Island to Island, Part 8

Roof detail on a reconstructed blackhouse. Thatch is held in place both by its own weight and by a rope net, secured to the walls like this or weighted down by hanging stones.

Saturday morning arrived gray and drizzly. It was one of those you’ll-have-your-rain-jacket-on-more-than-off kinda days. We had a leisurely breakfast of fruit and yogurt and danish and eggs (thoughtfully procured by me, thank you very much!) and coffee just as strong as we liked. With double cream. Then, we loaded up and ventured out into the mist. Our first stop: Carloway Mill.

It doesn’t look like much, Carloway Mill. It’s located on a single track (one lane) road, close to a small scattering of traditional looking cottages, on a windswept, boggy hillside. When we arrived, it was quiet and seemed deserted. The buildings are big, industrial metal ones. There could be anything made inside them. Automobiles. Tent stakes. Alien ships.  Instead, what gets moved around in there — gathered, washed, rolled, pulled, raked through, ruffled, steamed, pressed and painstakingly reviewed by individuals is wool.

Hooray for wool!

We love wool.

Much more exciting than tent stakes.

It comes in from area sheep farmers looking like this:

You are looking at the side of a bale of wool. It’s as tall as a person and equally as wide.

It’s then washed (no small job, that) and dyed in huge vats. Next it’s picked (pulled apart and opened up to separate fibers, carded, combed (further opening, separating and aligning the fibers), and made into tiny, well… worms. They really just look like worms. Wool worms. This is beyond what we in the spinning world call “pencil roving”. It’s more like spaghetti roving. Then these wool worms are spun into yarn.

No, I really can’t use the words wool and worm in the same sentence. It goes against the grain. Remember, wool moths start out as tiny worms. So worms and wool are like natural opposites or adversaries. Yin and Yang. Batman and The Joker. You cannot combine them to describe something. Even if the description seems accurate. But as usual, I digress…

As the machines are spinning the yarn, they then wind it onto bobbins. Bobbins fill, get replaced, and fill again. This is where the machine processing stops and the people take over.

Masses of raw wool, waiting to be washed and then dyed.

Clean, carded and combed wool. That section is about 12” in width.

Spaghetti roving. That thick piece fo prepared wool is then run through a machine that manipulates it into tiny strands of similar stuff. Then the strands are pulled and twisted to make yarn.
Caeding machine. I had one of these in my studio at one point. It was the size of a microwave. These people process a LOT of wool.

For those of you who aren’t weavers, this next part might not make a lot of sense. Bear with me and the weaver types.

Okay, so there is this HUGE rack of bobbins from which one of the staff begins to wind off all the yardage necessary for the entire warp. (That’s all the vertical yarn that is tightly strung on a loom and through which the other yarn — the weft — is woven.) It’s then cut, banded, and bagged for pickup along with several huge bags of bobbins bearing the wool for the weft. Local weavers pick up all their supplies from the mill, then do the actual weaving at home on their own looms. As pieces are woven and taken off the looms, they are sent back to the mill for finishing.

This may seem inefficient. And it is. But, it’s an inefficient process protected by UK legislation. Anything proclaiming itself as “Harris Tweed” is required BY LAW to be woven by Hebrides island weavers, in their own homes. Weaving has long been an important primary or secondary source of income for crofters. There are second, third and fourth generation weavers producing cloth from their own homes today, all across the islands. It’s a time-honored tradition. So Harris Tweed is mandated to continue that type employment and can only receive its authenticity stamp if it is made in this way. Additionally, all the dye recipes are protected. Each of the four mills producing Harris Tweed has its own dye recipes, signature colors and patterns. No one else can produce them. Then, there is the finishing process. It must be done as follows. Only then will the cloth receive its stamp that validates (indeed, valuates) it as official Harris Tweed cloth.

Our guide, Annie, in front of the warping board. That thing is probably 12 or 14 feet long and 8 feet high. Again, just a little bigger than what Anna uses at her studio. (Ha!!!)

Massive bags with cones of yarn for weavers to take home. Each of those is about three feet long.

Continuing on with the process… the mill receives finished pieces of cloth back from its community of weavers. Each piece is then reviewed by staff checking the entire length of the cloth over a light table. That’s one person looking it over — every inch of it — and fixing any flaws, mistakes or too-thick sections of yarn in the weave. When reviewers get to the end of a piece of cloth, they turn it over and review it inch by inch AGAIN on the reverse side, against the same light table. It’s then reviewed a THIRD time (OMG! Can you say tedious?!?!?!), inch by inch, without the light table because you can see different flaws in different lighting. That’s three times over the same piece of cloth with the human eye to inspect and repair flaws or weak spots in the weave. Starting to see why this cloth commands such a high price?

