Unravelling Harris

Harris Tweed: “a tweed which has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of Harris, Lewis, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra and their several purtenances (The Outer Hebrides) and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides" – from The Harris Tweed Authority

When I first moved from Canada to Scotland 3 years ago, I knew of tweed and had even worked with it. But the concept of Harris Tweed was something new to me. And at the time I didn't fully comprehend that I was moving to the nation that practically owns this ancient fabric, where the culture and heritage of islands off the North West coast are entirely wrapped up in the production of it.

My love affair with Harris Tweed began when I worked for a short period with Scottish designer Judy Clark. It was through Judy, and her family connections in the Outer Hebridean Islands, that I became aware of the rich heritage of this cloth. And just recently, with my family in tow, I had the pleasure of spending a week on the mystical islands of Harris & Lewis; bringing with it the opportunity to visit the mill of Harris Tweed Hebrides.

 Tailored coat, naturally dyed by Margarita's Grandmother.

Tailored coat, naturally dyed by Margarita's Grandmother.

As we let our main course settle, she pulled out an exquisite tailored jacket; A family heirloom made from her Grandparents tweed. She explained in detail how each colour is produced from natural means: Indigo for the dark blue, crotal for the rusty brown and the raw sheep's wool for the creamy white. She then took me out to scrape some crotal of my own, which I later used to dye some wool during our natural dying workshop here at The Stitchery. 

 Photographer Anna Olszewska

Photographer Anna Olszewska

Arriving on Harris and driving the 15 minutes from ferry to cottage, I could already feel the inspiration for so many of the traditional tweed weaves rising up in the land surrounding us: this strange craggy terrain with its rich, peaty colours and thick grassy plots divided by old stone walls. Not to mention the abundance of ragged sheep that we encountered grazing by the side of the road.  

We were privileged to be staying only a few villages away from artist and family friend Margarita Williams. Harris is Margarita's homeland and in recent years she has returned there to open her own gallery.  As a small girl she would have spoken Gaelic, only learning English when she moved to the mainland. Over a scrumptious homemade meal at her cottage she reminisced of childhood days spent scraping 'crotal' (a dark lichen) off the rocks to make rusty coloured dyes for the tweed produced by her Grandparents; Crofters and weavers of the traditional kind. 

 The picturesque beaches of the West Coast of the Isle of Harris.

The picturesque beaches of the West Coast of the Isle of Harris.

Harris Tweed Hebrides

After spending some well deserved time on the sandy, sun-struck beaches of Harris, we headed north to Lewis for a much anticipated tour of the tweed mill. We were greeted there by Margaret, the lovely Brand Development Director of HTH, who throughout our tour of the mill gave us a detailed and insightful overview of each production process.  

The first thing that hits you when you enter the HTH mill is the strong chemical smell of the dyeing process. Margaret explained how the wool is coloured using the large dyeing vats before it can be processed into the yarns that are eventually woven into tweed. She then expressed regret that this can't be done using traditional natural dyes because of the massive global demand for Harris Tweed. After the wool is dyed, it is rung and dried before being sent to the blending room. 

 The raw wool is brought in by the masses. Unfortunately there are not enough sheep on the Island to produce all the wool, although you'd be happy to know it is 100% Pure Virgin British Wool.

The raw wool is brought in by the masses. Unfortunately there are not enough sheep on the Island to produce all the wool, although you'd be happy to know it is 100% Pure Virgin British Wool.

 Raw wool dyed a vibrant yellow.

Raw wool dyed a vibrant yellow.

 Bundles of dyed wool waiting to me blended.

Bundles of dyed wool waiting to me blended.

The blending process takes two different colours of wool and, using a "hoover-like ventilation system" passes the different colours back and forth between two rooms until the blend is complete. The blended wool is then fed into the carding machines. 

DSC_0018.jpg
DSC_0026.jpg
DSC_0024.jpg

The carding machines are a fearsome, noisy experience. My Son August had to plug his ears with his fingers, although he found the whole mechanical process of them fascinating. These seemingly endless machines take the dyed, separated wool in one end, disentangle it, mix the fibres and produce a continuous web of wool at the other end. 

 The mixed wool being fed into the carding machines.

The mixed wool being fed into the carding machines.

 The carding machine starting the process.

The carding machine starting the process.

 The carded wool almost ready for spinning.

The carded wool almost ready for spinning.

Once the wool has gone through the carding process, it is then ready to be spun. The spinning machines are set up to spin many spools of yarn in parallel. This is essentially the same process that would have occurred when Margarita was a child on her Grandparents croft; Just on a vastly larger and more industrialised scale!

The colours of yarn produced are rich and vibrant. And the sheer quantity of it was almost too much to take in. At this point I couldn't help but think how just one of these reels would be enough for me to knit very warm red jumpers for my entire family!

 Workers checking the spinning machines.

Workers checking the spinning machines.

 The spun cones and bobbins ready to be shipped to the homes of the many weavers of the Island.

The spun cones and bobbins ready to be shipped to the homes of the many weavers of the Island.

 The yarn is being spun onto the bobbins.

The yarn is being spun onto the bobbins.

Once the yarn is spun onto individual bobbins it is then ready to be sent out to one of the 120 or so home weavers who actually produce the woven tweed fabric.

In Part 2 (coming soon) of this blog we continue to unravel this incredible process, visiting the home of Norman Mckenzie, a well known local weaver, before returning to the mill where the finished cloth is readied for shipping.