Dr Fiddes and Assistant
Harris Tweed’s characteristic natural hues and rich textures are appreciated all over the world. But few people really know how that wonderful and instantly recognisable look comes about.
So on my recent trip to the Hebrides (accompanied by my glamorous personal assistant) I thought this would be a great chance to tell the full story. It’s opportunities to do things like this that I love about running Scotweb! Read on find out just how much highly skilled work (plus centuries of tradition) goes into every piece.
At Scotweb we are immensely proud to offer what will very soon be by far the world’s largest retail range of Harris Tweed fabrics, and Harris Tweed products. Every step you see below goes into each piece of Harris Tweed you order… and believe it or not we can make you a single piece of any Harris Tweed design to order, in as little as a single garment length. I hope you find this as fascinating as I do.
Pure New Wool - the raw material
The raw wool arrives
Unlike most materials nowadays, every stage of Harris Tweed production is carried out by the producers themselves. With most tartans, for example, the yarns are bought in from specialist dyers, who themselves use the yarns produced by specialist spinners.
But with Harris Tweed almost every process in the fabric’s production is all done at the one mill. The sole exception is the weaving itself, which by Act of Parliament can only be done by hand in the homes of the local islanders.
Harris Tweed is almost always made from top quality pure new wool. For our fabrics this always comes from British herds. It arrives in a near-raw state, ready for the first stage in the production cycle…
Dyeing the Wool
Newly dyed wool emerges
Richly variable colours
The first process that the wool undergoes on its way to becoming authentic Harris Tweed fabric is dyeing. But this is not yarn dyeing in the same way that other fabrics are produced. Harris tweed is far richer and more complex.
What you see here is the dyeing of threads in base colours. From a few dozen of these base colours, practically any shade of yarn can be produced by blending to proven ‘recipes’, as we shall see.
So it is these intermingled yarns from which the Harris Tweed is actually woven, unlike most fabrics which are woven from yarns dyed in single-colours. It is this complexity that lends the fabric its extraordinary richness.
The dyes themselves are still produced using natural methods, as the characteristic colours of Harris Tweed very much evoke the landscape and nature that lies all around… the seas, skies, rocks, and flora. The ever-changing light of the land is reflected in the shades of the fabric that is produced from it.
The dyeing takes place in large batches in a closed vat, whose lid is removed as we see the wool being taken out ready for the next process. Notice in the second image how unevenly the dye-stuff takes to the wool - a subtle effect that is deliberately cultivated for the depth this gives to the colouration.
This process is simple enough. The wool comes out of the dyeing process full of moisture, which needs to be removed before it can be worked on further.
The apparatus you see here is nothing more than a huge spin dryer. Just like in your washing machine. But bigger.
Entering the Tumble Drier
Exiting the Tumble Drier
The dyed wool needs to be entirely dry before it can be mixed and mingled into yarns with which to weave the Harris Tweed. Spin drying removes most of the moisture. To remove the rest requires warm air and motion… in effect a giant-sized tumble drier.
The wool is carried through on a conveyor, entering moist, and exiting dry after being churned in warm air in between. The previous spin-drying cycle therefore saves enormously on power demands, both helping to reduce costs and to protect the natural environment.
Making the Recipe - choosing and weighing the ingredients
Weighing one base colour
Now we get to what I think is the best bit: the mixing of colours to create an almost infinite variety of potential shades of yarn. This is the true secret of Harris Tweed… the incredible diversity and depth of colouring, that only gets richer the more closely you examine it.
The upper image to the right shows the base colours - the basic ingredients from which the Harris Tweed recipe is made. From these few dozen colours, almost any natural shade can be created.
Notice how vibrant the base colours are, yet each instantly evokes aspects of the landscape or its fauna. It is practically impossible to separate Harris Tweed from the land that is its source and inspiration.
There is a tried and tested formula for almost any shade desired. Two, three, four, or more based colours are selected in precise proportions, to create the exact yarn colour required.
These are then carefully weighed out. The process really is just like measuring ingredients on a kitchen scales… just in a little greater volume.
Mixing the Colour Recipe Ingredients
More Hand Mixing
Once the proportions of each wool have been weighed and gathered, the first task is simply to break them up roughly together, ready for blending. The bags of each wool are up-ended and emptied.
They are manually torn apart into pieces, and tossed together to produce a roughly distributed mix. This continues as the fragments are torn into smaller pieces, creating a kaleidoscopic array of colour.
This stage of the process does not have to be very precise. The aim is simply to avoid any overly large clumps of any single colour, as that would risk one shade predominating in areas of the finished fabric.
Blend the Colours in a Mixer
Conveyor into Mixing Machine
Carry to hopper through vacuum tube
A Taste of Previous Recipes
Once the base colours are roughly mixed together, the wool is dropped into an underground vacuum pipe. This carries it into a large mixing machine.
A conveyor feeds the mixture into, in effect, a shredder. This breaks up the hand-separated clumps of the base colours into smaller pieces, producing a much finer blend.
