rural areas based on “artisanal skills".

And the audience at the event aimed at protecting rural economies has been told of the importance of protecting that brand legally to prevent piracy.

The conference came off the back of a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) backed by the European Commission which examined ways of retaining manufacturing jobs as rural economies face challenges which include globalisation and demographic change.

Harris Tweed is the example quoted of how “artisanal skills, where they endure, can be important economic drivers at local level” while goods “produced by skilled artisans continue to be highly prized by consumers”.

The study is intended to influence governments’ rural policies.

“The key emerging point is that governments should not assume the future of manufacturing is synonymous with automating everything since there are many different ways to be competitive," said one OECD official.

The origins of Harris Tweed date back to around 1844, when Catherine Herbert, Countess of Dunmore whose husband - the sixth Earl - had inherited the Isle of Harris from his father, commissioned yards of a particular clan tartan from local handloom weavers.

She promoted the cloth to her friends, including Queen Victoria.

By 1850, Harris Tweed was selling in London. By the century's end, it was also being ruthlessly copied - with at least one sweatshop in London's East End forging Harris Tweed by the mile.

After a decline in the Eighties, it now sells four times more than it did 15 years ago and has been used by a range of designers from Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein to Mulberry and Schott NYC.

Addressing a “virtual” conference around the project this week, Harris Tweed Hebrides chairman, Brian Wilson, stressed the importance of brand protection and quoted the Harris Tweed Act as the outstanding example.


The cloth is actually protected by several Acts of Parliament - the first in 1909, the most recent in 1993 - which established what is now the Harris Tweed Authority, which is always on the watch for piracy and counterfeit.

The cloth is strictly defined. Harris Tweed must have "been handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides".

Only such cloth can be stamped with that Harris Tweed trademark and only sharp Harris Tweed Authority officials can do the stamping.

Mr Wilson added: “For such a small industry, Harris Tweed is exceptionally well known and that depends at least as much on quality as the place from which it comes. Without quality, provenance alone is of little value.

“The fact remains, however, that many powerful forces in the worlds of textiles and fashion would have loved to own Harris Tweed and the great thing – the reason this industry exists here – is that it is impossible for them to do so."

The former UK trade minister added: “Protectionism usually gets a bad name in organisations like the OECD and EU. But when applied to craft industries and maintaining manufacture in the place to which they belong, protection is not only beneficial but essential.


“It does not guarantee success but, critically, it means Harris Tweed will live or die on this island. Fortunately, it has lived and flourished”.

Mr Wilson told 100 delegates from 37 countries: “That is a lesson Harris Tweed can teach this audience. To retain a manufacturing industry in ultra-rural surroundings may need the same protection that Harris Tweed benefits from."

The latest Harris Tweed Authority actions saw them winning a fight to stop a Chinese firm launching a brand called Arris.

Bosses went to court after clothing company ChengDu Tianyu Gaoke Hi-Tech applied for the trademark in Europe.

HTA lawyers argued the name was confusingly similar — pointing out that French and Spanish buyers won't say the 'H' in Harris.

And they warned that approving the trademark would threaten weavers' jobs in the Western Isles.

The European Intellectual Property Office ruled in HTA's favour in August, last year saying: "The opposition is well founded."