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Get Your Tweed Out!

Professor Sarah Pedersen from Robert Gordon University tells us about her research into the rise and fall of the Orkney tweed industry and stories they are hoping to uncover through their Being Human festival 2019 event. 

Orcadians are being urged to rifle through their wardrobes and attics to find garments made of Orkney tweed, ahead of this year's most northerly Being Human festival event which is taking place on Orkney on Saturday 16 November. The hey day of tweed on the islands was in the mid-20th century, and researchers Professor Sarah Pedersen of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and Professor Andrea Peach of Konstfack, Stockholm, hope that there are still plenty of examples of Orkney tweed to be found on the islands today. 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.

Norsaga Tweed Mill, Mill Street, Kirkwall. 1963. Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

What is particularly fascinating about both businesses is the way in which they exploited the islands’ past in their marketing. Using brand names such as 'Norsaga' and 'Jarltex', and logos that used popular Viking imagery such as winged helmets and long boats, both companies implied historic origins for their tweed. Orkney was part of the Scandinavian kingdoms of Denmark and Norway for 500 years, and its Scandinavian past is an important factor in the islands’ cultural identity. Coinciding with the establishment of Argarden’s mill, in 1937 a “Pageant of St Magnus” was held in Kirkwall, celebrating the Viking history of Orkney and the 800th anniversary of the founding of Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral. During the last 200 years, links to a Viking heritage have been used by many different groups to construct national identity. The Pageant of St Magnus on Orkney allowed Orcadians to construct an identity separate from both Britain and Scotland, looking back to a time when they were part of the Scandinavian world rather than the British Empire.

Orkney Vikings. Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

However, while the islands’ mills wished to position their tweed as part of the Viking past, once outside Orkney, Orcadian tweed became part of a more dominant and generic image of tweed as part of the romantic Scottish Highlands. The focus in fashion magazines and department stores was on the romance of Scotland, following on from Sir Walter Scott’s portrayals of the country in the 19th century. Marketing for “Scotch tweed” used stereotypes of Scotland such as “laddies in kilts”, baskets of heather and ancient crofters hand-spinning their wares. Princess Marthe Bibesco, writing in Vogue in 1932, described Coco Chanel’s search for “rough, homespun woollies”, which she finally tracked down in Orkney "… where innumerable old crones spin for her, earning a happy livelihood, unaware that their work is destined not to protect the primitive Highlander from evil weather, but to adorn sophisticated ladies who will impregnate them with all the perfumes of Paris." However by the mid-1970s both Sclaters and Argarden mills had closed on Orkney. Despite attempts to move with the times – Sclater’s introduced brighter and fashionable accent colours such as orange to their designs for Norsaga tweed in the later years of production – the market had moved on. 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. We also suggest that one of the reasons for the decline of the industry in Orkney was the contradiction between local marketing, which focused on the Viking legacy of the islands, and the international fashion media, which positioned Orkney tweed within the wider – and less specific – myth of the romantic Highlands.

Orkney Tweed weavers. Picture courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

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. Tweed producers, and other artisan crafters on the islands, thus focus on producing quality, portable souvenirs aimed at the wealthy cruise-ship clientele. A trademark for Orkney tweed was registered for the first time in 2015. However, it remains to be seen whether Orkney tweed will ever return to its position of international renown that it enjoyed in the 1930s and 50s. Researching the history of tweed on the islands last year unearthed several tweed garments from the mid-20th century, many of which had been hand made from lengths of clothes sold by Argarden and Sclater’s. Many of these had stories attached about their making and wearing and were carefully stored away. It was particularly exciting to talk to someone who had worked at Sclaters as a message boy and who brought along his father’s tweed pattern book to share with us, and to a member of the Sclater family who will share several garments produced from her family’s tweed at our event in November. Participants are encouraged to bring their garments along to the library during the event to share their stories, which will be recorded. Printed swing tags will be attached to the garments for the owner to write a description or story about the piece. We hope through this to construct a picture of the wardrobe of ordinary Orcadians in the decades before the arrival of synthetic, ready-to-wear garments. The event, to be held at the Orkney Library and Archives in Kirkwall, will also include an exhibition and two short talks during the day.

'Get Your Tweed Out!' took place on 16 November at Orkney Library and Archive in Kirkwall as part of Being Human 2019.