IF the Hattersley weaving loom is an icon of the heritage days of Harris Tweed, then so is the spinning wheel.
It has been replaced by modern machinery long since, but once upon a time this traditional piece of equipment was completely essential to the making of Harris Tweed. During the spinning stage the loosely formed wool was — and still is — turned into a workable single ply yarn strong enough for weaving.
The old spinning process has been beautifully captured by Edinburgh artist Davy Macdonald in one of the eight paintings in his recent collection, ‘Harris Tweed — An Inspiring Heritage’. Entitled Spinning the Yarn, the picture (shown below) was inspired by famous Harris weaver Marion Campbell at her Saxony spinning wheel.
In those days, spinning wool was very labour intensive but there was never anything mundane about the spinning wheel itself, which has featured in fairy tales and folklore the world over for hundreds of years.
There is no such mystique about the ‘new’ spinning frame machinery — introduced to the islands when the mills were established last century — but the creation of a workable yarn remains a kind of magic
During the pre-spinning process of carding, the wool is rubbed to give the fibres just enough structure to withstand the stress of being spun.
These ‘slubbings’ are moved from the carding machine to the spinning frame on spools and can easily be pulled apart as the threads are only loosely organised. That all changes during the spinning process, though.
As many spools of wool are spun at the same time, the trick is ensuring consistency of weight and thickness across them all.
Harris Tweed Hebrides produce two different yarn weights, which are then used for the different types of Harris Tweed cloth produced by the company.
During set-up, the spools of wool are placed at the top of the vertical machine and the threads are led down through a part of the machine called the ‘twister’ and then onto the ‘cops’ for spinning.
Here, they are guided into position by small plastic clips called ‘travellers’. These unprepossessing clips really do punch above their weight — for they influence the heaviness of the eventual yarn — allowing the formation of a solid yarn package onto each of the plastic tubes at the bottom of the spinning frame.
The heavier travellers, coloured green, result in a heavier yarn being produced, as they ease out the wool while it is being spun on the cop. The yellow travellers are used when the wool is gauged to be too light and the red travellers when it is just right.
The weight of the yarn can also be adjusted by changing the settings on the machine’s sizing wheel but the clips give that little bit of extra control.
An array of drums and rollers keeps everything moving along but there can be as many as 16 spools per frame spinning at once on each of the five spinning frames in the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill.
The spinners have to keep the frame going at the right speed and under the right tension in order to get good yarn at the end.
John Mackay, the Spinning Manager at the mill and a spinner for 40 years in the UK textile industry, said: “The challenge is making sure the size is roughly the same. If you’re too heavy in one set and too light in another set, it wouldn’t work on the tweeds.”
So, he said, “you size everything”.
This means taking the sizing stick, which measures exactly one yard, and taking off a total of 60 yards from different spools for weighing. If too heavy or too light, then changes need to be made.
At the end of spinning, the yarn — which has lengthened by around a third — is wound onto the distinctive bobbins which sit at the bottom of the spinning frame.
Here, the yarn waits to be taken to the yarn store and the warping frames, where the embryonic pattern of the tweed will be mapped out.
At the opening concert in Glasgow’s Hydro, an international audience of 12,000 people saw a short film on a huge screen about Scotland and golf. A substantial chunk of it was devoted to Hebridean landscapes, the Harris Tweed process and the Shawbost mill. That’s what we mean by profile.
TEASERS, strippers, nippers, some eccentrics and a fancy. It all sounds rather risqué and more suited to the business of burlesque than the production of Harris Tweed.
These are all textile technicalities, though. They are just some of the names of parts of the huge machine that does the vital process of ‘carding’ the wool — brushing it out and straightening the fibres in readiness for spinning and later the weaving.
Not so many moons ago the Harris Tweed Industry was somewhat seasonal with an intensive push towards August followed by a quieter autumn characterised by design and sampling. Pleasingly this is no longer the case with September a flurry of design, weaving and last minute orders for the coming Autumn/Winter collections and beyond.
Premier Vision textiles ‘exposition’ remains an important diary date for the team at Harris Tweed Hebrides. Armed with the new collection of exquisite fabric samples fresh from Ken Kennedy’s loom, clients from all over the world will come to select their swatch samples in early preparation for their 2015 designs. Hall 6 stand SP13 promises to be buzzing with interest once again with Harris Tweed collections already hitting the headlines in The Sunday Times and Financial Times
In addition to the key business, the show also provides an opportunity for our unsung heroes of the pattern room (Roddy Martin and Gwen Crossley) to meet the clients that they normally only get to interact with via phone or computer.
Our esteemed associates at The Campaign for Wool (CfW), The UK fashion and Textiles Association (UKFT) and The Harris Tweed Authority (HTA) will join Harris Tweed Hebrides at Premier Vision. We wish them all a successful show and we extend that goodwill to all the Scottish and indeed British companies showcasing their finest cloth.
As the nights start to draw in and a chill enters the air we all cast a thought to our winter wardrobe. Trends are not as stringent as they once were but the underlying theme is a desire for products that are well made. Words like provenance, heritage, artisan and atelier feature heavily in the style media and that bodes well for Harris Tweed Hebrides so there is plenty of scope to purchase another Harris Tweed jacket, shoes or a sofa (picture above). The luxury is in the process and that process is guaranteed to keep you warm and stylish as winter approaches.
A Danish photographer (Eva Rodbro) and a Swedish artist (Charlott Markus) with a fascination for Edinburgh’s literary heritage and and appreciation of Harris Tweed have collaborated to produce a unique art exhibit called Tableau Noir.
Art and fashion have co-existed for centuries, indeed in many societies the love of fashion was born out of it being the most accessible and tangible form of art. Of this exhibit, Markus states: “When building an abstract room and covering everything, including the walls and the floor, with herringbone patterned harris tweed, the fabric will not only give an impression of its durability but more importantly represent strength by symbolizing a whole construction.”
The classic black and grey pattern, kindly donated by The Harris Tweed Authority, has given an animated element to the three dimensional structure and even in such dark hues there is a vibrancy to the cloth that helps with the artistic narrative. An admiration for Scots author James Hogg’s seminal work The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have been successfully fused into classic film noir. After a successful debut at The Edinburgh International Fashion Festival, Tableau Noir will travel to Amsterdam, Copenhagen and is set to return to Edinburgh later in the year.
Continuing on the dark side, the biggest surprise of Katie Laing’s insightful journal on the dyeing of Harris Tweed is the extent to which black wool is needed when our skilled artisans are cooking up the colour for our yarns. It is hard to play down the influence of the uniquely blended Harris Tweed yarns on a fashion industry that craves original colour when the bursts of inspiration provided by a ‘Paris Pink’ or ‘Peacock Blue’ can shock the eye with pleasure.
Miranda Priestly , the thinly veiled Anna Wintour-inspired character in The Devil Wears Prada captivates this; “But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean….I think it was Yves Saint Laurent wasn't it who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers.”
A few seasons back Topman (main picture) purchased our YC140 fabric for a limited edition collection that premiered at London Fashion Week. The journalists loved the nuanced depth of colour and christened it Rust. The colour became one of the buzzwords of that autumn/winter season. All coming from the humble YC140 fabric.
‘From the land comes the cloth’ and sometimes from the cloth come fashion trends with a provenance even more sincere than the musings of WGSN. As the creative minds of the design houses begin to think about their collections for Winter 2015 the pots in the dye house will continue to churn out Paris Pink, Peacock Blue, black or cerulean and a spectrum of other exciting colours. All inspired by the Hebridean landscape and brewed to perfection in the Shawbost Mill on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.