Although this article was written back in 1935, Edward S
Harrison's magical way with words, brings those clattering old
mills alive. Little has changed since then in the processes - just
the means of accomplishing them. See Modern Weaving. To see Edward
Harrison's unabridged article and the rest of his works click here.
Weaving is one of the great arts - world wide, set at the very
gates of civilisation - uniting in a way all civilisations, all
barbarisms, all people save those in the tropics, in that desperate
struggle for life against the implacable destroyer and creator.
Nature. It is always to these few universal arts that we must go
for the history of the race.
Weaving has developed from the purely primitive function of
protection to a vehicle of thought and imagination. Weaving did
more than steam, more than aircraft, to tell us of the world and
other people. It was sails that brought the civilisation of the
Mediterranean to our land, that brought the various ingredients
together that made the Anglo-Saxon race, that joined the great
continents of America to the outside world - Phoenicians,
Venetians, Vikings, Conquistadores, Puritan fathers, French
emigrés, Highlanders cleared from their native glens to make room
for sheep - and as though the subject were too confined, the
American expedition at present exploring the ancient sites of the
Bible has just unearthed coarse linens evidently woven two or three
thousand years before the Birth of C hrist.
But this runs away with us. Our business is with Scottish
Woollens, and how the old craft developed into the great mechanical
industry of today. The trade has kept its old craft tradition in
Scotland . The old, skilled craft evolved slowly in our old, poor
country, much isolated by its poverty and as things then were by
its remoteness from the centres of light in Southern Europe . It is
to this ancient and still well remembered ancestry that our
Scottish Woollen Trade owes its marked individuality.
In the construction of ordinary cloths there are two sets of
threads : the Warp, running the long way of the web of cloth and
for ordinary purposes of clothing from your head to your feet; and
the cross threads, the Weft, or more anciently the Woof, a word
only remembered nowadays by poets.
In the simplest form of cloth construction the first weft thread
is passed under the first warp thread and over the second and so on
right across; the second weft thread - which is really the same
thread on its return journey - passes over the first warp thread
and under the second, and this simple weave is called the Plain
But the great bulk of Scottish Woollens are made in a denser and
more pliable weave which we call the Common Twill, but which has
many other names elsewhere. It is over two and under two, moving
one thread onwards each time. Apart from certain figuring threads
used in decoration of cloths and certain threads forming pile
effects like carpets, tapestries, and velvets, all woven cloths are
constructed on these lines.
Perhaps the best way to deal with our job is to visit one of our
Scottish mills, somewhere in the country amongst trees and fields
and hills, probably employing about three hundred, possibly much
less. We are not mass producers. No firm doing specialised novelty
work can be big. To begin with, it would be beyond the wit of man
to produce novelty in bulk. If bulk comes in at the door, novelty
flies out of the window!
As we walk towards the weaving shed a thin chattering fills the
air, while somehow through it runs a rhythmic metallic clink, a
sound that suggests thousands of typewriters all at work with the
distant sound of a blacksmith at his anvil, overlaid on the
chattering background of sound as the clear tones of the solo
violin rise through the complex background of the
As we open the door an appalling clamour overwhelms us. A noise in
which lecturing is impossible and even thought seems obliterated.
Yet the girls and men seem to go about their business unaware of
the pandemonium. It is very seldom that a worker fails to become
completely accustomed to the outrageous noise or to be in the least
deafened by it. Possibly the fact that outside the weaving shed the
sound hardly carries means that the volume is not great, and so the
ear after the first shock can endure the sound without injury.
As the yarn is brought in from the spinning room it is fast
wound on to various types of bobbins or, as we call them, pirns.
Other machines are winding down hanks of coloured yams that have
been dyed in the yam. For the warps the yam is usually wound on
"cheeses" - solid cylinders of yarn with a wooden core possibly six
inches long and four or five inches in diameter - holding somewhere
about three-quarters of a pound.
Several ingenious types of machines are winding the weft on to
long narrow bobbins for the shuttles. The slick work of the girls
who tend these machines is delightful to watch - as is all
dexterity. True, the eye is easy to deceive, but no eye can follow
the movement of the worker's fingers as she ties one thread to
another - the dexterity of the conjurer applied to common jobs.
Next comes the warping, rows upon rows of the cheeses are being
built into the bank of the warping mill. A "bank" is a tall holder
something like a bookcase, and in it, each on its steel spindle,
the cheeses are arranged according to the pattern to be produced,
just as the volumes in a bookcase follow some prearranged order.
From there these threads are drawn off on to the great sparred
cylinder of the mill, where by various devices each thread is kept
in its proper place - and as the cheeses whirl round, the bank-boys
watch the whole rushing spider's web to signal to the warper to
stop his mill if a thread breaks or runs out. An elaborate and
tricky job on complicated work such as our Scottish manufacturers
The bell rings to show the needed length has been warped, and
then the contents of the mill cylinder are unwound on to the
weaver's beam, a heavy, strong, wood-clad steel affair, say, nine
feet long and eight or nine inches in diameter. Every individual
thread of the warp on the beam has to be drawn separately through a
little eyelet in the weaving harness, again all according to a more
or less elaborate scheme, rhythmic and balanced in its sequences
like a verse of poetry, but often more elaborate in its scheme than
And all this time other preparations are going on. Some yarns
are going through the doubling machines where two or three or more
threads are being twisted together, sometimes at two or even three
stages so as to produce some particular effect of colour blending -
sometimes only to produce thicker or stronger threads. The twister
spindles run invisibly at possibly two or three thousand
revolutions per minute, putting on the turns per inch with
mathematical precision according to whatever may have been decided.
"Chains" are being put together by which the automatic action of
the power loom changes the shuttle colours according to the pattern
of the cloth, however intricate the design may be. Other chains are
being made up by which the weaving mechanism is controlled and by
means of which the actual construction of the cloth is decided,
apart altogether from the colour scheme it may be carrying.
And so we arrive at the point where all these diverse activities
converge in the power loom. The weaver's beam is lifted in and
connected to the machinery. The weaving harness with its
innumerable threads, each in its little eyelet, is tied up. The
warp threads are attached to the cloth beam in front of the loom.
The chains for the weaving and shuttle mechanisms are placed in
position. The wheels governing the number of weft threads per inch
are put on. The "reed" for beating up the weft threads put across
the web by the shuttles is fixed in the "lay".
The different colours for the shuttles are brought from the
winding frames and put into their allotted shuttles. The shuttles
are placed in their proper "boxes". The power-loom tuner in charge
of the gang of looms weaves through a repeat or two of the pattern,
examines the work carefully along with the standard for that
pattern and sees that no thread has been wrongly placed. The man in
charge of the work of the power-loom shed checks everything over
again and sends for the weaver who looks after that loom. The
weaver pulls over the starting handle and her machine adds its part
to the infernal pandemonium.