Well, we’re not done yet.

Pieces of cloth — and when I say pieces, this could be something like an 8 foot by 40 foot piece of woven material — are then washed. You wouldn’t believe the washing machine. It’s the size of small house. Except it’s semi-buried in the ground. Staff washes two or three pieces of woven cloth in there at a time. It’s then removed, wrung, rolled, steamed, shaved (to smooth the surface), steamed again and then cut for parallel on both ends. It goes through this process again (wash, steam, shaved). Essentially, they are felting the cloth, compressing and tightening the weave.

Repairing a flaw in the woven fabric.
Yes. Every inch of this cloth will be inspected over a light table twice (both sides) and under regular light.

In the end, the piece of cloth is folded and marked with dye lot, weaving pattern, and name of weaver. Final inspection means it will be reviewed again, inch by inch, by the human eye, before being rewarded its final Harris Tweed certification and stamp.

Finished cloth. I love that they use all the extra yarn to tie it up. The colors before and after weaving have different relationship to each other.

The stuff is tough as nails. You could slide down a mountain while wearing it and not see any scratches on your outfit afterwords. Amazing.

We were shown all this by the manager of the Carloway Mill, Annie. She was great. It turns out the only reason we could hear her was that it was Saturday and no one was working. (Oh, is it Saturday? I’m on vacation. I have no idea what day it is.) Then we went over to their little shop. Carloway Mill has been working on its own design for bags, garments and other goodies. We had a good time. Some of us had a REALLY good time. Even I gave in and bought a length of cloth for making something when I get home. Let’s not discuss how much it cost.

Annie shows you the smile I’d have if you could have seen me buying my piece of tweed cloth. Squeeeeeee!

We left the mill in a jolly mood. Drove a bit to a nearby cafe called 40 North. Again, tiny place. In the middle of nowhere. Out of this world food. How does Heather find these places?!?!?!

And then we walked a mile or so up to a nearby museum. At the Arnol Museum, there was both an abandoned and a fully restored blackhouse through which you could walk and explore. Also a nice little museum. And a more modern (1917, I think) “white house”, which is the kind of home commonly seen on Scottish crofts around the country and a relative newcomer to the Outer Hebrides. The family living in the (restored) blackhouse had lived there until 1966. A really nice visit, all ’round. I’m not going to explain too much about it as I’ve already tried your patience to the Nth degree with excessive descriptions of Carloway Mill. So, just a few pics.

Anne gazes down at the sad little peat fire in the center of the blackhouse. As an aside, I swear not everyone on this trip is named Ann, Anne or Annie. Those just happen to be the people I’ve caught in these photos.
An interesting component of blackhouses: no fireplace or chimney. Peat was burned in a central fire in the sitting room. Smoke escaped through a hole at the top of the roof. Much like a central fire in a teepee. But smokier. Furnishings were spare.
Animals lived in the blackhouses as well, though usually on one end of the building. Or a parallel building might be constructed along a shared wall. Animals in the home helped generate heat for residents.
The remains of a nearby blackhouse. This will sound strange, but the best way to describe the layout is this: take three hot dog buns. Line them up alongside each other. The first bun would serve as the barn, making it easy and quick to move animals in and out. The middle bun is the shared kitchen and sitting room, with central peat fire. The third bun would have sleeping rooms and storage. Together, they sheltered and kept warm the central communal space most used by a family.

Ruins of an old blackhouse in front of what would become known later as a “white house”, the traditional Scottish crofter’s cottage.

After our time at the Arnol Museum, we picked up takeaway dinner from 40 North and took it back to our snug blackhouse on the coast. A few folks decided to walk from the Arnol Museum along the coast path back to the blackhouses — our hardiest hikers! Hoorah! The rest of us drove back and then knitted — our knittiest knitters! Hurrah! And then we ate more good food (hurrah!) and wandered around our private cove (more hurrahs!) and enjoyed the beautiful location until it was time to go to sleep.

How to get on the roof before ladders… build steps into the wall.

Guess what? The next morning we would leave the islands.


  1. And THAT explains why after weaving for 20 years, I still refer to myself as a baby weaver! Thank Suzie for all the lovleee detail and great pics!


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