Guides and Insights

Weaving tartan: weaving your fabric on the loom

Weaving tartan: weaving your fabric on the loom
By Nick Fiddes

This is the sixth 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.

Converted pedal loom at DC Dalgliesh

Many firms boast about their shiny, fast, modern equipment. We beg to differ. We're proud that our oldest looms are almost a century old. Our single-width machines started life as pedal looms, and the pedals are still there. But we've bolted motors onto them nowadays to to save our weavers' legs! This choice isn't nostalgia, and nor are we luddites. Nor is it to save money. At DC Dalgliesh we still use traditional production methods for good reason. Because a kilt traditionally has a clean cut edge at the knee, the very finest kilting tartans can only be produced on traditional shuttle looms. And that's something we care deeply about.

The weaving of the fabric itself is in fact one of the simpler and more automated part of our tartan production process... which is not to say it's easy! It demands of our weavers both intense focus and lots of dexterity.

Your weaver now has two main responsibilities. One is to ensure that the bobbin pirns that dispense the warp thread from inside the flying shuttle remain topped up, and are operating in the correct sequence. The other is to watch eagle-eyed for thread breaks, to minimise the need for darning later. Between these there are few moments to rest.

Replenishing pirns on the shuttle loom

A shuttle loom works by pulling alternate threads of the warp upwards and downwards to create a gap. The wooden shuttle literally flies from side to side through this gap. As it goes, the pirn (a long narrow bobbin) that sits inside it spins freely to dispense the weft yarns which we wound onto it earlier. These shuttles are held in six chambers ('boxes') of a barrel on one side of the loom. From here they are banged from their boxes at high speed by a mechanical arm. As the alternate warp threads swap position with each pass, the weft is trapped tightly in place, creating the densely packed fabric, inch by inch.

It is this back-and-forth motion of the shuttles that allows the clean 'natural' selvedge that makes DC Dalgliesh kilting fabrics so unique, which in many ways is our spiritual essence. On modern high-speed rapier looms in use at almost all other mills (and which we ourselves use to supply larger volume orders at competitive rates) the thread is injected from one side and is cut at the end of each pass. The stray threads are either left loose for hemming (a leno selvedge) or returned a little into the weave (a tuck-in selvedge) which leaves a slightly thicker strip down each side. The traditional kilting selvedge needs no hemming, which is the gold standard for a truly authentic kilt. This rare quality is possible to create only thanks to our vintage shuttle looms.

Pirns ready for use in the shuttles

A regular task is changing the pirns. There's only limited space inside a shuttle, so the pirns deplete quite quickly and must be refreshed repeatedly. It's best to anticipate this, to stop and replace the pirn in a shuttle with a fresh one before it runs out half way across the weave. So again, this demands counting, observation, and no small degree of dexterity.

For any tartan that uses more than three colours (the great majority) the chain can govern only three yarns of the pattern. All other changes in the repeat must be done by hand, stopping the loom at just the right moment, turning the barrel by hand to select the correct colour on a shuttle, and restarting it before repeating that operation at the end of that band of the tartan design. Once again, this demands concentration, great timing, and counting.

Swapping a shuttle on the loom

Though thankfully rare, any more than six colours in a tartan's design creates yet another manual task. As these extra shades come round in the repeat on the weft (more counting) our weaver must stop the machine, swap this new shuttle into one of the chambers of the barrel, restart the loom to weave that section, then stop it again to reverse the process. A very few tartans have up to nine colours, or even eleven in one case. Each extra colour costs time for the weave, adding surcharges to the customer.

The enormous stresses involved in the movement of flying shuttles can result in breakages in the yarn if there is a weak spot, or even 'smashes' that could damage the fabric if the mechanics go wrong. Our weavers must watch for this like a hawk, or risk the piece being ruined. Whenever a break occurs, a new thread is introduced, for invisible darning-in at the next stage of this process.

cutting the new tartan off the loom

Once the full length of the piece has been woven, the weaver cuts the fabric an few inches from the end of the weave, where she will have used up spare yarn with a plain weft. This helps retain the fabric's shape on the leftover threads for the following piece. Then our weavers roll or fold it up and carry the piece over to the darning station for the next stage.

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
  6. Weaving your fabric on the loom (this item)
  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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