Soft handle, drapable and dyed to shades of brilliant orange, scarlet, shocking pink or royal purple, today's Harris Tweeds are scarcely recognisable as the traditional heavy, hairy and dun-coloured hand wovens from the Western Isles.

That fashion transformation was hammered home to guests at last night's (Wednesday) London reception hosted at the prestigious surroundings of the Scotland Office in Whitehall by Scotland Office minister Brian Wilson, designed to tell the world just how much Harris has changed.

Similar functions are now scheduled for New York and Tokyo.

The Prime Minister had planned to attend but he and his wife were detained in New York and instead he sent a letter stressing that he recognised the continued importance of tweed to the Western Isles and indeed the entire Scottish economy.

He added: "In spite of the difficulties which the whole UK textile sector now faces I believe it has, as a whole, an exciting and dynamic future, particularly where it is linked to the cutting edge of fashion and design.

"In recognising that this connection must be made I believe the Harris Tweed industry is paving the way for its own successful future and also setting an excellent example for others."

Similarly, Brian Wilson in his welcoming address to guests, who included most of the top names in UK couture and ready to wear design, described Harris as "a superb hand-made product." Sales of Harris Tweed, 85 per cent of which goes for export, are now reported to be worth over £4m a year.

Two-thirds of all sales are still into the menswear sector but according to producers such as the KM Harris Tweed Group, it is women's wear and accessories that are now the fastest growing sectors.

All Harris Tweed is still produced on looms sited within the weavers' own homes.

Over the years however 130 of the 250 workers still weaving Harris Tweed by traditional methods have switched to the use of wider looms and become skilled in their use through college courses.

Also transforming the life of the weaver is the facility to employ computer aided design, with most of the younger generation of craftsmen weavers college-trained in the use of modern technology.

By Sonia Roberts