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From the croft to the catwalk: the Harris Tweed certification mark

February 2013

By Dan Anthony, freelance writer.

A version of this article first appeared in IP Insight (October 2012) published by the UK Intellectual Property Office.

Harris Tweed, the oldest British certification mark, is an example of British branding success that speaks to both large and small businesses.

Certification marks are trademarks with a difference. They guarantee that goods or services meet a defined standard or possess a particular characteristic. This ancient method of identifying products has its roots in the medieval guild system. Groups of traders characterized by profession or location were recognized through their guild and the reputation associated with it. At the beginning of the 20th century the need to adapt this model to modern business practice gave birth to the certification mark.

Because of the unique association between a certification mark and the quality and nature of products that bear it, some of the normal trademark rules do not apply. For example, normally unregistrable geographical names may be accepted as certification marks where the mark is capable of distinguishing products.

The Harris Tweed name is recognized all over the world. The success of the Harris Tweed Authority’s certification mark demonstrates that successful branding in the global economy can be achieved by small groups of businesses.

The Miracle of Harris

It is hard to imagine a more difficult location for sustaining a successful business than the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The chain of around 70 islands – stretching 130 miles along the Atlantic seaboard of Scotland, with a population of around 26,500, lashed by gales, unconnected by road, often only accessible by boat – appears better suited to the development of survival, rather than branding, techniques.

The Harris Tweed certification
mark – number 319214
registered in 1909 is the oldest
British certification mark.

However, the Harris Tweed certification mark and the act of Parliament that enshrines the definition of Harris Tweed, is a remarkable piece of intellectual property (IP). To carry the famous Harris Tweed mark, the cloth must be: 

"handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides." Harris Tweed Act - 1993

This definition is the nearest thing to a magic spell anyone is likely to see. In 1909, when the certification mark was first registered, the islands of Scotland were suffering from depression, depopulation and outward migration. Tweed from the area was popular, but with the development of new production techniques, the industry was under threat.

The unique selling point of Harris Tweed is that it must be “handwoven by the islanders”. In the industrial complexes of the mainland, handloom weavers would have given anything for a law that prevented mechanization. The Harris Tweed Association, the predecessor to the existing statutory Authority, created a way of spinning gold out of straw.

"The Harris Tweed certification mark demonstrates that successful branding in the global economy can be achieved by small groups of businesses."

Harris Tweed is handwoven by the
islanders at their homes in the
Outer Hebrides, finished in the
Outer Hebrides, and made from
pure virgin wool dyed and spun in
the Outer Hebrides. Photos: Harris
Tweed Authority

Harris Tweed is made by individual weavers working in their homes on machines they power themselves. It is literally a cottage industry, perhaps one of the last in the world to produce goods for the global market. The definition of Harris Tweed substantiates an image of the solitary weaver working in a bothy on the wind-blasted slope of a practically empty island valley. Every inch of Harris Tweed that leaves the Hebrides is made in this way, so when customers buy Harris Tweed they acquire a garment … and some of the islands’ magic.


The guardians of the orb

Harris Tweed’s success depends on many things: the unique means of production; the romance of the islands’ location; and the quality of the product itself are important. However, so too is the commitment of the islanders; the loyalty of the customers; and the vision of “team tweed”. Tweed cloth from Harris is sought after by designers all over the globe and packs a punch on the catwalks of the world.

Lorna Macaulay, Chief Executive of the Harris Tweed Authority, spoke about the success of the Harris Tweed certification mark from her office in Stornaway:

“The markets for Harris Tweed have shifted somewhat in recent years, with Japan now the largest market, followed closely by Germany, which has been a strong and stable customer base for many decades. We are also selling very well in China, South America, the Republic of Korea and India. We are really pleased the American market has come back strongly over the last year, and we believe there is much more we could be doing there.”

“In what has clearly been one of the most challenging economic periods for the UK in 50 years, the Harris Tweed industry is bucking the trend by showing manufacturing growth of 30 percent year on year since 2009. Harris Tweed production peaked in 1966 with some 7 million meters of cloth leaving the Outer Hebrides. In 2012 we will achieve an important milestone for the current industry of 1 million meters plus. For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely we will ever see the volumes of the 1960s again, but we are very focused on becoming a much better industry, if not a much bigger one.”

Intellectual property creates economic opportunities

The special thing about the western isles of Scotland is that it is not a great place for industry. One of the strengths of IP is that regardless of location, it can create economic opportunities and jobs. For over 100 years, the Harris Tweed certification mark has exemplified quality, style and a unique feel and has provided a secure source of income for Islanders. There is no reason why the yarn should not run forever.

“The visionaries who registered the Orb Trademark in 1909 were indeed just that – visionaries. Clearly, however, they were not to see 100 years into the future to the advances of the Internet and the challenges it brings to protecting a trademark from infringement and counterfeiting,” says Lorna Macaulay. “Here in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, we are a long way away from the commercial markets in which Harris Tweed is sold. We do not, however, let that hinder our efforts to protect our various marks registered throughout the world. We use the best legal advisors in the country and will pursue (and have pursued!) any individual or business that attempts to undermine what is so important to and valued by both the people of the Outer Hebrides and our customers.”


IP Branding tools

  • Trademarks: Signs used by a commercial entity to distinguish its goods from those of another entity.
  • Service marks: Signs used by a commercial entity to distinguish its services from those of another entity.
  • Collective marks: Signs used by members of an association to distinguish their goods or services from those of other entities.
  • Certification marks: Signs used to identify goods or services that comply with a set of standards and have been certified by a certifying authority.
  • Well-known marks: Marks considered to be well known on the market and that, as a result, benefit from stronger protection.
  • Geographical indications (GIs): Signs used to identify goods that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities, a reputation or characteristics that are essentially attributable to that origin. GIs are protected in accordance with international treaties and national laws, under a wide range of concepts, including laws specifically for the protection of GIs or appellations of origin (a special kind of GI), trademark laws in the form of collective marks or certification marks, laws against unfair competition, consumer protection laws, or specific laws or decrees that recognize individual GIs.
  • Appellation of Origin (AO) The geographical denomination of a country, region or locality which designates a product originating therein that has qualities or characteristics that are due exclusively or essentially to the geographical environment, including natural and human factors.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.