I’ve avoided giving a blow by blow account of the day to day training I’m doing, learning to weave Harris Tweed here in the Isle of Lewis.
There are two past posts tackling the experience but they’re a little esoteric and somewhat light on details. This was deliberate, firstly because the process is more than just hard facts and theory and hard to convey as a step by step guide. Secondly, there’s a little magic in having a little mystery to what goes on as Harris Tweed is woven. And finally, there’s just so damn much to it, it would take all evening after each day to recant the day’s work and frankly I’m asleep within a couple of hours of coming home from the weaving shed!
But, prompted by a previous comment, I’ll go over what was learned in week one just to give an indication of the amount of inpenetrable info garnered in the first few days and to give an inkling on the impossibility of documenting it all. There’s a glossary post due soon to enlighten the reader on any odd terms used.
1. The first thing you learn is The Weaver’s Knot. It’s a simple but fantastically clever wee bit of fankling that allows you to join two pieces of yarn together. Half Reef Knot, Half Slip Knot it can be done, with practice, very quickly with one hand in a swift, fluid motion. The brilliance of it is two-fold, firstly it slips so you can adjust the tension in the yarn after tying or remove it completely with out leaving either thread knotted. Secondly with a wee pull it tightens very securely to hold things fast once the correct tension has been acquired. We spent the entire first day being taught and practicing (and the following weeks perfecting) it and it’s the foundation of the entire weaving process, using it daily to tie in your warp and repair snapped yarns. There’s a little bit of zen involved, think too hard about it and you lose the knack, relax and go with the flow and you can tie all of them with ease.
2. You’re then introduced to the loom itself, a fantastic contraption we’re only just beginning to get to grips fully with. A simple pedal mechanism powers the whole thing. Boards with over a thousand heddles rise and fall in perfect time, a rapier jets back and forth, the reed beats to accomodate, weft threads are picked and changed, material is stitched with a nylon leno, cutters trim the cloth edges and rollers and guides feed the yarn through magical gates and out the other side as a beautiful tweed. No electricity required, just honest legwork. There’s also a brake, alarms, a seat, springs, cogs, ratchets, tappets, chains, axles and more all very simply framed in a green, steel frame. Like an insane bicycle or vintage motor car, it requires a mechanic’s understanding and a lover’s sympathy to get the best from it. In full flow it looks and sounds quite dazzling…if you’re that way inclined.
3. Your loom is then loaded with a beam, a giant metal cotton bud around which dozens of yards of spun wool thread have been wound at the mill. These are the warp threads which run the length of the cloth. There are around 1600 of them on the beam, each in a very specific order, held this way by a clever criss-cross, locked in place by a tied cord at their ends. To the end of this beam, you bolt on a brake disk and the beam is then lifted onto the back of the loom, locking into place and held by pins. It’s an easy enough job for two, a little less so by one. You affix the loom’s rope brake and can then free the warp from its clever, tucked-in, holding-place with a gentle tug. The warp is in a dozen or so bunches for ease of organisation and these bunches are pulled and draped over the bars at the rear of the machine.
4. The warp yarns, criss-crossed and secured by cord, are then gently seperated behind and in front of the criss-cross, making small pockets of over and under threads. Moving from right to left, this is done for all the bunches of yarn before two long wooden poles or sticks are inserted through them all, the length of the loom, one through the front pocket, the other through the back. These sticks are then raised on wooden holders built to fit the bars of the loom.
5. After briefly tidying and arranging the yarns, the laborious tying in begins. The warp threads from the previous tweed woven on the loom have been left behind and these should be hanging from the 1000+ heddles hanging from the boards in front of you. Now it may be that the arrangement of the heddles is not correct for the tweed your are about to weave e.g. they are arranged in the 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 pattern of a Plain Twill and you are planning to weave the 1,2,3,4,2,1,4,3 pattern of a Herringbone. Or it may be that the Herringbone pattern in the loom is an 8X8 and you want to weave a 12X12. In which case you need to rearrange the warp threads, all 1600 or so of them and this is called Changing The Draft. As a further bonus you might need to change the tappets, which control the rise and fall of the boards from which hang the heddles through which the warp threads (whose draft you have just changed) hang…
6. Now where were we? Ah yes, we’re about to tie in. Each new warp thread needs to be tied with the weaver’s knot to a matching warp thread already in the loom. You do this from right to left, picking the exact warp thread from the beam in the exact order and matching it to the exact warp thread in the exact heddle of the loom. Get any of this wrong and you have to go back to correct otherwise it will make a mess of the tweed. This process usually takes four or more hours. Right now it takes me a little more…
7. Next…you know what..? Let’s just leave it at that. We haven’t even pulled our warp through, threaded our Leno, adjusted cutters, created our punch card, tested the alarms, lubricated, dealt with the Weft threads or all the other things needing done before we even begin to weave. And the weaving could run to a few blog posts on its own. But hopefully you get the picture, it’s a long, skillful and complicated process and even trying to translate it to text is proving difficult, I’ve missed bits, not explained things very well and now my head hurts.