When it comes to tweed, Britannia still rules the weaves. There appear to be several reasons for this – the weather, the water, the sheep, the heritage – but none of them definitive. The truth is that exact cause-and-effect relationships are elusive. The making of fine woolen cloth remains an art.
Tweed is either hand-woven or mill-woven. After the winter’s growth of wool has been sheared from the sheep in spring, it goes to a woolens mill to be made into yarn. The fibers are washed, dyed, separated, straightened, and spun into yarn. Yarn to be mill-woven goes to large electric-powered looms in weaving mills, while yarn to be hand-woven is delivered to the weaver’s cottage, where it is woven on a pedal-powered loom. Realistically, a weaver can produce no more than two 90-yard lengths of cloth a week (a power loom produces thousands of yards a day). Then the mill picks it up, “finishes” it with a softening soak, inspects it, and then measures it for shipping.
The home weaver is curiously uninspired by the dazzling benefits of modern factory life and production-line existence. He works to his own time with no foreman but himself, no time clock, no be-in-Cleveland-on-Thursday. The machine– the Hattersley domestic pedal loom – keeps pace with the man who operates it, not the other way round. And the weaver necessarily puts something of himself into the cloth he weaves, each length becomes something of an artisan creation, never to be exactly duplicated nor reproduced.
Harris Tweed was first woven on Lewis-and-Harris, one of the small rugged islands in the Outer Hebrides chain about fifty miles off Scotland’s northwest coast, and is the most famous hand-woven cloth in the world. Its unmistakable character is derived from its production that remains one of the great Anglo-Saxon crafts. The subtle colorings, from deepest russet and richest purple to delicate lovat and almond are all so earth-born, weight and tone so hearty, and personality so irrepressibly warm and wild, soft yet resilient, it’s easy to understand its appeal.
-G. Bruce Boyer