Tweed on the make

Its ages since I made my fabric road-trip to the Outer Hebrides in search of Harris Tweed.  Much has happened since my return and I’m now slowly getting round to making up the fabric.

Since arriving home my main aim has been to maximise the number of projects for the fabric.  I’ve already turned one piece into a bodice for a 50’s style cocktail dress, and used some of the remnants for Christmas tree hangings!

I’ve started a gent’s jacket, which is going to be a lengthy process as I get to grips with the differences between gents and ladies tailoring.

My third project has been to make a waistcoat.  I’ve used my classic fitted waistcoat pattern.  Unfortunately I didn’t have sufficient fabric for a complete tweed waistcoat (I like the warmth of the wool on my back instead of having a satin backed waistcoat) so I’ve had to utilise a remnant of satin which I’ve had in stock so long I can’t remember from which garment it’s a remnant!

The tweed for this fabric is single width tweed approx 70cms wide and was produced by Mr Norman MacKenzie.

We visited Mr MacKenzie at his workshop in Carloway, Isle of Lewis, which is situated on the western coast of the Isle.

A brisk wind whistled across the flat moorland as we battled from the car to the workshop.

I’m always fascinated by how things are constructed – anything (I used to work for a food company in their head office and took every opportunity visit the factories to see how the food was produced) – so I was delighted when Mr MacKenzie kindly offered a demonstration.

The first thing which struck me was that this wasn’t strictly speaking “hand” produced as the hands don’t really play a part in the production as the loom is  worked with the legs and is operated with foot peddles.

Mr MacKenzie operates his machine (sorry to miss off his head but I wanted to photograph the machine!)
Mr MacKenzie operates his machine (sorry to miss off his head but I wanted to photograph the machine!)

We had stopped Mr MacKenzie in the middle of producing a length of cloth with a beautiful check.  This particular check is a 2½ inch check  with a red thread.  As he was demonstrating how the shuttle passes along the loom, the thread snapped halfway across.  By this point I’d have been in a complete state of panic!  He then calmly showed us how he joined the thread and how he manually had to weave the pattern so that the check remain a constant size (manually using a ruler and the experience of a good eye).

He explained that a lengthy of cloth is 60mtrs (in the second room of the workshop he showed us how he sets the warp threads – again by hand).   Mr MacKenzie’s machine is an old-fashioned (he thinks approximately 60 years old) and originated in Keighley (it’s nice to see a bit of Yorkshire when I travel), which he acquired after a “wee dram” from his neighbour.

When the length of fabric is completed (a few weeks’ work – although he can make 2 to 3 mtrs p/hour if all goes well), it is collected to be washed for oil and knitting together, before being sent to the Harris Tweed Authority for its seal of approval.

Demonstration of how the warp threads are made ready for the loom.
Demonstration of how the warp threads are made ready for the loom.

Mr MacKenzie explained that the tweed is exported worldwide – Asian and US markets being particularly strong – although he does sell some of his own unique weaves.  Well you know me, I couldn’t resist…

Beautiful Tweed made into my signature slim fit waistcoat - something to keep me warm on those chilly days
Beautiful Tweed made into my signature slim fit waistcoat – something to keep me warm on those chilly days
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