It was with very mixed feelings that I read on Hebrides News that as of 2011 all Harris Tweed weavers will require a formal qualification before they are issued with tweeds by the Harris Tweed mills. Whilst it is a good thing that people’s skills are recognised, I am just wondering whether this is not one more nail in the coffin of the Harris Tweed industry.
In the past, weavers learned their skills informally and did not have to gain a formal qualification for the Harris Tweed mills to send them materials to turn into tweeds. They would have been only too happy for any weavers to do work for them, as their order books were bulging and could hardly keep up with demand. And I do not recall that there were major problems with the quality of the work.
I am fully aware that in this day and age, you can only do most jobs if you hold the requisite paperwork (diploma, certificate, whatever) issued by a recognised college. I do not fault anyone for going down this path in the case of Harris Tweed weavers - but only for the reasons given in this paragraph alone.
The Harris Tweed industry has been decimated, with dozens of weavers giving up their looms for lack of work. The closure of the Stornoway mill due to the (lack of) activities on the part of its owner, Brian Haggas of Keighley, exacerbated the situation further. To place a further impediment in the way for people to rejoin the industry is not very wise at all. It shows in a painful manner how skills are being lost that used to be passed down the generations, and commend those in charge of the course for endeavouring to keep them alive.
In my opinion, it would have been much better to have built up a substantial workforce first, and maintain it in later stages using the system of qualifications.
However, there is a final point which is NOT being addressed - the lack of industrial capacity. The mills at Shawbost and Carloway have nowhere near the capacity that used to exist in this island and I am very cynical indeed when I read of all the promotional activity that is going on for Harris Tweed. What is the point of doing all that, including training people to be weavers, if you don’t have the capacity to process the tweeds in the volumes that you need to make it a viable industry that will make a substantial contribution towards the economy of these islands.