Now the time comes to weave the cloth.
By statutory Act of Parliament, the weaving of Harris Tweed may only be done within the homes of the islanders in the Outer Hebrides. What’s more, no automation is allowed. To this day, every inch of Harris Tweed is produced by human power alone, simple pedals used to drive the loom mechanisms.
The warp and yarns for the weft arrive from the mill, (a single-width loom weaver will warp their beam themselves) and then the weaver sets to work. A major part of the task is the setting up of the loom itself, changing the draft to the correct pattern, using the correct pick wheel, hand-tying on the new yarns to the tail-ends of the previous weave, to make it easier to thread onto the loom. It can be a painstaking and time-consuming process, even after years of practice.
A weaver can produce around 100 – 150 metres of Harris Tweed a week depending on their other crofting activities and demands on their time. The cloth is pulled from their looms when complete, carefully folded in a specific way and tied in neat bundle ready to be returned to the mill where the first task will be to check it for any imperfections.
Every inch is carefully scrutinised by an eagle-eyed darner, usually on a light table or by being pulled over a back lit wooden beam. Any broken or stray threads are darned and mended. If the weaver makes too many errors he may find his fees are reduced to pay for the costs. But that rarely ever happens, as it’s a matter of local pride to produce a fabric that’s as near perfect as possible.
The Harris Tweed cloth is now nearly ready. It just needs to go through a few final processes. The first is to give it a good wash, to remove all remaining impurities and oils in cold water. Washing and beating or waulking, has two important effects. Firstly it cleanses the cloth and eliminates excess lanolin, oils, dirt, and other impurities. And secondly, it makes the material softer and thicker.
Once done by hand, today the machines used are in effect a miniature version of these actions, the rotational action drives out the impurities, whilst stretching and slightly matting the fibre, improving both its softness and resilience.
It’s important to time the process carefully, which varies depending on the volume of fabric. Too short and the wool would still feel too greasy with the sheep’s natural oils. Too long and the fabric would matt, becoming too felt-like. But of course with long practice it’s always just right.
The cloth is nearing the end of it’s journey, next time we’ll look at the final stages of the process, almost there!