Orb trademark is Harris Tweed’s greatest asset

The “sanctity” of the Orb Trade Mark and the Parliamentary legislation which underpins it is the biggest asset of the Harris Tweed industry and must never be undermined or interfered with.

That was the message from Brian Wilson, chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides, when he spoke on the future of the industry at a week-end seminar to mark the Orb’s centenary.

Predicting a bright, sustainable outlook, Mr Wilson said that the limitations on Harris Tweed capacity imposed by the current number of weavers was being turned to advantage. “We must be not only the champagne of fabrics but also the vintage Margaux, pursued by the aspirational around the world for rarity as well as quality”. The current mantra to customers was “order early to ensure supply”.

He said that the world had needed reminding of Harris Tweed but wherever the message had been communicated over the past few years, there had been a ready response. “An awful lot of people were delighted to learn that Harris Tweed had not expired; it was only resting”. Harris Tweed Hebrides was now working year-round to full capacity and “that is the way we must keep it”.

But Mr Wilson warned: “Quality, provenance and skills would probably not have been enough to save Harris Tweed if it was not for one crucial factor - the existence of a definition embedded in legislation which means that Harris Tweed can only be produced here. If it was legally possible to produce something called Harris Tweed elsewhere, whether on the mainland of Scotland or in the cheap labour economies of the textiles universe, then that would have happened long ago and these islands would have been left protesting vainly that ours was the only genuine article”.

He described the Harris Tweed Act of 1993 as “a minor miracle of Parliamentary navigation” which would never be repeated whether at Westminster or Holyrood. “The higher the profile of Harris Tweed, the more others are bound to covet the exclusivity which the legislation bestows. It is the trade mark and the definition which stand between us and a pack which would be quick to pounce”.

Mr Wilson continued: “So the most important key to securing the industry’s future is very straightforward - nobody must seek to meddle with the legislation or in any other way undermine the sanctity of the trade mark which it embodies. The Orb trade mark, and the conditions which attach to it as enshrined in the Harris Tweed Act, are sacrosanct and must remain so”.

He said that Harris Tweed Hebrides - who account for more than 80 per cent of Orb-stamped production - are “100 per cent behind the current structure of the industry with the Harris Tweed Authority as regulator and guarantor of the Orb. It is this separation of producer and regulator which makes Harris Tweed unique and the fact that there are now far fewer producers than when the structure evolved does not in any way dilute the case for retaining both its theory and practise”.

This was what guaranteed continuity “for generations to come”, Mr Wilson added. “There must be commercial acumen within that structure or else it becomes an empty shell. But it is the structure itself which guarantees that Harris Tweed will always belong to this place and not to any mortal interest. And that must always remain so”.

On a less positive note, Mr Wilson said that his biggest long-term concern was about where the weavers of the future were going to come from. “This is where the dire demographics of this island manifest themselves in real and depressing form. With penny numbers of children entering the rural schools in traditional crofter-weaver communities, there is gong to be no indigenous labour force of the future.

“And just as Harris Tweed is integral to the local economy, so also it is a deeply enmeshed part of the Gaelic, crofting culture. But without a fresh supply of recruits who are products of that culture, then the profile of the industry 20 years from now is bound to be very different from what it is today. That reflects a much wider problem of perpetual out-migration largely due to lack of economic opportunity”.

The seminar, held in Shawbost, was organised by the Islands Book Trust on behalf of the Harris Tweed Authority as part of the Orb centenary celebrations.