The story goes that a long time ago, when Persian tribes made carpets while migrating from one part of the Persian Empire to other regions, their tribe members worked together to weave carpets that would tell their story of trials and tribulations. Just one princely Persian carpet would take years to complete with help of many tribe members to achieve a perfect Persian carpet (well almost). The Persians believed only God or a higher power was perfect in all aspects and to show this carpet makers would intentionally place flaws or mistakes in the carpet…
So by Persian standards at least, the intial results of my training to become a Harris Tweed weaver stand me in pretty damn good stead of claiming my 72 virgins in Paradise.
I’ve not had much time or energy to record the ongoing process of my / our transformation from all fingers ‘n’ thumbs idiots(s) to legit-but-still-learning weavers of the Clo Mor. It’s been a hectic month, handing off from Glasgow life and work to island life and work, but it’s all gone according to plan so no moaning here. Early mornings, admittedly, are a challenge, after over a decade of going to bed at 7am I now get up and at ’em at this ungodly hour. I make up for this, however, by falling asleep in a chair in front of the fire at 8pm like an old bodach…
Lewis life is of no surprise to me but I have been surprised by recurring bursts of happiness at very simple things. Hippy crap, but there have been a succession of unexpectedly beatific moments I have no apparent control over. Walking the daft dog along a beach as the sun set and moon rose, watched by six nosy seals, a sunrise buzzard riding the stiff early morning wind looking for breakfast as I wait for a bus, six looms busily clacketing away as I make coffee in a drafty barn of a shed of a warehouse, getting a fire going as the rain batters the window. Beats the sound of Orange marches, coked up try-hards and random violence anyway.
I digress, too much to say but some thoughts on Harris Tweed weaving…
1. Harris Tweed weaving is the art of perfection. Which is ironic given the machines we have to create the clo on are such temperamental buggers. First rule of the Harris Tweed Weaver’s Club: If anything can go wrong with your loom it will go wrong. And if anything goes wrong with your loom then it shows in the cloth. Harris Tweed does not lie. You can’t easily sweep a flaw under the carpet, your tweed reveals all unashamedly. When it’s hung in front of lights and in front of your classmates then your shortcomings are there for all to see. If you arrange just one of the 1600 heddles in the wrong order then your tweed is messed up. If you miss just one of your warp threads as you tie-in, your tweed is messed up. If a knot slips or the tension slips or your shed is open when your shed should be closed then your tweed is messed up. If your punch card is turned to the wrong hole, your tweed is messed up. You get the picture.
2. Did I mention looms are temperamental buggers? How so? Let me count the ways. Your beam of warp threads can be messed up and you won’t even know it, somewhere hidden under the depths of seemingly perfect threads is a screw up just waiting to happen. The machinery itself is pretty much zero tolerance. Ok, low tolerance at a push. Cutters work within millimeters of error, rapiers run with less, board heights too, your punch card, weft bobbins, rollers, all jive within a very tight dancefloor. There are a myriad of things that will mess with your mojo. But, oh boy, rub her the right way, tweak her just right, when your loom sings, she goddam sings!
3. Harris Tweed is truly handwoven. You may power the loom mechanism with your feet but only ‘cos your hands deserve the rest. There are approximately 1600 single-handed knots to be tied in every tweed. And this is after threading and rearranging approximately 1600 heddles to set orders. You also lift your own beam of warped yarn into place, you cut and clench threads by fist, you pull your knots through tiny dents (praying with each pull you don’t become undone), you grip and release and wind and thread and loop and turn and adjust and tension and untwist and re-knot and tie and switch off and on and pull and break…over and over and over again. The pedalling is the easy part.
4. If you’re blind you’re screwed. Old Cal, one of the tutors, has eyes like a hawk. My weaving partner in non-gay way (howdy Ally!) and I will ponder over a missed shot or buggered bit of a pattern and Old Cal will wander over, spot the cause of the mistake like it was lit up in day-glo orange and fix it in a blur of hands and fingers before walking away grinning, us none the wider until we demand the answer. For a guy who peers intently over half moon specs he sure can see the details. I’ve yet to work out how, from the other side of the shed (at least 10 meters away) he looked over and said “Michael, is you alarm on?”. Predictably, it wasn’t (a bad thing). It was the elder weaver’s equivalent of a Beckham free kick, picking out a tiny switch, out of position, from a ridiculous distance. Sheesh.
5. The fellow trainees are a fine bunch. No messing, applied, keen, enthusiastic, funny, a real mixed bag. Maws and coves and blones and settlers, old and young, potential weavers all. There are moments when the shed is deep in concentration, everyone getting to grips with something new, focussed, serious, determined. Othertimes it’s noisy as hell, looms clattering, voices rabbiting in discussion, much laughter at each other’s mistakes and cock-ups. Fuelled by coffee and cheap biscuits it’s great seeing everyone work and support each other through the steep learning curves. The old adage goes, you learn by your mistakes and never a truer word has been spoken.
As week 4 gets underway we have learned so much and yet have so much still left to learn. One thing that is clear is that despite thinking I know my Harris Tweed, I don’t. And if I don’t, what does the rest of the world figure on it and how can I take it to them? It’s proving to be revelatory, the work, skill, knowledge, time, effort…what textile compares to this these days?
Part physics, part art, part maths, part design, part car mechanics…it’s being an education.