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Issue 36 - A day in the life... the wearer

Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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A day in the life... the wearer

David Fleetwood kicks start our new series looking at traditional Scottish lives with a report on the weaver.

Achill autumn wind is blowing down the muddy lane that leads to Knockando Mill. The small cluster of rusting tin huts and the eye-catching water wheel nestle into the valley, a curl of smoke and the gentle rattle of a shuttle moving back and forth are the only indications that anyone is here.

Knockando is one of a handful of surviving vertical mills in Scotland, and weaving has been carried out here for more than 300 years. The earliest weavers made linen from flax grown in the fields outside their homes, but by the 16th century, woollen cloth was being woven throughout Scotland.

The diversity of the Scottish landscape was represented in the many different types of cloth, from Harris Tweed (see page 74 for more info) through Highland Tartan to the Borders plaid of which Sir Walter Scott was so fond.

Massive factories soon developed in the Lowlands, yet, buried deep in the glens of the Highlands, local mills like Knockando were producing cloth within their communities.

These mills were involved in the whole of the manufacturing process, from the rearing and shearing of sheep to the final finishing.

The life of the weavers also involved managing their own crofts. Rural weavers often used their trade to supplement the meagre existence that they could scrape from a harsh and unimproved landscape. Mills like Knockando and Bridgend on Islay are the last remaining examples of this picturesque and ecologically sound rural industry. The life of the weaver was then, and still is today, as varied as the coloured strands of tweed.

Many of the day-to-day tasks of the Grant family,who were the first recorded owners of the Knockando mill in 1748, would have been similar to those of the present day weaver. Winter days would have begun cold and early in the darkness, getting up to feed the sheep left out in the lush meadow beyond the mill. The weavers’ sheep were not only the beginning of the day’s work, but also the beginning of the process of turning wool into cloth. By spring the fleeces were thick, and the sheep were sheared to provide the raw material for the mill.

Freed from their heavy winter coats, the sheep bounded around the meadow, warily steering clear of a large steaming cauldron beside the mill. Amidst the steam, the weaver dyed the wool in hot water with dyes developed from a surprising variety of vegetables and plants, most famously from lichen. Once dry, the tangled fibres of wool had to be separated and straightened. This was a laborious task, which was often given to children.

Luckily for the children at Knockando, the Grant family stood on the threshold of mechanisation, and today the weaver uses original machinery from the 19th century to card the wool by passing it through large rollers with steel teeth which gradually straighten the tangled fibres, opening them up to allow them to be spun into yarn.

Once the task of carding the wool was finished, the local community got involved.

The individual fibres of wool needed to be twisted tightly together to form yarn. In the small back rooms of crofts throughout the Highlands, women were involved in spinning. In many places this was done most simply by attaching the wool to a stone, or whorl, which would then be spun around by hand, the weight of it twisting the fibres of wool together into yarn. By the 1850s, however, many households had a spinning wheel, and spinners regulated the colour of the yarn by adding different amounts of coloured and natural fleece.

On the first floor of the mill lies the very heart of the production of cloth and one of the most creative, but complex, parts of the weaver’s day. Even now the weaver painstakingly lays out every single thread for the final pattern of the cloth ready to go on the loom. Even a single thread out of place amongst the thousands that make up most patterns could ruin the run. The weaver in the 18th century would have done this at home, and it could have taken three days or more to set up a single pattern, thread by painstaking thread.

First the threads that run lengthways (warp threads) were laid out and wound tightly around a beam ready to be taken down to the loom. The crossways threads (weft) are then laid out. Today, the weaver has to negotiate the rickety stairway down to the ground floor of the mill and over to the water powered loom where the beam holding the warp threads is winched into place on the loom.

The mill begins slowly to judder now, and the posts holding the building up move from side to side in time with the great swoosh of water cascading off the lade and over the waterwheel, which drives a great cog on the inside of the mill. All around, belts and cogs spin, moving the power of the waterwheel to different machines in the mill. The sound of the water is joined by a clackety-clack from a great long loom. Finally, the weaver can begin to make cloth.

The task is to interlock the warp and the weft, and slowly, with each clack, the pattern is revealed. The handloom had pedals that lifted the warp and allowed the weaver to throw the shuttle through the gap with the weft attached. The water-powered looms in the mill today have mechanised this process and make the work less physically demanding.

The life of the weaver changed over time and, by the latter part of the 19th century, many of these processes were incorporated into the mill itself, eventually creating a single unit of production as we see today.

The Grant family would have taken the woven cloth back into the mill, while today the weaver simply removes the cloth from the loom. Before the cloth is done, it is back out to the stream for more cauldrons of water in which the cloth is washed to remove impurities from the wool and grease from the loom. The cloth is then stretched over large tenting frames to dry and shrink to its final size. This preshrinking of the cloth ensures that it is a tight weave and is a very important part of making it wind and thorn-proof, both essential qualities for life outdoors in rural Scotland.

In the manufacture of Harris tweed the final finishing of the cloth in this way was a musical affair; local women taking the cloth on a long table and kneading it against the tabletop, singing to keep time. This tradition has been handed down through many generations and is still to some extent continued in the Hebrides today.

The life of the weaver in the 18th century is a story of continuity and change when compared to the life of the weaver at Knockando today. The basic processes of making cloth and many of the day-to-day tasks remain the same, but, as time has passed, the intimate connections between the mill and the local community have broken down. More and more of the processes involved in the manufacture of woollen cloth began to be integrated into the mill itself.

Leaving the mill and the muddy lane behind, it is interesting to consider that what seems now to be a charming rural industry would appear highly sophisticated to the 18th century weaver, who tended his sheep and vegetables alongside producing cloth as a way of life.

Knockando and Bridgend are the only two surviving mills of the type discussed in this article. Both are well worth a visit to see some of the processes in action. Ardalanish Mill on Mull is also a good place to see some of the traditional weaving processes, along with the use of traditional fleeces. For information on Harris tweed, see page 74). For further historical information the best place to start is the RCAHMS Canmore database, which lists
all listed buildings in Scotland

Viewing of the mill is by appointment only at present –
contact details are on the website

Open at various times throughout the year with
guided tours and a shop

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