The intricacies of Harris Tweed
(The story so far!)
During our tour of Lewis and Harris, the outermost island of the Hebrides chain, lying off the west of Scotland two and a half hours by ferry from Ullapool, we have the chance to visit a local weaver by the name of Norman MacKenzie and perhaps get a demonstration of his weaving skills on one of his two Hattersley looms.
Taking a look back in time, Countess Dunsmore made the cloth famous as she was responsible for its spread through the gentry back in the late 1800s! She loved the cloth and introduced it to her friends and its use continued to spread including to the royal family as well as many of the aristocracy as it is very hardwearing and warm!
The name Tweed seems to come from the name of a cloth called Tweel or Twill and also the possible lack of literacy of people who may have misread the name Tweed as many of the larger Scottish mills which produced Twill were based on the river Tweed in the Scottish Borders.
There are around twenty traditional weavers left, mainly on the Lewis part of the island.
Norman is a font of information about his art, for indeed art it is. He begins with a short talk on the origin of the Harris Tweed trademark, the Orb and the Cross (similar to one of the jewels in the Scottish Crown Jewels). It is one of the oldest trademarks in the world still in use today. It signifies that the tweed you are buying was produced in the Outer Hebrides and nowhere else. He then goes on to give us an inside view of his own work, which includes hand-tying 640 individual threads in the warp! (A time-consuming job!) He sources his wool from the mainland now, as there are no longer enough sheep on the island to keep up with production.
The warp are the threads which make up the length of the cloth so there is no real limit to the length of cloth that can be made. The weft are the threads which make up the cross-thread to complete the finished cloth.
There are “cards” which are used the set the pattern much like the early computer punch cards and these are set up in advance so that as you pedal the loom, the shuttles containing the thread for the weft are sent through the warp and the loom tightens the whole warp and weft together to create the finished roll of cloth.
In 1934 rules were changed to allow mills to produce the cloth so as to increase production, prior to that all the cloth had to be made at home or in a shed or the weavers garden.
The Hattersley Loom that we will see is powered by pedals, not electricity! They were built in the 1930s and are becoming more and more rare as the years go by. It is classed as a single width loom. Most of the mills use a double-width loom and this cloth generally goes to large users in the south who make larger quantities of goods such as handbags, purses and the like.
Norman produces cloth for his own orders and usually has a lovely range of scarves, shawls and bags of off-cuts as well as material by the metre off the roll.
Visiting Norman has been a joy over the last three years and I, personally, am looking forward to seeing him again in the coming year.
Written by Fergie Nicoll, Driver-guide