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Tartan Ferret


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 Weave.

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 orchestration.
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 make.

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 any verse.

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.


Wool sorting in 1933

© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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