The Harris Tweed journey begins with pure, Scottish wools which are combined to give the best overall finish. Most of the wool used comes from mainland Scotland, but in order for it to be genuine Harris Tweed all the processing must take place in the Outer Hebrides.
Once the wool has been sheared and brought to the islands, it is taken to the factory where it is washed and then dyed. Harris Tweed is unusual in that the wool is dyed before being spun which gives each thread the varied colours that make Harris Tweed so iconic.
The coloured wool is then blended to the specifications of exact recipes to ensure that each batch is identical. It is carded between mechanical rollers to extract any foreign objects and further mix the different colours.
The soft, combined fibres are then spun into yarn to strengthen it ready for weaving. The threads get wound onto bobbins which will become the warp (vertical threads) and weft (left to right threads). The weft threads are wound onto smaller bobbins that sit in the shuttle during weaving.
The next step is to thread the loom ready for weaving, a process known as warping. This involves thousands of threads being gathered in a specific order and wound onto large beams to keep them from getting tangled. The threads then need to be individually tied through the heddles onto the remnants of the old tweed – a procedure that takes several hours!
Once all this preparation has been done, the weaver will begin to weave the new tweed. This involves working foot pedals which moves arms on the loom and sends the shuttle backwards and forwards. It is vital that the weaver constantly checks for any mistakes and makes sure that the weft yarn doesn’t run out.
Once the full length of tweed has been completed, it is returned to the mill where it is checked, washed and scoured to remove any final impurities before it is dried, steamed and pressed. Once this has been done, it is sent to the Harris Tweed Authority for a final examination. The famous “orb” trademark is then applied to prove that the cloth complies with the regulations set out in the Harris Tweed Act 1993 which defines Harris Tweed as being:
“Handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.”
Harris Tweed is now more popular than ever and has recently been used for fashion products including trainers by Nike. It has also been worn by famous celebrities including Matt Smith as Doctor Who and Miss Piggy from the Muppets! However, until the mid 1800s, this cloth was just woven for use around the croft. The tweed first started to gain a reputation following a request in 1846 from Lady Dunmore, a widow of a Harris landowner, who wanted her clan tartan weaving in Harris Tweed. The results proved so successful that she devoted a lot of her time to promoting the tweed to her wealthy friends. Her effort and enthusiasm soon led to established trade links across the country and further afield.
The process of Harris Tweed has changed very little throughout its history with many of the looms still in use today being a hundred years old or more.