How Harris Tweed is made – From yarn to tweed – Part 2

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, about how the wool arrives and the mill and is made into yarn, you can find it here! And part three is now ready, from loom shed to customer, read it 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 them 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 7: The yarn arrives in the loom shed to be woven

If you’re weaving to contract with a mill, the yarn is delivered to the loom shed, ready to get going. An independent weaver has to visit the mill to buy the necessary yarn. I’m going to pull in to the side for a moment and dwell on a few matters. One of the things that make Harris Tweed unique is that it has to be woven at the weavers home. A lot of time it’s mentioned that it has to be woven by a crofter, but this is not entirely correct. What is a crofter?

This had me puzzled, but it turns out to be someone who rents a piece of land, neither more nor less. To be a weaver of Harris Tweed though you only have to live on the Islands of the Outer Hebrides and have somewhere to house your loom. Which brings us to another vital point, the loom has to be powered by the weaver. I often see mention of Harris Tweed being handmade, which might lead you to imagine the loom is hand-powered, which is wrong, as all I have seen have been foot-powered. The old looms have two pedals that are pumped using legs, the newer double-width looms are like a stationary cycle.

You really don’t want to get too clever with your loom though, as in attaching an electric motor (which to me would seem like a very natural thing to do). The Harris Tweed Authority are well aware of the temptation inherent in this and do continuous random spot checks. Get caught weaving with unapproved power and you’re banned from the trade. For life. This is serious.

So, with that out of the way let’s move on. If the weaver is making tweed to order for a mill, the warp has been beamed and is ready to set up on the loom. This involves tying all the warp threads onto the last of the previous job. Again, 696 for a single width and twice that for double. That’s a lot of fiddly little knots! The independent weaver will set up the warp threads according to the desired pattern. Remember, the warp threads are the ones that don’t move when the loom get’s going, it’s the weft that flies back and forth.

The business side of a Mk2 Hattersley loom, mid weaving. Blink and you'd miss the shuttle being whacked across from side to side!

The business side of a Mk2 Hattersley loom, mid weaving. Blink and you’d miss the shuttle being whacked across from side to side!

Once the warp is all set up, there is some “programming” to be done before continuing. This is to tell the loom how that patterns are to be created and even the old single-width looks have a provision for a very basic configuration, which basically sets up which shuttles are to be shot across in which order. There is a reason why the herringbone pattern is common, it’s a very easy one to make. You really only need two colours of yarn and you decide how many yarn ends in a warp before the pattern changes (how many lines of weft, so to speak?). So a 4×4 herringbone is as small a herringbone pattern that is noticeable, and a 12×12 is large. A herringbone pattern (draft) is set up in the boards (the order the ends of yarn go through the heddles) and not on the pattern chain (don’t worry, I’m trying to work this out as well).

You can also program patterns, even on the old looms. It’s not conventional modern computer programming though. On the old looms this is done using chained pieces of metal that are set in the necessary order. The newer looms have a punch-card system. There is no truth to the rumour that within the next 50 years computer technology will be in use in crofts.

Stage 8: The loom is set up, let’s weave some Harris Tweed!

Once set up there is really only one thing for it, get those legs going and stay awake. A typical weaver will manage about 20 metres of single-width tweed in a workday, more on a double-width. A weavers yard is 8 feet and there is 30 weavers yard to a whacking great roll of tweed, i.e. 73.2 metres. A full roll can be up to a massive 43 weavers yards!

A double-width loom is powered by pedals.

A double-width loom is powered by pedals.

It’s not as if it’s all a matter of daydreaming of bicycle rides in the countryside though (when asked, 100% of the two weavers questioned did not claim any fondness for cycling), or of a mountain pass in Tour de France. An eye must be kept on progress and any problems nipped in the bud. And there is the matter of the flying shuttle. One of the prime inventions of the industrial revolution (round about 1750) this replaced the hand-operated shuttle (i.e. the piece that goes band and forth between the warps to create the actual weave). The hand-operated shuttle severely limited the speed a loom could operate at, but this all changed with the flying shuttle, as it lives up to its name. The shuttle is basically in a game of very fast and very direct tennis, being whacked from side to side at a remarkable speed. Almost all the time this works perfectly and all is well. Occasionally though it missed it’s end-stop and … well, be careful where you put your cat.

The two types of loom, single and double width, vintage and more modern, do basically fulfil the same function. The difference as I see it is that the double width produces twice the acreage of fabric for the given effort by the weaver, though it also means an investment of around 25 thousand pounds, so it’s going to take a good few yards of tweed to get a return on the investment. A vintage Hattersley Mk2 from around the 1950s would be around xx pounds.

Stage 9: All the warp is used up, time to carry the Harris Tweed to the mill!

And off the finished Harris Tweed goes to the mill for finishing!

And off the finished Harris Tweed goes to the mill for finishing!

Once the full length has been woven it’s time to roll it up and send it back to the mill.

Thanks to Rebecca Hutton at Taobh Tuath Tweeds for help and images! Any errors are entirely mine.

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



  • Roland Novak 24/02/2018 at 15:10

    Thanks for your research! Great article! Expecting the next part!

    • nick 24/02/2018 at 18:41

      Thanks, Roland! Should be ready for next weekend!


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