Huge bales of clean, white, 100% pure new wool arrives at the Harris Tweed mills ready to being the journey to becoming genuine Harris Tweed. The first stage is dyeing and Harris Tweed is truly dyed in the wool i.e. we dye the wool prior to it being spun as opposed to dyeing spun yarn. This means we can blend different coloured wools to create a myriad of intricate shades and hues.
The wool has been previously been compressed into tight bales – and they truly are tight. These bales are in turn loaded into stainless steel containers and then loaded into the dye vats. Here the dye is forced into the wool under high pressure, chemicals owing their origins to processes from the 16th century being used to help fix the dyes. The bales are used for stock or high use colours.
Most of the dyes used are organic natural dyes that are removed from the water through the processing system the mill uses or go to an outside water treatment company. The emerging wool must then be dried and this is done by a simple combination of spin drying and tumble drying in warm air to remove the remaining moisture.
With a stock of basic colours to hand, the work of blending them to create an almost infinite variety of potential shades of yarn begins. From just a few dozen colours, almost any natural hue can be created. The base colours are, often very vibrant and evocative of aspects local landscape or its fauna. It is practically impossible to separate Harris Tweed from the land that is its source and inspiration.
There is a tried and tested formula for almost any shade desired. Two, three, four, or more based colours are selected in precise proportions, to create the exact yarn colour required. These are then carefully weighed out just like measuring ingredients on a kitchen scales.
Once the proportions of each wool have been weighed and gathered, the first task is simply to break them up roughly together, ready for blending. They are manually torn apart into pieces, and tossed together to produce a roughly distributed mix. This continues as the fragments are torn into smaller pieces, creating a kaleidoscopic array of colour.
This stage of the process does not have to be very precise. The aim is simply to avoid any overly large clumps of any single colour, as that would risk one shade predominating in areas of the finished fabric.
Once the base colours are roughly mixed together, the wool is dropped into an underground vacuum pipe. This carries it into a large mixing machine. A conveyor feeds the mixture into, in effect, a shredder. This breaks up the hand-separated clumps of the base colours into smaller pieces, producing a much finer blend.
From a distance the final composite shade this will produce is already starting to appear. But up close the granularity of colours is richly evident in every handful. The finer granularity means that all the ingredient colours will now be present in a single handful.
This mixture is now sufficiently light and fluffy to be carried through another vacuum tube up and overhead. It rains down into a storage space, ready to be taken to carding. Spilling out of its temporary store, the wool mixture is lifted into the hopper of the carding machine.
From here giant rollers carry it through into the first stage of the carding…