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Harris Tweed and the Chair That Wasn’t

September 25, 2014

By Asmah Tareen

This week, my personal emails --and by personal, I mean love notes like “40% off, Today Only!” -- included an intriguing message titled “Our apologies.” It was not from a group of friends who had collectively wronged me but rather from Crate&Barrel. I wondered what Crate&Barrel had done to me and invested the additional 10 seconds to click and find out. The message included a photograph of a beautiful upholstered chair formerly known as Harris, available in two colors formerly known as Tweed and Herringbone. Next to the photograph was an apology for creating confusion (and even asking for my forgiveness!) and an announcement that going forth, Harris was to be called Harvey and instead of the aristocratic-sounding Tweed and Herringbone, the colors would simply be called black and natural. The apology also stated, “Our chair is not upholstered in Harris Tweed, the beautiful handwoven woolen cloth made in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland (harristweed.com).”

Harvey (formerly known as Harris)
Pictured above: Harvey (formerly known as Harris)

It turns out that you can’t just willy nilly decide to call a chair Harris Tweed because Harris Tweed is a thing. It’s an iconic Scottish brand of cloth with an endearing origin story that the Scots are very serious about protecting. So serious that the cloth is protected by very old trademark registrations and a statutorily-created organization called the Harris Tweed Authority. Also referring to itself as the Guardians of the Orb, the Harris Tweed Authority maintains standards by overseeing production and blessing authentic and quality Harris Tweed with its famous label and certification mark – the mark of the Orb.

By official definition, 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.” As the definition dictates, no machines or outsourcing are allowed. Only artisan islanders on a remote chain of islands off the coast of Scotland, happily weaving on their foot-powered looms in their homes. Interestingly, the definition was tweaked over time to incorporate three references to “in the Outer Hebrides” to keep mainland Scots out of the business or, as the Harris Tweed Authority would likely argue, to protect the authenticity and quality of the cloth.

BBC News reported that after Crate&Barrel’s offending chairs were advertised for a few weeks, the Harris Tweed Authority raised claims and secured a monetary settlement from Crate&Barrel along with assurances that the chairs would not be marketed as Harris Tweed. The terms of the settlement remain undisclosed.

In a trademark dispute, the threshold question would be whether Crate&Barrel’s chair, formerly known as Harris (and when combined with its color name, Tweed) created a likelihood of confusion for consumers. I for one, would not have assumed that the chair was upholstered with special cloth hand-woven by artisan islanders in the Outer Hebrides and blessed by the Guardians of the Orb. In fact, it was only because of Crate&Barrel’s intriguing settlement-induced apology message that I procrastinated other tasks to locate the Outer Hebrides on a map, learn about weaving islanders and become freshly aware of Harris Tweed as a lovely gift idea.

Instead of collecting a monetary settlement from Crate&Barrel, the Harris Tweed Authority may want to thank Crate&Barrel with referral fees for its fantastic marketing of Harris Tweed.

Crate&Barrel, I totally forgive you.

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