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From Croft To Cloth

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Autumn arrives with its wilder weather.

Autumn has arrived, and the island landscape begins to change as the light fades. The wind and rain wears down the abundance of plantlife and summer is over.

The skies are a glossary of grey, and fresh gusts drive dark clouds low across the mountains, moor, and machair as we wave goodbye to the old season.

The turn towards wilder days reminds us to wrap up warm, and there’s one item of clothing that has helped us fend off the worst of weathers for generations.

 Where it all begins, the wool for wild weather.

Made from pure new wool and woven by skilled hand at the homes of Outer Hebridean men and women, the iconic Harris Tweed jacket makes the perfect wardrobe pick at this time of year.

We shared a (very) short history of our native cloth in a recent Journal, so let’s continue the story as we look more closely at the making of the cloth itself.

Around 1846 the raw material for every jacket, wool, would all have been sheared locally and used in its natural, uncoloured state, as well as dyed.

Harris Tweed was once characterised by subtle flecks of colour achieved through the use of vegetable dyes, including the lichen dyes gathered from rocks which give deep red- or purple-brown and sometimes a rusty orange.

Spinning wool by hand. Image © Harris Tweed Authority

Weaving by hand on the Beart Mhòr. Image © Harris Tweed Authority

A most natural mordant (can you guess what?) was used to “fix” the dyes, and after a thorough washing, they’d be ready to dry in the open air, often hung on a stone wall or laid on the heather.

The tweed maker then teased the wool; a process which involves pulling the wool apart to open out the fibres, painstakingly carding it by hand into rollagan using homemade carding combs.

After carding, the wool was spun by hand into yarn, another prolonged process. Before the treadle-powered Spinning Wheel took over, Distaff, Spindle, and Whorls were the earlier spinning methods.

Dyeing with natural lichens (crotal). Image © Harris Tweed Authority

More modern dying methods are used in the mills today. Image © Harris Tweed Authority

This yarn was then woven into tweed on a very early wooden hand-loom the warp and weft intertwined by a manually operated shuttle.

Originally, a small wooden loom called the beart bheag was employed, but the beart mhòr replaced this, and this 'Big Loom' first appeared on the islands in the 1890s.

The finished tweed was then washed and shrunk by hand at a luadh, the final finishing process where waulking songs in Gaelic often accompanied the moment before finally folded and made ready for sale.

The Distillery Harris Tweed of today, modelled by Sarah from the shop team.

Much like distilling, the basic principles of the creative process have remained unchanged over the years. Only the surrounding technology has taken a slightly different shape.

Most importantly, the making of Harris Tweed remains tied to these islands, protected by law to ensure every inch has been dyed, spun, and hand-woven here in the Outer Hebrides.

If you’d like to own a piece of this beautiful history, and a fine example of our craft and creativity, please visit our Harris Tweed Project page to discover our new Distillery Harris Tweed® range and more about the story behind it.

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For more information on Harris Tweed® please visit www.harristweed.org