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Behold the Hebrides
An Island Industry
Tweed-Making in Ellean a' Cheo


I HAVE told you that there are several minor occupations in the Hebrides to which women are particularly suited. But most of these occupations, though they are necessary and, indeed, indispensable if the island-community is to exist at all, are essentially uneconomic in the wide sense in which we are nowadays accustomed to use the term, and result in an extravagant consumption of what, under better and more congenial circumstances, might be considered valuable time and useful labour.

You will follow more readily what I am driving at when I remind you that earlier I said the labour entailed, ere ‘the granary is full and the harvest ‘s done,’ was a labour of love, because an island-harvest is by no conceivable means a paying concern, and seldom, if ever, shows on the islander’s bank account any appreciable balance on the side of wealth and opulence.

But, then, all labour that is of any real value is a labour of love and of sacrifice and of self-denial; and, conversely, the less personal gain there is to be got out of an undertaking, the more praise and commendation ought the labourer to receive.

There is, however, in the Islands one industry that in normal years does actually show a profit, when the conditions of demand and supply, which so intimately affect the commodity produced, are favourable. In the Isle of Skye this industry is a prosperous one, for about a mile and a half from Portree, in the direction of Loch Snizort and Uig, there is a small woollen manufactory, which regularly employs more than a score of women. This mill, which was originally opened about the middle of last century, is driven by water-power, and has the reputation for turning out some of the very finest rugs and blankets in the country. The late King Edward boasted that on eight successive visits to Scotland he wore a sporting suit that had been made of Portree tweed.

Visitors to Skye, who take the opportunity of inspecting all the processes of tweed-making from start to finish, readily become aware that, after all, the turning out of the finished article is a long and intricate task, and demands more skill and technical knowledge than most people would at a glance be prepared to believe. First of all, there is the fleece-shed, into which is collected wool from all parts of the Island. Here it is carefully plucked and separated into various lots according to quality. It is then removed to the cleansing-house, where it is thoroughly washed with soap and hot water, to which are sometimes added one or two chemicals with cleansing properties. According to the colours required, the wool is then placed in large dyeing vats containing boiling water. Here it is allowed to remain for an hour or two, so that the dyes may be permanently ‘fixed.’

This is followed by the drying of the wool on a series of hot pipes, after which it is taken to a special machine, where it is teased and mixed. At this stage the proportions of different colours are added in order to produce a certain blend or mixture of tweed. This, I can assure you, is a very important step in the production of tweed, and is attended to only by those who have gained a fair amount of experience in the mixing of colours.

The wool then goes through the carding and roving processes, and eventually emerges as yarn. Then comes the warping, which may be done mechanically, but is not infrequently done by hand; and, finally, the shuttle of the weaver’s loom works the woof across the warp.

I believe that certain washing processes now follow, and that the cloth is afterwards pressed and pounded by automatic means, this being the fulling stage by which it is thickened.

And, lastly, the tweed is wound lightly round strips of cardboard, and is placed in a warehouse, where orders are received for it from practically every part of the Empire. I fancy that it is at this mill that MacLeod of Dunvegan will have his tartan made.

Though nearly everything in the Portree mill is done by machinery, the old-fashioned and very interesting method of ‘waulking’ the cloth to the rhythm of the Oran Luadhadh, or ‘waulking song,’ still survives in parts of the islands, where the women still manufacture tweeds entirely by the labour of their hands, and without the assistance of up-to-date mechanical power of any kind.


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