From the United Kingdom to Japan, the most valued Scottish material, Harris Tweed, has received much acceptance that it deserves. Markets, both local and international, appreciate the value of the Harris Tweed, its natural hues and rich textures. But few people really know how that wonderful and instantly recognisable material comes about.
The raw material
One of the most desirable wool textiles in the world, Harris Tweed, is produced in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.Large bales of white, 100% pure fresh wool arrives at the Harris Tweed mills ready to begin the journey to becoming genuine Harris Tweed.
The wool is taken to the island mills where it is washed and dyed into a beautiful palette of colours.
First the wool undergoes dyeing of threads in basic colours. From a few dozen of these basic colours, many colours get blended together into the proven ‘recipes’.The complexity lends the fabric its extraordinary richness.
The dyes produced using natural methods. The colours of Harris Tweed evoke the landscape and nature of the sea, skies, rocks, and flora. Most of the dyes used are organic natural based dyes that are removed from the water after the process is complete.
The dyeing is done in a closed vat. The raw product is then mixed with dyes and fixing agents creating an assortment of colours then rinsed and dried. After that the wool comes out of the dyeing process with moisture, which has to be removed before it can be worked on further. The wool must then be dried by a simple spin drying and drying in warm air to remove the remaining moisture.
From just a few dozen of colours, almost any natural colour can be created. The base colours are, often very vibrant and copies local landscape and its fauna.
Blending & Carding
After that comes the process of mixing colours to create a variety of potential shades of yarn. This is the true magic of Harris Tweed… the incredible diversity and depth of colouring.
From two to more based colours are selected in proportions, to create the exact yarn colour required. The process really is just like measuring ingredients on kitchen scales.
They are manually torn apart into pieces, and tossed together to produce a roughly distributed mix.
Once the base colours are mixed together, the wool is dropped into an underground vacuum pipe. This carries it into a large mixing machine.This breaks up the hand-separated clumps of the base colours into smaller pieces, producing a much finer blend.
Carding is the process by which the individual wool fibres (i.e. hairs) are individually straightened and sorted into separate fibres. It is then carded between mechanical, toothed rollers which tease and mix the fibers before it is separated into a yarn.
For the yarn to have the strength required for weaving, it needs to be spun into the strong thread. The spinning is all about twisting it around 6-8 times, which gives the yarn a more tensional strength. Due to the loose thread’s fragility, the speed at which the spinner can operate is limited. So the highly skilled spinner is seldom idle.
This vitally important process sees thousands of warp threads gathered in a very specific order and gathered onto large beams ready to be delivered to the weavers.
By statutory Act of Parliament, the weaving of Harris Tweed can only be done at homes of the Outer Hebrides islanders. What’s more, no automation is permitted. Up to this day, every meter of Harris Tweed is produced by human power alone.
The warp is delivered to the homes of the weavers. Once ready the weaver starts to weave, while observing and correcting their work until complete.
Once complete, the the woven tweed, folded and tied into a neat bundle, iscollected from outside the croft gate and returned to the mill for finishing.
The woven clothcomes back to the mill from the weaver. The first task is to check it for any imperfections.
Every inch is carefully checked on a light table. If the weaver makes many errors he may find his fees are reduced. But that rarely ever happens, as it’s a matter of local pride.
Once ready, the cloth is finished. Oil, dirt and other impurities are removed by washing and beating in soapy water before it is dried, pressed and cropped to a perfect, flawless condition.
After finishing the last and most important stage of production can begin. The tweed is finally presented to the Harris Tweed Authority's inspectors, before it can carry the Harris Tweed trademark label.
The inspection is carried out by an employee of the Harris Tweed Authority. He or she visits a few times a week and examines the declarations which accompany the woven cloth checking the cloth meets the requirements of the Act of Parliament.
Only when they are satisfied, is the fabric stamped and authorized at each end, and the paperwork signed by the Harris Tweed Authority’s Inspector.
The Harris Tweed goes through a long process to ensure authenticity and quality. It is the only fabric in the world that is protected by an Act of Parliament.
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