British Luxury Sustainability Report | The Case Studies: Harris Tweed

We continue our focus on how British luxury brands are fulfilling their sustainability goals with a case study from the iconic Harris Tweed – which has produced its fabric on the remote archipelago of the Outer Hebrides for centuries: “reflecting both the beauty and vivid colours of the landscape, and providing employment for the islands’ people”. 

The iconic Harris Tweed® fabric has been produced on the remote archipelago of the Outer Hebrides for
centuries, reflecting both the beauty and vivid colours of the landscape, and providing employment for the islands’ people.

Every aspect of production takes place here, from the dyeing and spinning of yarns to the intricate handweaving of distinctive fabrics, and at the heart of every process are highly skilled crafts people following traditional methods. Recruiting and retaining the next generations to learn this historic trade is central to the fabric’s survival.

However, by the late 20th century, the future of the sector was in crisis, with more young people than ever leaving the islands to pursue educational and career aspirations on the Scottish mainland. In 2007 when Harris Tweed Hebrides was established, based at a former mill on the west side of Lewis, the newly formed business faced a steep challenge in attracting a greater diversity of people.

“Our founders believed in the value and quality of the product, and were determined to see the sector thrive.” Margaret Ann Macleod, Sales Director.

“Investing in younger people to enable the intergenerational transfer of skills was a key priority, as part of a small island community, we knew it was essential to maintain an open-minded approach to recruitment.” The company began an extensive campaign of marketing and outreach to local schools across the island of Lewis & Harris. It also took part in the UK’s Investors in Young People scheme.

“We worked hard to overturn misconceptions and re-establish textile manufacturing as an appealing career option, while acknowledging the reality of remote, island life,” she continues. “Central to this was raising awareness that we offered good wages for skilled work, workplace training, and stable, year-round employment.”

The company is able to offer job security through its efforts to balance out the seasonality of its famous woollen fabric by engaging with multiple sectors – the craft and tourism industries in particular. Both employees at the mill and self-employed homeweavers gain dedicated training from experienced mill workers and homeweavers, following the sector’s traditional intergenerational learning approach. This is also supplemented by partnerships with Scottish universities, colleges and schools.

As a result, Harris Tweed Hebrides now employs over 50 mill staff and works with more than 100 homeweavers on the island of Lewis & Harris.

People of all ages are enjoying the flexibility of working from home with a regular income. Meanwhile, some 80% of the young people recruited through Investors in Young People have stayed with the business.

Three graduates of the scheme are now junior managers. In addition, more women are entering senior management roles, and the Board at Harris Tweed Hebrides is now comprised of equal numbers of men and women. “We’re even seeing island people return with their young families, and new people relocating to the island, all with the knowledge there are good quality work opportunities here in the textile and fashion industry,” she concludes.

“We’re confident that enriched by a greater diversity of people, our business will continue to grow, and the tradition of Harris Tweed® manufacturing will continue to prosper.”

harristweed.org
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