How Harris Tweed is made – From wool to yarn – Part 1

If you’d asked me a year ago how Harris Tweed was made, I’d have replied something close to this: The wool comes to the mill and is made into yarn. The yarn is transported to the weavers at their crofts and they weave it into tweed. The tweed is then transported and made into many wonderful things. Sounds pretty plausible, right?

Looking back I can’t believe how clueless I was. Not that I was totally wrong, per say, but sort of similar to “Boy meets girl, kids happen and everyone is happy ever after” simple. There is so very very much more to the process. So when I visited the Hebrides last year I made sure to seek out the knowledge by actually following the process from start to finish. If you’d like to read up on my original trip report you can find here, as part 1 and part 2. Ḯ’ll now try to present the process in gruelling detail and logical order, so that anyone was nerdy as me will be able to share this knowledge with those less informed. At length.

Stage 1: The wool arrives at the mill

To be fair, we’re not going totally back to start. That would involve looking at sheep, and sheep are a known quantity. You might imagine that the sheep that provide the wool used in Harris tweed are the local Hebridean sheep, but that isn’t entirely correct, or even more than a little bit correct. There are nowhere near enough sheep on the Islands to supply the necessary wool for the tweed, and most of those that are there are of a type that supplies the wrong sort of wool. So the Hebridean wool mainly goes to the mainland to become carpets, and lots and lots of bundles of wool from the mainland come to the Hebrides to become tweed.

The wool arrives in large bags, washed, fluffy and ready to be dyed. The mill I visited, the Kenneth Mackenzie Mill in Stornoway, performs the entire process of turning wool into Harris Tweed, but it all starts with dyeing the raw wool.

Wool fresh from the mainland washed and ready for the long process to become Harris Tweed.

Wool fresh from the mainland, washed and ready for the long process to become Harris Tweed.

Stage 2: Dyeing the wool

The dyeing process happens in large cauldron-like containers. And this was where I experienced something of a revelation. You know how there’s always talk of the earthy, natural colours of tweed? How it reflects the hues and tones of the nature of the Hebrides? I’ll admit I hadn’t thought it quite through, but I was expecting them to be dyeing the wool in these colours, so when I saw this on the wall I was more than a little curious:

This board contains samples of the most recent dye jobs, so as to reference the resulting colours.

This board contains samples of the most recent dye jobs, so as to reference the resulting colours.

And then I saw these bags of ready dyed wool and you could have heard the pennies dropping. I did inquire about how environmental the dyes used were and while this obviously was a concern and development is underway, there is still some way to go in this respect. Given how sturdy and long lasting Harris Tweed is, the dye used has to stay fast for a very long time.

Big sacks of dyed wool ready for mixing. Notice the primary colours?

Big sacks of dyed wool ready for mixing. Notice the primary colours?

So at this stage, we can forget all about the colours of the wool matching the Hebridean scenery, as this is all about the primary colours. Kind of like mixing paint, which means the next stage isn’t such a surprise as you might have thought.

Stage 3: Mixing the colours

Given a selection of primary colours, there will be formulas for creating almost any colour imaginable. Unlike mixing paint though, where you add all the base colours into a pot and stir it up, mixing wool fibres is a little different. And here I found the first of many wonderful mechanical contraptions. If you have a love for proper machinery, from a pre-digital age where functionality was down to the cunning of the designer and not binary trickery, then you’d love to see these machines. It reminds me a little of Wallace & Gromit, though without Gromit and always the correct trousers.

Various colours of wool have been weighed and coarsely mixed together.

Various colours of wool have been weighed and coarsely mixed together.

 

As you can see though, the various colours of dyed wool are measured by weight and added to the pile, but you can’t just stir it or shake it to make it mix. The mixing of the coloured fibres is much more involved and can be described as a process of large tumblers repeatedly brushing to mix it. It’s not a perfect process though, as if you look at any Harris tweed up close, you’ll see that even a tweed that looks uniform from a distance will be a blend of individual primary colours when viewed up close.

 

 

Stage 4: Spinning the yarn

There’s no getting around it, if you’re going weave, you’ll need yarn, both for the warp and the weft, as in the threads that go vertically and horizontally as seen from the perspective of the loom. The warps are set in tension and the weft goes over and under to create the weave. Yarn though, the yarn is key and once the colours are blended it’s spun. If you stop to consider it, it’s quite remarkable how it’s even possible to twist all those quite short wool fibres into threads that are both strong and almost endless, but yarn it does become. And it’s collected on cones.

Many spools of yarn are spun at the same time.

Many spools of yarn are spun at the same time.

 

Stage 5: Checking the yarn

After being spun, the yarn must be checked for evenness and strength. And here’s another one of those amazing machines. The yarn is spooled from one cone to another, checking for excessive thickness and whether there are weak points. If there is a weak point, the yarn breaks there. You’d think a light might flash, a bell goes ding and an operator dash over to tie it together? Not at all, this machine just finds the ends, re-attaches them and keeps on spooling. This is Steampunk in reality and remarkable to observe.

This is the machine that checks the yarn for uniform diameter and sufficient strength and splices the yarn if it breaks.

This is the machine that checks the yarn for uniform diameter and sufficient strength and splices the yarn if it breaks.

Stage 6: Preparing for delivery

So, the yarn has been made up, according to the specification of the colours needed to weave a certain tweed. This isn’t trivial either, there is a lot of planning here! Consider that a single-width tweed has a total of 696 warp threads, and the more modern double width has twice as many. These may be all the same colour, but most likely they are a variety of colours, so there has to be enough length of each colour. This might not mean anything until you stop to think how that works. Each thread has to be tied in place on the loom, in the correct order for the pattern to be woven, a task that requires a systematic and accurate approach and is sure to take its toll on the weavers back.

Weavers that weave Harris Tweed to order from a mill, the warps are set up as ready-made to be attached. Independent weavers weaving tweed to their own designs have to order the various colours of yarn on bobbins and do their own calculations and setup. We’ll see more about this in part two.

At this point though, the mill has done their part and off to the looms the yarn heads!

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1 Comment

  • John 17/02/2018 at 02:23

    terrific, I can’t wait for part II! Looking at the weaves of my Harris Tweeds the complexity of setting up the loom must be mind boggling.

    Reply

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