Posted by: ramblinrobert | May 1, 2008

Harris Tweed, a dyeing and a dying industry

When we were at Paisley, we learned the full life cycle of the Paisley shawl industry, from inception to final death of the industry. On Lewis and Harris, we saw an industry that is declining and dying. Like Paisley cottage weaving, Harris Tweed weaving is a cottage industry. But, except for the weaving, it is all done in large mills. Let’s look at the process:

  • wool cleaning, carding and dyeing–all done in large mills
  • spinning and warping–both done in large mills
  • weaving–done in crofts
  • felting and commercial use of fabrics to make final products–all done in large mills

By law, to be a Harris Tweed, the weaving must be done in crofts, of which there are about 3,000 remaining. But, the problem is that very few young people are taking up the trade. Like young people in rural areas everywhere, there are many more opportunities in cities and so they go to the cities.

We visited Scalpay Linen on the island of (you guessed it) Scalpay. Here, Sheila Roderick and her husband John Finlay Ferguson make their living in creative and various ways. In the past they were Harris Tweed weavers and at one time, at the request of the mills, borrowed money to buy a new double width loom. The mills encouraged this because their buyers wanted wider fabric than the small Hattersley looms could produce. Unfortunately, the market wasn’t really there and they were left struggling to pay off their debt. They sold the new loom, like many other weavers and went back to the Hattersley.

Rather than be dependent on the mills, they have diversified their income sources. Sheila experimented with linen and now weaves linen, using a style that differs from her Irish competitors. She is also experimenting with the black wool from a curious looking four-horned black sheep they have. John fishes and gardens. They sell eggs and meat from their flocks of ducks, chickens, and Guinea fowls. The Internet has been good to them. Through a network of relay stations, rural areas in Harris now have good internet access. As a result, she can promote her weaving on the Internet. A new bridge, which we traveled over to get to Scalpay, helps bring in more tourists, also helping their business. It’s a tough life they lead, but I admire them for it.

I mentioned the newer double width looms. We visited a shop where we were able to see one of these looms in operation and to talk with the weaver. These looms are similar in design as the Hattersleys, but make a cloth at least twice as wide. There is a subtle differences in design that makes them able to weave more complex patterns. Instead of using a shuttle, which has yarn in it that spools out as it travels across the loom, it has a rapier. The shuttle must make a double pass to return to its resting place. The rapier carries no yarn, but makes a first pass “empty” then hooks the appropriate colored (of up to six) yarn and pulls it across. It is then cut off as a single weft thread. This allows all sorts of more complex design, but the weaver we talked to said the designers hadn’t taken advantage of that yet. Like the Hattersleys, they are also human powered, but the foot treadles have been updated to a bicycle-like pedaling arrangement. Once the loom is set up it takes very little energy to keep it going.

The industry is also troubled by mills going out of business. Currently, there is only one mill buying cloth. It is owned by one man who limits production to what he can use in his tailoring business of creating Harris Tweed jackets. Another mill is reorganizing and hopes to cater to demand from foreign mills, but until they are up and running, the weavers will be short of work.

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