I feared that too-frequent and involuntary moving on would make this lifestyle a strain and even be the dealbreaker for me. I need the reassurance of routine and to know and feel part of a place, and it is wonderful to stop for a week and settle into a rhythm and become familiar. But if someone asked me what the highlights of it all are, one of them would certainly be getting into the driver’s seat and heading off to a new place for the next adventure, wind blowing, van rocking, Murph peering, my eyes scouring, (probably Irish) music singing.
I take a side lane to the blackhouse village and by chance this takes me right past the entrance to the mill. As I pull up I greet a man with a Harris hawk on his hand. I’m glad that I recognise her and he is proud that he bred her. I ask whether she feeds him and he says yes, and I admit ruefully that my hound doesn’t feed either of us. (I must remedy this. He tries for the rabbits but can’t seem to turn quickly enough at his great height – gladly he is cautious by the sheer high cliffs, which seem to be the rabbits’ favourite, perhaps for that very reason? I’m wondering whether to get a smaller whippety lurcher companion for him for the smaller prey, since sheep are not fair game.) This one is six years old, and may live to a grand old 25 or 30, compared to the eight to ten years’ life expectancy in the wilds (of South America, I think, rather than Harris, though I should double check this).
(Photo by Colin Smith, Geograph)
I’m lucky at the mill, who don’t run a schedule of tours and cannot entertain visitors in their busiest moments. This feels like a special occasion – going to meet the folk behind the Tweed of Harris – and I have dressed for it, in high boots, a dress I used to teach in, my own woven jacquard cape, pearl earrings and a high, less-hedgerow-than-usual hairdo. I know that power dressing can, sadly, make a difference in how seriously people take you. Take yourself seriously Eloise, you’re a proper weaver on Important Business today. The first person I encounter is the production manager, known as DK (below), friendly and helpful, like all the 15-odd staff I meet. The atmosphere is relaxed, people are cheerful and serious both at once, not too stressed, but concentrating. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it’s nice to see an ordinary yet interesting bunch, informal, polite to each other and quipping too, looking quite at home and looking like they’d be equally comfortable tillering fishing boats, working bars, down mines, driving milk floats, knitting baby blankets, designing clothes, making music or working crofts. I feel over-dressed, posh, and terribly English – like someone who’d wear pearl earrings and Harris Tweed. But maybe that helped.
The Carloway Mill is the smallest of the three Harris tweed mills, says their website – which outlines the multiple steps in the milling process: http://www.thecarlowaymill.com/how-harris-tweed-is-made.html DK takes me on a labyrinthine journey through their many beautiful machines. It is fantastically, quintessentially steampunk, and I feel like I’m in a Hessian castle.
He shows me the dumpy bags with tons of fleece that has been washed and graded in Yorkshire where it is gathered from throughout the UK by the central Wool Marketing Board. All the fleece is bleached for consistency of colour.
Next we go to the dyeing vats – huge, aluminium(?) cylinders with pipes coming out of them, like the old copper whiskey stills used illegally in the hills, or (now) legally in the first distillery in the Outer Isles and the only one to use the most traditional methods and equipment. The weaving mill has machinery dating from 1906 – actual Industrial Revolution machines. If Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, Alatar, Pallando, Dumbledore or the Wizard of Oz had factories for brewing spells in, this would be their equipment – all aluminium, steel, iron and wood.
A photo I’ve borrowed of DK at the dyeing vats, by Robin Mitchell
I have a particular thing about wooden pigeon holes or lab shelving. I somehow wrestled two huge units of these that my old university were selling off cheaply onto the roof of my car and up my stairs to my old textiles workshop at home. Then my neighbour helped me wrestle them back down the stairs – they’d grown even heavier, seemingly – to cut them up to furnish my van, and their satisfying subdivisions now hold all my wool (about 80 kilos after the Carloway visit, poor old van). The mill’s gorgeous wooden pigeon holes hold samples of fleece dyed in their 36(?) core colours, with names like ‘Rye’, ‘Straw’, and ‘Petrel’, because in this business people know their grasses and their birds.
DK takes me to the mixing corner, where another machine lurks and blows fleece through large, overhead pipes that look like air conditioning vents (how things change, and don’t!), into a room that reminds me of those washing-machine-drum fairground rides where the floor falls away from your feet while the centrifugal force pins you to the side. We go just inside the doorway and a tattooed worker grinningly imitates switching things on and I jump out again. He shows me the mixing recipe, handwritten on a notebook. Of 100 kilos of fleece, this colour is made up of 42 kilos of one green, 21 of another, 0.25 of another – such is the precision of the heathery blend that must make up this perfect yarn.