From a distance the final composite shade this will produce is already starting to appear. But up close the granulararity of colours is richly evident in every handful.
This mixture is now sufficiently light and fluffy to be carried through another vacuum tube (second image) up and overhead. It rains down into a storage space, ready to be taken to carding. Notice in my third picture the remnant history of thousands of these operations, tiny pieces caught on a strap high above as it floated down.
Ready for the Carding Hopper
Ready for carding
The Carding Hopper
Here we see the blended mixture, ready for the next stage in the process. The finer granularity means that all the ingredient colours will now be present in a single handful.
Spilling out of its temporary store, the wool mixture is lifted into the hopper of the carding machine. From here giant rollers carry it through into the first stage of the carding.
Notice the plastic pipe entering the second image from above. This is not the main feed to the hopper. It is a fan-driven return feed carrying recycled fluff from further up the process, ensuring there is as little waste as possible. If you look closely you will see the much finer mixture immediately beneath it.
Refine through Teasing and Carding
Carding Early Stage
Carding Later Stage
Teasing and Carding is the process by which the individual wool fibres (i.e. hairs) are individually straightened and sorted into separate fibres. Over a series of stages, this process converts a continuous matted web of fibres into individual ribbons of fine threads.
The machine (or, technically, series of machines in one long process) mechanically mimics the effect of hand-teasing and carding using spiked wooden paddles. This pulls the hairs into the same orientation to assist their spinning into thread, fluffing the wool as it develops. The process also helps remove any remaining dirt or plant matter, which would both weaken and coarsen the finished yarn.
The woollen mixture is carried through a series of rollers, each fitted with thousands of tiny spikes. In this way the fibres are caught and straightened as they are carried from one stage to the next.
A conveyor moves the wool first to ‘nippers’, which deliver a steady flow of the fibre onto the ’swift’. This transfer straightens the fibres, and the swift’s card cloth then carries these fibres past the worker/stripper rollers to the ‘fancy’. The worker roller turns more slowly relative to the swift, which reverses the fibre. The faster stripper then pulls fibres from the worker and passes them on again to the swift.
Over several stages, with the same process repeating from one machine to the next, this teasing and carding pulls the fibres increasingly parallel. And as it moves through, the wool becomes progressively fluffier and lighter.
Roving into Loose Threads
The mixed fibre carried up…
… and down to the Roving ribbons…
…through on a rubber conveyor…
…and wound, ready for spinning
Now that the base colours are fully mixed into the desired shade, and carded into the right consistency, the fibre is ready for to be spun into yarn. First it needs to be made into a loose thread.
This Roving machine picks up the fibres on ribbons, pulling just the right number through to make a very loosely organised thread. This thread has just enough strength to be wound ready for spinning. But it remains so loose that it can be easily pulled apart with the slightest tension.
Spin into Strong Yarn
Tying broken threads
Spinning onto Yarn Cones
The Spinning Line
For the yarn to have the strength required for weaving, it now needs to be spun into strong thread. The spinning is literally that - twisting it around 6-8 times, which gives the yarn a great deal more tensional strength.
On the first image to the right you can see the loose threads from the previous stage, wound onto a long bobbin. The yarn is gently pulled from here, down through a twister and onto the yarn cones below. At this stage it can still break easily, so the machine needs to be constantly tended.
Due to the loose thread’s fragility, the speed at which the spinner can operate is limited. But a large number of yarn cones can be wound in parallel at the same time. So the highly skilled spinner is seldom idle.
Organise Warping Threads for Weaving
Yarn Cones Delivering Threads
The Warping Frame
The Warp is the long, lengthwise group of threads in weaving, through which the crosswise ‘Weft’ threads are interwoven to create its pattern. Because these threads are continuous, they must be organised in groups of the right sequence in advance.
The cones of Harris Tweed coloured yarns (each of which, remember, is formed from its own unique mix of base colours) are first arranged into the right layout, so that each thread comes off it in the right position for its own unique position in the pattern. Enlarge the first photo to the right and you will see this quite clearly.
The threads are then arranged in groups on the warping frame, in lengths that might vary from just a few yards (metres) for a short weave - say, for a single garment - up to eighty yards or so for a full ‘piece’ (the standard unit of a full weaving length). The warping frame needs enough pegs for the longest warp to be strung between them without a break.
Once hundreds of warping threads have been laid out for the full width of the loom where it will be woven (which may be either ’single’ or ‘double’ width) they are wound up into hanks, and sent out to the weaver’s cottage, ready for the weaving itself.
Weaving the Fabric
The Original Blackhouses
The Weaver’s pedal loom
By statutory Act of Parliament, the weaving of Harris Tweed may only be done within the homes of the islanders in the Outer Hebrides. What’s more, no automation is allowed. To this day, every inch of Harris Tweed is produced by human power alone… as you can see from the pedals used to drive our friend’s loom here.
