Friday, 30 June 2006

Harris Tweed Industry to shrink further

<![CDATA[ It was announced on Friday afternoon that the Harris Tweed mill at Shawbost, on the West Side of Lewis, is to close. The KM (Kenneth Macleod) Group, which owns the mill in North Shawbost, has announced that efforts will be made to employ the 30 workers elsewhere within the organisation. KM Group has another mill in Stornoway. The company was involved with an order from sportswear giant Nike to produce Harris Tweed based women's trainers in 2004.

This follows hard on the heels of a decision to scale back operations at another Harris Tweed mill in Lewis, this one based at Gearrannan, just outside Carloway, 6 miles west of Shawbost. The Carloway mill is reported to be operating 3 days a week now. It is not part of the KM Group, and has been at the centre of a bitter legal battle with KM over the application of the Orb, the Harris Tweed trademark, to its products.

The councillor for Shawbost has described the decision to close the Shawbost mill as a terrible blow, and has urged KM to do its utmost to salvage the situation.

Harris Tweed is a trademark, which cannot be used unless the tweed meets certain criteria. These include requirements on the methods of production, amongst others. It is not restricted to the isle of Harris; the entire island chain from Lewis to Barra falls within its remit.

Postscript - Sunday 2 July
I happened to watch the Countryfile programme on BBC1 this morning, and was very surprised to hear presenter Ben Fogle confidently declaring that the future is bright, the future is Tweed. If this is the case, then why is the Shawbost mill being shut down? If there verily was an order for 6 miles of Harris Tweed from Nike, why is the capacity being shrunk? It should also be borne in mind, that the job losses are not restricted to the 30 at the Shawbost plant. The production of Harris Tweed also involves weavers, and under the Harris Tweed "Orb" trademark, these are home weavers, who have previously invested heavily in new looms etcetera, only to see their investment going to waste.

Two questions need answering on the Harris Tweed industry question.
1 - Why have industry leaders in the Hebrides allowed the industry to shrink to the vanishing point? Even if the American market, encompassing a 60% marketshare, fell away, this still leaves a 40% market segment. By all accounts, there is far less than this percentage left in terms of production capacity.

2 - Why did Ben Fogle (or more to the point: BBC Countryfile) not address this issue with a touch of investigative journalism, rather than paint the image that the industry wants the world to see - which does not appear to be an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground.

Pertinent questions have been asked about awkward issues in these islands before (NHS Western Isles and the windfarms), and the reactions to those questions have left me in despair. Rather than providing an answer, those in the know prefer to shoot the messenger. I do not expect much better on this issue. ]]>

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