Tartan for Handweavers
The ability to weave tartan is essential to a proper understanding of it but even experienced Handweavers have often shown themselves to be rather frightened of tartan and to regard it as being especially difficult.
A point that I have made many times and will continue to stress is that tartan weaving is simple weaving but is also exacting weaving. Apart from being able to count, a prerequisite for all weavers, an aspiring tartan weaver must be able to weave a close and even cloth with a good selvage from pre-shrunk yarn; a length of kilting with a wobbly much-repaired selvage is not easily rededicated as a wall-hanging. Moreover, the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Highland weaver was a production-weaver, in it for his living, and he had to adapt his methods accordingly, so that his weaving could proceed rhythmically and without frequent interruptions for minor adjustments. Once such a routine is established, all is plain sailing, but the little tricks that make it easy are unknown to most craft weavers and also, from observation, to their teachers; in fact, at least one of them flies in the face of established teaching. However, before starting to weave, it will be as well to look at some simple but effective modifications that can be made to the loom itself.
The pawl and ratchet-wheel stop fitted to the warp beam of most looms is unsatisfactory in that strain is placed on the warp when the shed is opened and that warp has to be released and re-tensioned frequently as the weaving progresses; a remote release that can be operated from the weaving seat may be fitted but still entails frequent interruptions to the work. Various kinds of friction brake are available but they do not entirely overcome the problems and, in my experience, by far the best kind of holdback for the warp is the 'weight box', which consists of a box, about six inches square internally and the same length as the warp beam which is hung from the beam at each end by a stout cord which passes three or four times round the beam and is kept taut by a small counterweight. Weights of any convenient kind (up to the tune of about half a hundredweight - 25 kilos - for a thirty-inch web) provide the desired degree of tension which remains constant as the cloth is wound on and the box rises; when the box reaches the top of its travel, the counterweights are lifted and the box drops to the bottom, ready to start again. In this way, a foot or more of cloth can be woven without the need to release warp but a further improvement can be wrought by suspending the counterweights from the top of the loom in such a way that, as the box nears the top of its travel, their weight is transferred from the main cords and the beam turns freely; in this way, release of warp becomes entirely automatic. Slight elasticity in the various cords ensures that the brake does not remain permanently loose.
The warp beam can, with advantage, be fitted with a 'lever-wind' like that of a camera, by pivoting a lever on the same axle as the beam and fitting a pawl s-c7 to engage with the existing ratchet-wheel. This is a particular help with single-handed beaming, since the weaver, stationed at the back of the loom, can wind on with the right hand while tensioning the warp, which is taken over the front beam with his left; a similar arrangement fitted to the cloth beam allows the cloth to be wound on without the weaver leaving the seat.
In setting up the loom, it is important that the eyes of the heddles are raised or lowered up to about an inch above or below the straight line joining the front and back beams. The differential shedding thus produced places extra tension on the upper or lower warp threads when the shed is opened and has the dual effect of allowing a small amount of slack into which the weft can be beaten more closely and squeezing it in by friction when the tension is released. It does not matter whether the heddle-eyes are above or below but, if the height of the loom permits, rigging them low will cause the out-of-use shuttles to slide on to the web instead of off it. I found that with the loom rigged for differential shedding I could set 2/16s worsted yarn at 36 ends to the inch, finishing at 40, whereas without it, I could not do better than 32 e.p.i., finishing at 36. Incidentally, if any serious amount of weaving is to be done, a reed that will give the required thread-pitch when threaded at four ends to the split (for a four shaft loom, two per split for two shafts) will soon repay its purchase price in time saved threading-up.
Thirty-six ends to the inch is close to the theoretical maximum for a 2/16s worsted yarn and the customary practice of doubling the threads in the final quarter-inch of the selvage cannot be followed; fifty per cent extra is the most that can be done but five threads in each of the last four splits is better and sufficient. These last twenty threads on each side should be tensioned separately from the body of the cloth which can be tied up in bundles of 11/^ inches or thereabouts. Formerly, the 'fair' edge of kilting or plaiding was embellished with a 'silvage mark' about PA inches wide and woven in herringbone. In a dark tartan, this silvage mark was usually plain black, but in a bright sett it might be, working inwards from the edge, something like four threads of red, a band of the darkest colour in the sett, usually either blue (or the dark, slightly warm blue that was called purple) four more red and four blue. This gives an attractive finish to the selvage and the herringbone weave seems to produce a generally better selvage. A 6 x 6 herringbone is suitable but it should be noted that the two outside threads must be threaded through the heddle on the second shaft, otherwise the weft will not pick up the last thread.
It is advisable to use long heddles and work as close as convenient to the reed; this allows a steep shed into which the weft can be beaten closer than with a shed just wide enough to clear the shuttle. In the ordinary way, with a ratchet holdback on the warp beam, this would place undue strain on the warp threads but, with the weight-box, this problem is removed. Beat on the open shed, to get the weft as far in as possible, and change shed at the beat to lock it in.
A 'temple' should always be used and moved on frequently. Some pulling-in of the cloth is unavoidable and the selvage threads, pulled round in front of the reed will prevent it from going right home. By holding the selvages to the full width, the temple enables the maximum beat. This is far more effective and produces more regular results than the method that is sometimes taught of drawing the weft in carefully and diagonally and beating on the closed shed; it is clearly preferable from the point of view of the man who is earning his living at weaving.
Shuttles should be heavy and use conical pirns rather than rotating spools. A tightly wound pirn usually will give enough tension to the warp to just balance the pull of the selvage threads and will give a straight selvage automatically, but shuttles of this kind are usually provided with some means of adjusting weft tension. I used Hattersley flying shuttles, some of which I modified by replacing the steel ends with hardwood, but found it not worth the trouble.
The only finishing needed by such cloth as this is washing followed by a light press. Apart from necessary cleansing, a 'woollen' wash in a washing machine, with a small quantity of soapflakes or lightly foaming detergent, will cause the threads to nudge out any unevenness in the weave. A double rinse is advisable.
J.S. 02.02.03 Note
Throughout these notes I have used standard English measurements; the weavers whose work we are attempting to emulate knew no other and they do not, as a rule, translate satisfactorily into centimetres. The reader must therefore arrange conversions appropriate to his or her needs.