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Guides and Insights

Weaving tartan: chain-making for the sett pattern

Weaving tartan: chain-making for the sett pattern
By Nick Fiddes

This is the fifth in a series of in-depth articles describing the seven stages of creating a bespoke kilt length at DC Dalgliesh, the world's only specialist hand-crafted tartan weaving mill. Before weaving itself can begin, another job needs to be done. This is to create a new metal link chain for the loom, which helps govern the sequence in which weft threads are selected. Even the semi-automated stages of our production are hand-produced!

The chain on the loom

A chain is made for every job, because each tartan sett is unique. In a sense this chain is a computer program that helps control the order in which shuttles are 'fired' across the loom, which makes the weaving process faster. But it's a very very simple program.

Behind the chain, there is a barrel with six chambers (or "boxes") a bit like an over-sized pistol revolver. The shuttles holding the weft yarns sit in these chambers, with a space each for up to six colours. As the chain moves on one space after each pair of cross threads is woven, it gives the loom only three possible instructions:

Working out the most efficient chain arrangement

to use the same shuttle colour next time,

or the next shuttle in the barrel,

or the previous barrel.

Additional colour changes must be done by hand, stopping the loom to turn the barrel. But this degree of automation is much better than nothing, especially as for efficiency the weavers calculate the most common changes to be done by the chain.

Change bars on the chainThe chain achieves this through a flat metal plate between each link, called a 'change bar'. Each change bar has two possible holes in it. A hole on the left (facing the loom) turns the boxes backwards one step; a hole on the right turns the barrel forwards; and with two holes it stays in the same position. The weaver physically constructs this chain for each weave, attaching sequences of change bars together, using pliers to twist little metal loops as ties. All in the right order of course. Always counting, counting, counting.

Unfortunately when a tartan pattern is very complex, the chain becomes too long. Once its dispenser reaches more than about six feet into the air, the chain's own weight becomes too much for the metal loops holding the chain together. Then every single change of colour on the warp can be achieved only by stopping the loom and turning the barrel by hand.

What next?

We recommend also reading the rest of this series. This covers:

  1. Weaving tartan for kilts at DC Dalgliesh
  2. Picking and winding your yarns
  3. Stake-warping your kilt length
  4. Tying-on to the loom
  5. Chain-making for the sett pattern (this item)
  6. Weaving your fabric on the loom
  7. Inspection and hand-darning
  8. Finishing the fabric


Also, if you've found this article interesting and helpful, we'd love if you could help others find it too! Please link to it on your own blog, or your social media. We can't tell you how much we'd appreciate this. Thanks. :-)

Posted in: Guides and Insights