Weaving Harris Tweed

At the June meeting we will learn all about how to weave and wear a kilt. But what to wear with it:
Harris Tweed must be made from 100 per cent pure virgin wool, dyed, spun and finished in the Outer Hebrides and hand woven by the islanders at their own homes in the islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist, Barra and their several purtenances.
At the height of the industry in the 1960s the islands’ weavers produced 7million metres of cloth a year, largely for the American market. Clint Eastwood sported a Harris tweed jacket in the Dirty Harry movies. By the mid-1980s the average was 4.5million metres, but the bottom fell out of the US market in the late 1980s.
In recent years the industry has been boosted by renewed interest among designers and film stars. In 2006 the weavers produced around 1million metres of cloth, the best output for nine years.


Under the new Harris Tweed Act it is now possible to use wool produced anywhere in the world. Raw wool blended together from various breeds to gain the advantages of their unique qualities and characteristics arrive from the broker in huge compressed 600lb bales. In the main, it is from Cheviot sheep, wool procured from northern Scotland, the Borders and the north of England that has a softer texture and produces the finer cloth preferred today.
Even during summer, the quiet time, 50 people are employed, putting through small orders to keep the machinery running. After scouring the wool is divided and dumped into a row of giant stainless-steel vats to which dyes are added and here it boils away for several hours before being dried by hot air. The dyed wool goes to the teasing house where the fibres are pulled apart before being carded and spun.
Prewound warps are delivered, together with yarn for the weft, to the homes of the weavers. The weavers also receive the design instructions and a pattern sample from the manufacturer. It takes a great deal of concentration and skill to weave the perfect Harris Tweed.
Most of the weavers live on Lewis. In 2002 there were about 130 of them: there were four times as many 20 years before. Each is self-employed but all have contracts with mills that only occupy five months of the year, so weavers do other work.
In 1997, development grants enabled weavers to install the modern rapier looms, which cost £13,000. These weave double-width tweeds, 59in (150cm) as opposed to single-width, which, many believe, has stopped the industry from dying altogether because tailors prefer it.
The tweed is then returned in the greasy state to the mill for finishing. The pieces of tweed also pass through the skilled hands of the women, traditionally, of the darning department who repair any loose ends and broken threads. This is an essential quality control activity and ensures that there are no imperfections. Once checked and darned, tweeds are washed to tighten them before they are dried, squeezed and fed through a weft-straightener. Various finishes can then be applied to the tweed.
After finishing, the Harris Tweed is then presented to the Harris Tweed Authority’s inspectors, and if all the necessary regulations have been complied with, it is stamped with the certification mark or the Orb Mark.
Information gleaned from:
History of Harris TweedHarris Tweed Textiles
Warp in the weaveDaily Telegraph

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