Recently, the owners here at tartanplustweed.com , Lynn and Mike, took a little trip to the Isle of Harris and Lewis. Since the famous Harris Tweed is so popular (and right on our doorstep really!) they had decided it was time to take a wee trip up north to visit the Harris Tweed Authority to see how this traditional, yet modern tweed is created. Now the story of Harris Tweed can be a bit confusing. Of course, manufacturers get their cloth from either the Harris Tweed Scotland Mill, the Harris Tweed Hebrides Mill, or the Carloway Mill, but how are there thousands of different designs of Harris Tweed, surely these three mills couldn’t possibly produce all of the different tweeds at one time? When you see Harris Tweed men’s jackets the tweed is generally the same, either some brown/heather herringbone or black/charcoal herringbone. But, there are sometimes these vibrant pink, purple, and green tweeds that aren’t seen as often in the commercial world, and more often seen created into smaller products like handbags, hats, and slippers. So, why aren’t these vibrant tweeds seen more often? And where are they coming from?
The story begins, obviously with the sheep! The sheep are reared on the mainland of Scotland, for the island’s weather is a bit too harsh for sheep. They are shorn then the wool is taken to one of the Harris Tweed mills that are on the island. Here, it is washed and rinsed in a solution of soap and washing soda. Wool that is getting dyed is packed into vats, dyed the appropriate colour, then dried. The wool is then torn up and mixed, almost ready to be spun, however after washing it is now lacking the greasy lubricant it needs to facilitate the carding, warping and spinning processes. An oil is added to this wool making it ready to be carded and blended. This process mixes the different coloured strands of wool further together, it is then twisted to create a thick yarn, and then spun to create a stronger longer piece of yarn to weave with.
The yarn then either stays in the mills to be woven or goes to a weavers personal home. The weavers at their house weave on traditional single width hand looms, while the mills use large double width looms to produce more fabric at a similar rate. These looms are normally used for the larger international market. There is high demand for the tweed so naturally, a double width loom will weave the material faster than a single width loom. The cool thing about these double width looms, is they sometimes are even powered by bicycle! If these larger markets for Harris Tweed are buying thousands of yards of material, the material would generally be of neutral colour to appeal to a larger market. Large companies that sell jackets, waistcoats, handbags, and purses, and make them by the hundreds, are going to choose a tweed that is a bit more appealing to the general public. The small independent weaver in their homes, whilst having a good relationship with the mills, are able to have a different approach to the weaving process.
Because the weavers in their homes work independently, they have the ability to do more challenging orders, with more colours, checks, and patterns. They even do a multitude of bespoke orders for private clients. The smaller loom, while not producing as much material as the double-width loom, gives the weaver the ability to do these more challenging orders because it’s all woven by hand. They have the control over these machines and have been taught through generations of weavers. After all the tweed is woven it is then sent to the Harris Tweed Authority, checked over and if all is well it receives the famous Harris Tweed Orb stamp of approval. It’s amazing that such a fabric that is seen and known all over the world is still so traditionally made, by independent weavers who have protected this tweed from being a traditional gemstone in a world eager to to have everything made and manufactured yesterday.