The warp and yarns for the weft arrive from the mill, and then he sets to work. A major part of the task is the setting up of the loom itself, hand-tying on the new yarns to the tail-ends of the previous weave, to make it easier to thread onto the loom… a painstaking and time-consuming process, even after years of practice.
Then it is a matter of steadily weaving the Harris Tweed cloth, inch by inch, yard by yard. There are regular breaks to mend stray threads, and change the yarns in the weft shuttles as they pass from side to side. But otherwise it’s an all-day job to make a single piece. Often thirteen hours at a sitting.
The tradition of home-weaving began in the blackhouses you see to the right. But today most islanders enjoy the warmth and creature comforts of more modern homes. Angus here told us that he couldn’t be happier. What better life is there than to be your own master, watching the weather go by through the window, in one of the world’s most hauntingly beautiful places. This is the landscape that has inspired Harris Tweed designs for centuries past and, we hope, centuries to come.
Checking for Imperfections
Checking on a light table
Hand-darning stray threads
The woven Harris Tweed fabric comes back to the mill from the weaver. (And yes, that’s the same piece as in the image above… this picture was taken the very next day.) The first task is to check it for any imperfections.
Every inch is carefully scrutinised on a light table. Any broken or stray threads are darned and mended. If the weaver makes too many errors he may find his fees are reduced to pay for the costs. But that rarely ever happens, as it’s a matter of local pride to produce a fabric that’s as near perfect as possible.
Washing the Tweed Cloth
The Harris Tweed cloth is now nearly ready. It just needs to go through a few final processes. The first is to give it a good wash, to remove all remaining impurities, and oils.
The fabric is washed in cold water on the machine you see to the right. Click on the image to enlarge it, then look closely at the wooden drum towards the top of the picture. It’s time-worn smoothness reminds one of driftwood. Just imagine the years of service, and the many miles of Harris Tweed that have passed over it to have that effect.
Waulking the Fabric
The Waulking Machine
A Sign of the Times
Waulking has two important effects. Firstly it cleanses the cloth and eliminates excess lanolin, oils, dirt, and other impurities. And secondly, it makes the material softer and thicker.
Originally this was done by literally ‘walking’ (i.e. treading) the fabric in water, perhaps treated with a proportion of urine for its ammonia as a cleansing agent. But don’t worry, nowadays the process involves nothing more than pure water.
The machines we use here are in effect a miniature version of the water wheel, which took over from human walking power long ago. The rotational action drives out the impurities, whilst stretching and slightly matting the fibre, improving both its softness and resilience.
It’s important to time the process carefully, which varies depending on the volume of fabric (as seen on the second photograph). Too short and the wool would still feel too greasy with the sheep’s natural oils. Too long and the fabric would matt, becoming too felt-like. But of course with long practice it’s always just right.
Waulking also survives to this day in the tradition of Waulking Songs, sung by the women (mostly) as they pursued their daily labour. Often hauntingly beautiful, waulking songs transport us back to the days when all woven fabrics were literally walked for hours.
Drying and Pressing the Tweed
The finishing machine
Before the Harris Tweed can be sent to the customer, it needs of course to be fully dried. It also needs to be pressed so that it arrives in tip-top condition.
This takes place in this very substantial machine you see to the right. The damp fabric enters at one end, and comes out almost ready to deliver…
Final Checking and Trimming
A few final fixes
… after the entire piece is checked over, once again, inch by inch. The finished fabric goes back to the light table, where it is carefull looked over once again. All stray threads are removed, and any imperfections hand-darned, to ensure the Harris Tweed that is delivered deserves to bear its illustrious name.
Legal Authentication as Harris Tweed
Fabric Hallmark Stencil
Harris Tweed Legal Declaration
But there is one final, all-important step, before the Harris Tweed can be dispatched. It has to be certified by the official Inspector, before it can carry the Harris Tweed orb trademark label.
The inspection is carried out not by an employee of the mill, but by an Inspector employed by the Harris Tweed Authority. He visits several times a week, and for each piece of fabric examines the certifications that prove each requirement of the Act of Parliament have been met.
Only when he is satisfied is the fabric stamped at each end, and the paperwork issued. Now it can benefit from it own unique label. Now it truly can be called Harris Tweed.
Dispatch and Delivery
The Orb garment label
Ready to roll
We’re at the end of our journey. The certified Harris Tweed can now be sent off to its proud new owner, who might be nearby on the same Island, or on a distant continent half way across the world. Only now that it has been legally certified as Harris Tweed can it carry the uniquely numbered and traceable Orb garment label that is your guarantee of authenticity.
Wherever its destination, the fabric will be enjoyed and appreciated by all who see it. Many will instantly recognise it, as there are few fabrics that are as immediately locatable to such a small, and special, source.
If you’d like your own little piece of heritage from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, you know who to ask. We’ll be delighted to help you. And you in turn will be helping sustain a community and a tradition for future generations to enjoy.