Guides and Insights

Weaving tartan: picking and winding your yarns

Weaving tartan: picking and winding your yarns
By Nick Fiddes

This is the second 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.

When you order your tartan from us, our first task is to select yarn shades for your fabric, usually made with reference to our archive of historic samples that we believe to be the largest tartan library in existence. In the old days this might be done uniquely for each weave. But modern buyers of course don't expect the batch variability over time that could bring. So we've computerised our palette database to be sure next year's pipe band kilts will match last year's.

One of DC Dalgliesh's sample cabinets, the world's largest tartan archive

But that data only records our expert design team's yarn choices. We pride ourselves as masters of colour, deploying a skill refined over generations, which we sometimes compare to whisky blending. A tartan with four yarns has ten shades to make harmonious, thanks to their crosses (and seven yarns would be 28 shades!). So it takes an experienced eye, sensitive to tradition, to find just the best combination.

Tartan design using yarn reference samples

Spinning yarns

The manufacturing process begins when we order raw yarn by the ton from one of the UK leading spinners (image courtesy of Spectrum Yarns). In a series of processes they transform raw fleece into a fibre specification that we've found to be perfect for our fabrics.

This yarn is delivered direct to the dyers (who are just along the road from our mill). At the dye house this is converted into over 100 colours that we aim always to keep in stock. This lets us press ahead with weaving more quickly. In most cases we'll have a good shade already available.

But if you need a special shade, we can use spectroscopic equipment to closely match a physical sample you provide, and dye to order in small or large volumes. We're here to make exactly what you want. And we're always happy to send you sample twists of suggested yarns, before you confirm your production order.

Dying in volume at the dye house

Our yarns come in from the dye house in large bobbins called 'cheeses', which weigh around 1.5 kilos (3lb). So the first job in creating your fabric is to wind enough yarn of each of your colours from these cheeses onto smaller cones, for use in the actual weaving process. We have machines that do this, electrical but antiques in their own right. We'll need at least one cone for each thread in the widest band of that colour of your tartan's repeat or 'sett'. You'll see why soon.Picking yarns from our stock shelves

But we're not finished yet. We need more cones of of each colour for the next winding process too. Because we now wind from cones onto 'pirns'. Pirns are the long narrow bobbins that nestle inside the flying shuttles on our looms (see the section on weaving below). Half the total yarn for a job must fill these pirns, as they supply threads for the full weft (the cross-wise threads) end-to-end. That's a lot of winding. Only once all the cones and pirns are done, we're ready for stake-warping.

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 (this item)
  3. Stake-warping your kilt length
  4. Tying-on to the loom
  5. Chain-making for the sett
  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. :-)

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