We had a group of bloggers on a recent visit and they absolutely loved the mill tour and learning how the tartans are woven. As most of our customers live a long way away and can’t experience this we shall try to create the story here on this page. Feel free to email us any questions you might have!
The very first stage is of course the wool, the raw material that comes from the trusty sheep and is spun into yarn. Specialised spinning companies deal with this very first stage and the yarn is then dyed to the correct shade for each tartan. The subtleties between each shade are hard to see for the untrained eye but can completely change a tartan and this is why occasionally fabrics are delayed if the dying process doesn’t go quite as it should. The dying process also accounts for the slight differences from mill to mill in some of the tartan colours so if you are matching an original piece of fabric it is always best to order swatches just to double check. We can source from different mills so if you like a specific tartan from a specific mill just let us know.
First up the yarn is rolled onto bobs (cones) and these bobs are then loaded onto a big rack which feeds into the warping drum. And what exactly is warping? This is the process of creating tension in the yarn – the drum spins round and creates the tension lengthways before it is fed into the loom. Warping used to be measured in Ell’s, where an Ell is the unit of measurement from a man’s elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Precise stuff! There were variations from country to country with the Scottish ell measuring 94cm, the French “aune” measuring 137.2cm and the German “elle” 57.9cm. In England the ell was usually 45 inches, or a yard and a quarter, and this measurement was commonly used by tailors.
Now for the very fiddly bit. The different yarn colours are meticulously placed in order according to the design of the tartan. The warped (still nice and tense) yarns are passed through the loom lengthways which is unsurprisingly called the warp, then the weft is where the shuttle takes the yarn and weaves it across the design. Our tartan is beginning to take shape!
Just imagine doing all of this by hand in days gone by. There are still some traditional Dobby looms in operation and if you visit the college of textiles in Galashiels you can see an amazing collection of old looms and all still in action where they teach the fashion design students how to weave their own fabrics.
The shuttle flies back and forward at an unbelievable speed and the noise is quite intense which all adds to the atmosphere and feeling that you are part of the creation of something very special. It is also a sharp reminder of how easily things could go wrong if things were set up incorrectly or threads snapped.
Of course the cloth is subject to rigorous quality checking and every single bit of cloth is checked by hand and eye for any irregularities or imperfections such as broken threads. The ladies repairing the fabrics are quite amazing with flying fingers and endless patience. A painstaking job which ensures your tartan fabric is perfect!
So there you have it – your very own mini guide to weaving tartan. You can explore our fabrics here and if you need some help choosing which fabric to choose our new guide has been created for just that reason. Let us know if you have any questions!