One of the abiding things I remember about Stornoway in the early eighties was the constant clickety-clack from a shed or garage on Plantation Road. You could hear it on endless repeat from the crack of dawn every morning but Sunday. I had no idea what it was, I never saw the thing playing this background soundtrack, only now can I match it to the sound of an old Hattersley Single-width being worked…
As of the mid-90s a new loom was introduced, the pedal powered, double-width to meet market demand, made in Huddersfield, Bonas-Griffith loom.
I saw one for the first time a few years back in my uncle’s garage and was mesmerised.
Admittedly rather geeky but, to me, this was an awesome machine, a bizarre and beautiful hybrid of engineering, art and magic. I had no idea how it worked. Hundreds of threads of yarn went in one end, pedals were turned and in mysterious sharmanka-esque piece of sorcery, Harris Tweed fed out the other.
And all the time things whirred, clacked and flew in a hurdy-gurdy, like Uilleam Wonka’s favourite bit of cloth making kit.
I loved many things about it immediately.
The vast swathe of warp yarn that stretched off the big steel beam at the back in a reverse waterfall, pulling itself taught through a myriad of delicate, shiny heddles. Lit from beneath by a fluorescent strip light the wool colour seemed to shimmer like a fish-eye view of the sun through flat calm sea.
There were four metal boards, trimmed in wood and hung by day-glo ropes of pink and green, as if the eighties hip-hop culture was still alive and well right here on the John Deere green trusses of the loom frame.
In front lay the length of the reed, all baleen teeth, for beating weft threads tight into the clo,while between the warp yarns a rapier flashed, almost unseen, dodging the ever changing shed, calling the shots with every streaking run.
And, oh, the weft, spider strings pulled in from a nearby table, so cleverly programmed by a looping punch card like some old manual IBM computer. Each hole flicking a wire finger of thread into the throng, handing off to the grasp of the rapier flawlessly every time. Until the bell pinged a warning otherwise.
And there were other things, a tilting wheel, hidden tappets, selvage cutters…
I watched inch after inch of woven tweed form before my eyes, transfixed, soon to be tied for collection and returned to the mill for finishing.
Plain twill, herringbone, plaid.
Tomorrow I’ll begin the 12 weeks training needed to learn how to make sense of this wonderful contraption.
It will doubtless take me as many years to master, but while he clackety-clack might sound a little different, as long as it’s still being heard then all to the good.