Monday, 10 November 2014

Weaving Harris Tweed - or how to keep warm!

I am just returned from a week long visit to my mother's home on the Isle of Lewis.  I visit her as often as I can - usually about once a month - but as it is an hour's drive followed by a three hour ferry journey from Inverness, I can't just nip across for a quick visit.

My mother's health is failing and she now needs quite a lot of help with various things around the house, but cooking and sorting out her wardrobe can only take up a small amount of each day.  I like to be busy, so a few years ago I bought an old Hattersley loom and taught myself how to weave Harris Tweed.  Whenever Mother decides to have a rest on her bed, I pop out to the weaving shed (one time garage) and pedal away.

I was really looking forward to this visit.  Last time I was there I had made, threaded and tied in a new warp to a new weaving pattern but I had not had time to actually do any weaving.  The colours are gorgeous - deep pinks, dark plums, purple - and the weave structure is a herringbone, but rather than the normal 8-8 or 12-12, this one is 8-8-4-4.

But we are now in November and the autumnal gales are making themselves felt.  The garage is a cold place with no heating - quite daunting to go out there with a howling gale and lashing rain!  It wasn't bad weather every day.  This photograph
On the Pentland Road, looking south west to the Uig area of Lewis
was taken last Wednesday morning when I drove across to Carloway to buy some tweed - I don't have enough time to weave all the tweed that we need for our Anna Macneil products.

I had a few adjustments to make to the heddle boards - adjusting the heights to create the correct shed at each press of the peddles. At the start of each tweed it's a good idea to weave with a contrasting weft yarn so that any mistakes in the threading become apparant.  I found a couple of threading errors I was able to collect, and another one I decided I could live with!
the pale grey weft makes it easier to see the pattern

All adjustments made, it was time to wind the bobbins.  My bobbin winders give me space to wind 6 at a time - but one keeps losing the drive belt so I am down to 5.  However, I can only just keep all 5 winding in sequence, so I have not spent time trying to sort it.  I find it easiest to wind 5 different colours at a time.  I chose bright pink, deep magenta, raspberry, dark plum and navy to give me a good variety of colours.

Then I was ready to start weaving.  Once I got going, I very quickly peeled off my fleece jacket. A few metres on and the jumper was off!  The Hattersley loom is operated by foot pedals.  It is a sort of pumping motion rather than cycling.  With each press, the shuttle flies from one side to the other, the beater comes forward to push the weft against the already woven cloth, the cloth beam winds a little bit forward and the shafts swap position ready for the next pick. All this happens at roughly a beat per second and keeping a steady rythm makes for a more trouble free weave.  I am not really OCD in nature, but I do have a tendency to count (paces to the bus stop, pegs on the washing line, pins in and out when I am sewing) and so I very quickly fell into the habit of counting the beats of the loom.  This does have an advantage. 
the tweed has been wound forward leaving an unwoven section
The amount of yarn on the weft bobbins is pretty much the same from one bobbin to the next, so if I get 88 picks from one bobbin, the chances are I will get between 85 and 90 for all subsequent bobbins of that colour.  As I am quite small (5ft 2in) I find it difficult to see into the shuttle without popping off my seat - and that involves stopping pedalling.  So knowing when to slow down and stop is useful.  If one over-runs and weaves with no yarn, then one has to back-track - this slows down the weaving a lot, and is likely to introduce problems with the weave density if you have to re-wind a bit.

All Harris Tweed is woven at the home of the weaver on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, but most of this weaving is done under contract for any one of the three mills.  And this is nearly all woven as lengths of one colourway & pattern - i.e. the whole 80 metres is exactly the same for the whole length.  For me, the important thing is to get lots of variety in each length, and also to weave in short lengths - 180 cm at a time.  Then I wind the loom on for 20cm or so and start weaving again.  This gives me the option to weave each short length with a different colour of weft.  I use these lengths to make our very popular wraps and hooded capes - watch this space, new wrap design coming soon!  What I tend to do is weave a few lengths in each colourway, but make a different garment or accessory with each, so no two things ever exactly the same.  And as each warp is unrepeatable, created with a rather random selection of yarns to give my trademark stripey tweeds, each garment will always be unique.  There are only a few weavers willing to weave these shawl lengths so they are in short supply.

In between making Christmas puddings, soup to stock the freezer and a new dress for my mother, I managed to weave some 25 shawl lengths in 6 different colours. 
tweed bundled ready to deliver to the mill for washing
I cut it all off the loom and this morning got it wrapped up and off to Carloway Mill for washing and stamping.  Every piece of Harris Tweed is inspected and stamped by the Harris Tweed Authority with the world famous Orb trade mark.  To qualify for stamping, the tweed has to be handwoven at the island weaver's home using pure virgin wool that has been scoured, dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides and then washed (finished) also on the islands.  This ensures the quality of this fantastic, hard-wearing woollen cloth.  I recently had an order for a hat - this customer had bought her original hat from my mother at a craft fair in Stornoway town hall back in the 1980s and she has worn it ever since!  So, you may not be able to keep warm by weaving the tweed - but you can keep warm by wearing it!
left - bright pink weft / right - navy weft - very different tweeds from the same warp

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