How Harris Tweed is made – From loom to shop – Part 3

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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. Job done. Sounds pretty plausible, right?

If you haven’t read part one and two, about how the wool arrives and the mill and is made into yarn,  and the process from yarn to woven tweed you can find them here and here!

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 10: The woven Harris Tweed travels from the loom shed back to the mill

This is another one of those checkpoints when you might think the story is over. The yarn has become tweed, it all looks proper and done, but in the words of Becca Hutton, it’s time to send it for a wash and a blow dry. To further the process, this means the fresh tweed has to head back to the factory, and there are more steps yet to go than you might think!

The tweed in its raw state, direct from the looms arrives in large bundles, folded together and tied up. To the uninitiated, it looks ready to use, but it’s ready for its final stages.

Stage 11: The check-up

The first port of call when the tweed arrives back at the mill is a physical checkup. While the weaver will have kept an eye on progress and not made obvious mistakes, in the check-up room the tweed is inspected very closely indeed. Any flaws are corrected and any holes darned by eagle-eyed inspectors. This process is only done for the tweeds made to order for the mills. Independent weavers check and darn their own tweed before taking it to the mills.

The tweed is hung over rollers and slow progression is made. This is a case of it being much easier to correct any flaws found here than later in the process, so it’s a worthwhile investment of effort. The tweed on the photo above is obviously a double width length.

Stage 12: The tweed goes in the washer

The tweed-washing machine. It does exactly that: Washes Harris Tweed in water.

The tweed-washing machine. It does exactly that: Washes Harris Tweed in water.

At this point, it’s been a while since the wool was initially washed and dyed, so it will have accumulated some dust underway. The actual cleaning aspect of the water is only half the story though, as getting the tweed nice and damp is also vital for the next step.

Stage 13: Correcting the shape of the lengths of Harris Tweed

Anyone that knows a little about knitting knows about the tensions in a weave and how these need correcting once the piece is all done. You basically dampen the knitted garment and pin it down to dry in the required shape. And for tweed, it’s exactly the same! Well, it’s not statically pinned down, but the damp cloth is fed into a dryer, clamped on the sides to correct the width. I say “clamped”, but really I should say hooked onto hooks, and not just any hooks, they’re actual tenterhooks! The origin of the expression “to be on tenterhooks”. They’re the shiny, sharp ones on the photo below. The edges of the tweed are put on these.

Stage 14: The Harris Tweed is almost finished

So, it’s been washed and given a blow dry. On the photo below we can see how different it looks to when it arrived in coarsely folded bundles. Now it’s smoother, less creased, more even looking. In fact, good enough to use. The woven patterns also look straighter and crisper, and the cloth itself has a nicer handle. It just needs the vital final stage.

Stage 15: The final checking and receiving the Orb stamp of approval and authenticity

So, washed and dried, time to spool the lovely fresh-smelling tweed onto spools and make it looks like and tidy for delivery.

Hang on though! Are we forgetting something? Indeed! As we’ve already established, one of the absolute foundations of Harris Tweed is that is had to be hand woven in an Islanders home in the Hebrides. There is even an organisation that ensures that this is so, the Harris Tweed Authority. Their primary job is to inspect all Harris Tweed that is woven, ensure it is of the required quality and provenance, and finally, when satisfied it is as should be, stamp it with the Orb logo.

Stage 16: Head forth and become something wonderful!

So, from raw wool through to yarn, through the loom to become tweed, washed and dried, inspected and stamped, it’s been a long journey and it’s finally time to be shipped off to someone who will turn the tweed into something great. When at the Mackenzie mill I observed many packages ready for shipping, addressed to anywhere from local makers to far-flung places such as the bundle below that was headed for China. It feels quite remarkable, having followed the process from start to finish, how something so humbly crafted can result in something so revered and famous. All part of the Hebridean magic!

At this point, I might also mention something about the price of Harris Tweed. While there are resellers around the world, it’s also possible to buy directly from the Hebrides, either from the mills, shops or from independent weavers. Expect to pay around 22  pounds for a metre of single width (so 0.75 square meters or 40 for double width (1.5 square meters). Given the massive effort that goes into it, this strikes me as being very reasonably priced, and worth keeping in mind when being told that “this garment is so incredibly expensive due to the immense price of Harris Tweed”.

Typical places to buy Harris Tweed direct:

And there we have it, from start to finish, the process behind the making of Harris Tweed. Are we in agreement that there was a little bit more to it than first expected?

If you’d like to read up on my original Hebridean Island trip report you can find here, as part 1 and part 2.

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