Orkney Tweed: Its Past, Present and Future  

Orkney Tweed once sold in top New York Department Stores. Known for its qualities of lightness and softness it almost disappeared in the later half of the 20th Century.

Why did an excellent product fail to maintain its place in the marketplace? This was one of the questions posed at ‘Get your tweed out in Orkney’, in the Orkney Library and Archives on Saturday 16th of November.

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‘Get your tweed out in Orkney’ was part of The Being Human Festival. Professor Sarah Pedersen, from Robert Gordon University’s School of Creative and Cultural Business, and Professor Andrea Peach of Konstfack University in Stockholm, showcased some of the Orkney Tweed items past and present in a small exhibition. They also delivered two talks where they went into more detail about the research they have been conducting into Orkney tweed.

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Professor Pedersen said:

“During the 20th century, Orkney tweed was acclaimed globally for its lightness and softness and marketed as a legacy of the Vikings.

“While the production of tweed had almost completely died out in Orkney by the end of the First World War, two enterprising businesses had revived the industry by the middle of the century. In 1932 R. Garden’s, a department store in Kirkwall, opened a weaving mill called Argarden’s. This was followed after the Second World War by the establishment of the Sclater’s mill, owned by a successful drapery store in the town.

“By the mid-1970s both Sclaters and Argarden mills had closed on Orkney. The advent of ready-to-wear garments made of cheap synthetic fabrics and the decline of traditional tailoring meant that sales were insufficient to sustain the Orkney tweed industry.”

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Today when we think of tweed we immediately associate it with Harris, not Orkney. Indeed Harris Tweed, which has itself had many ups and downs in popularity and sales, is trademarked and protected by an Act of Parliament.  Celebrating Island Business in Orkney

The Power of Branding

Post First World War Orkney Tweed fared well. It was promoted in top shops and in ladies magazines. Coco Chanel even travelled to the islands to promote the product.

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A more hard wearing Orkney Tweed used for upholstering a chair

Its Viking image, however, could not compete with the more popular Scottish one being used by that of Harris. In the 70’s Garden’s and Sclater’s came to an end. People no longer bought clothing that would last and last but wanted ready to wear fashion. The looms were also unable to produce the width of cloth that clothing manufacturers needed.

At Old Handweave, Stronsay, Tommy Shearer produced Orkney tweed in the late 70s/80s. The Stronsay tweed did not take up the Viking image but went for one identifiable with island life.

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The Future for Orkney Tweed

Orkney Tweed was established by Nancy Fergus in 2016. You can buy it online or from the shop in Victoria Street.

India Johnston, a graduate apprentice, has the loom that was once used by Tommy Shearer in Stronsay which she is going to put together again and use.

Orkney tweed 7Professor Pedersen concluded:

“In recent years, there has been an attempt to re-establish Orkney tweed as an internationally recognised brand. Huge cruise ships now arrive in Orkney throughout the summer, bringing over 130,000 tourists – six times the population of the entire Orkney archipelago – all potential purchasers of tweed souvenirs. A2 p trademark for Orkney tweed was registered for the first time in 2015.”

Reporter: Fiona Grahame


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2 replies »

  1. What about St Olaf’s store tweed? Mr Turfus owned that and they made lovely stuff too.

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