Next we see the old-but-still-very-much-working carding machine that sits beside a similar but computerised one: a huge thing the length of the room, like a carriage of a train, in Edward the Tank Engine green, complete with painted, glazed doors all the way along, and full of teeth, tines, rollers, cogs, belts and bicycle chains – or so it looks to me. So here the dyed, aerated, mixed and oiled fleece goes into one end and is finely blended into a more homogenous fluff before being stretched and rubbed into miles(?) of soft, delicate, drawn out strands. I pick up some blue from the floor and tease it in my hands as we walk, like a magpie with a treasure – a preciousss. The carding machine is about to be switched off, using a huge lever with numbers stamped into the steel (or is it iron?). Its operator wants me to see to the end of it before he does, and we prod the rotating reels of strands like he does to check for the density and firmness, which indicates consistency of gauge in the yarn-in-process. He heaves the lever from 10 down to 0 and says he feels like Frankenstein galvanising.
Next we see the spinning machine (but I don’t think it’s a Jenny?), and only the tiniest part of it inserts the twist in another warehouse-length row of reels and rods and rollers and bobbins. (One of my weaving students laughed when I said ‘bobbin’: we are talking about a huge 18 inch or so thing with a kilo of yarn on it.)
We go to another warehouse to see the warpers, who are guiding very small handfuls of very long yarn in very precise order onto warping boards the size of warehouse walls and rotating drums and metal beams as heavy as ship’s beams with furled sails. The beam or the chain from the board will be delivered to the home workshops of the 150 or so weavers who work for the mills, and loaded onto their looms like cartridges, ready to weave a 50 or 90 or 250 metre tweed. A piece of paper attached to the beam tells the weaver the warp pattern they’ve been given and the order in which the weft yarns should be woven. (I am going to see another weaver this afternoon, and will fill in some of my gaps there.)
When the mill collects the woven tweed, the first thing they then do is mend it where the warp has snapped or the weft has looped: three or four women work with long darning needles, the cloth spread over table-like lightboxes or hung over them like tents against vertical lightboxes. A certain amount of time is allocated to this step, so if a weaver has left too many flaws, slowing them down he (or occasionally she) will be charged a penalty.
DK and I chatter with one of the women as she works. She shows me the line of warp she’s working on. She wears glasses and I worry for her eyes but she says they are not strained and she doesn’t feel cross-eyed. We talk about the prestige of tweed, the Britishness and the Scottishness, the referendum and the company’s neutrality, the audience and the outlets. One of the mills has sold some lengths cheaply to Primark. I love that it could be a cloth for the people – as I understand it once was – but also understand the precariousness of brand and reputation. This is a cloth of integrity.
The finishing processes turn the coarse woollen weave into a smooth, refined material. After mending, the cloth is washed in what looks like a huge beer barrel with what look like tram wheels inside with brass rims that beat the cloth. This is the equivalent of the old ‘waulking’, though alas there are no brawny women singing the rhythms. Back to the final corner of the middle warehouse by the menders and DK shows me the huge, black tumble drier (my, inaccurate, nomenclature) that does nothing as random as tumbling and looks like an enormous, gothic sideboard (but is at least half the length of the room), and then the comparatively-small-but-still-enormous wooden and calico press rollers that steam iron the bolts. Sitting on the side of this machine is the gold for the crown: the certificates that declare the virgin wool, islander-woven, perfectly-finished quality of Harris Tweed, the name or number of the weaver, the mill, the certifier and a witness, and lastly DK shows me the jewels: the stamp every few yards on the cloth and the labels that the tailors can sew onto their garments to show that this is the Real McCoy as protected by an Act of Parliament: the only certified cloth in the world.
[I’d like to borrow all the photographs from this site, but the blog is beautiful, so just visit that: http://www.harristweed.org/blog/ ]
The mills need more weavers, having about an eighth of the numbers they had in the 1960s boom in the face of continuously increasing demand. I ask about how the weavers are paid, how they acquire their looms, what the work pressure is like, how much autonomy they have. Just building an idea of what a Hebridean weaving life could be like…