WEAVER PRODUCES YARN, BLANKETS AND TWEED CLOTH IN HEART OF THE SPEY VALLEY
Knockando Woolmill sits by a tree-fringed stream amid arable farmland in the northeast of Scotland, the heart of whisky country. In operation since 1784, it is the oldest continuously working rural mill in the UK. Today it produces knitting yarn, blankets and tweed cloth using machinery that dates back to the 19th century.
The mill was bought by its chief weaver Hugh Jones, together with two friends, in 1976. A teacher, he was on holiday in the area when he saw the mill for sale. He had no knowledge of weaving but was attracted by the machinery and the idea of making something useful. The mill owner Duncan Stewart, who was selling up after 50 years, taught him the basics over a two-year period. He also learnt from a loom mechanic at the Scottish College of Textiles.
“I am mechanically minded and just got on with it,” says Hugh. “I had to learn or I wasn’t going to eat. I find it very satisfying, making something of genuine value and use. I have a feeling of great pleasure when a new design comes out of the loom and the cloth is right. I’ve got the settings on the loom and the tension correct, and there’s a uniformity to the cloth. It’s a powerful feeling to have control over all those threads.”
Originally managed as part of a croft, the mill was powered by a giant water wheel until 1949, when it switched to electricity. Local farmers would bring their fleeces to be converted into cloth or knitting wool. Combining farming and weaving made it possible for the crofters to eke a living.
“There used to be mills like this dotted all over Scotland,” explains Hugh. “They were an evolution from local hand-spinning and weaving. As mechanisation came along, little mills got hold of machines when they could. These formed the basis of the local economy in terms of blankets, knitting wool and basic cloth that the population used and wore. By 1960, they were nearly all gone, but Duncan Stewart kept going.”
By 2000, the strain of continuous production had taken its toll on the mill. Hugh handed over control to the Knockando Woolmill Trust, which raised £3.4million for restoration. The machinery and the once ramshackle stone and timber-clad buildings were renovated. The work was completed in 2013 and the mill is now operating as smoothly as ever.
“It’s a piece of history, the last one of its kind,” says Hugh. “My aim was to improve the working environment rather than change it. We’ve kept the simplicity of the place while making it functional today.” The equipment, including two looms from the 1890s, is housed in three old workshops with whitewashed walls and low ceilings. A new building is home to two additional looms.
Hugh describes the process of turning sheep fleeces into fabric as a matter of “making order out of chaos”. When a sheep is shorn, its wool is a mass of greasy, matted, unruly fibres. By running the fleece through the mill’s carding machines, those fibres are separated and straightened ready for spinning and weaving.
The fleeces used are bought in bales after they have been scoured (washed). Traditionally, the mill has used wool from Cheviot sheep which have a white, resilient coat. “The coarser wool from the older sheep mixed with younger wool makes a good tweed yarn. The younger wool makes soft blankets,” says Hugh. He looks for wool fibres that measure 2.5-4in (6-10cm) in length as this best suits the mill’s Victorian carding and spinning machinery.
To produce yarn that can be woven on a loom, the raw wool goes through three main processes: teasing, carding and spinning. At Knockando, only the natural wool is processed in this way, with coloured wool yarns being sourced from other British mills.
Teasing and carding
The first task is to feed the wool through a teaser, a machine with rollers studded with shark-fin teeth. “The washed wool is still in clumps and the motion between the rollers opens it up into smaller clumps,” says Hugh. “An industrial conditioning oil is put on to preserve the fibre length. Without it, there is breakage and wastage.”
The wool is then conveyed into the carding machines. “Carding separates the fleece into individual fibres that are going roughly in the same direction. It’s like brushing hair,” says Hugh. The carding set comprises three machines with 5ft-wide rotating rollers covered in tiny teeth: a scribbler, an intermediate and a condenser. The set can process approximately 22lb (10kg) of fleece an hour. After the intermediate stage, the wool fibres emerge in thick continuous strands known as slubbings. These are wound on to balls and fed into the condenser, which thins them. The carding process concludes with the resulting rovings (unspun threads) being wound on to spools. “There’s no strength in them but the fibres are more or less regular. At this stage, some twist is inserted to get yarn,” says Hugh.
Spinning a yarn
The more twist there is, the tougher the material produced. Tweed, for example, which has to withstand the rigours of the outdoors, uses yarn with more twist than a blanket, which is soft.
The twist is inserted on a 60ft-long 1870s spinning mule. The spools of rovings sit on the back section. The other section is a wheeled carriage mounted with 120 tubes, called cops, on fast-turning spindles. When the carriage is pulled out – a distance of 78in (198cm) – the rovings are reeled on to these cops and a twist is inserted in the thread. “Every time the carriage comes out, approximately 260 yards of yarn is spun, in 22 seconds,” says Hugh. “As the carriage returns, the yarn is wound neatly on to the cops.”
Next a warp is made from the yarn that will be tied in to the loom. These are the lengthways threads of a cloth. A blanket requires approximately 2,000 of these across the width. To keep all these threads under control, they are wound round tiers of pegs on a warping frame. If the finished cloth has a coloured pattern, the different coloured threads have to be kept together in the correct order.
For manageability, the warp is made in two halves. Once Hugh has removed the threads from the frame in two long coils, they are passed through a set of pegs, called a raddle, on a warping machine. This sets the warp to the required width. For a blanket, the width is 78-80in (198-203cm). The machine chatters as the threads are wound on to a warp beam that will fit into the loom.
Before the beamed warp is transferred to the loom, it is threaded through a set of four shafts or frames that will sit in the loom. Each shaft has wires with holes in the middle suspended along it called heddles. The threads are passed through the heddles. “One person presents the thread and the other draws it through,” says Hugh. “You can draw about 1,200 an hour.”
The warp is then threaded through a reed, which resembles a comb that keeps the threads correctly spaced. The reed beats up or pushes the weft (widthways) thread into place during weaving. That apparatus is then set in the loom, where the threads are attached to a beam cloth that anchors them ready for weaving.
Weaving is the introduction of weft threads, interlacing them with the warp threads. Shuttles, each holding bobbins (or pirns) of yarn of the required colour, are shot across the width of the loom trailing the weft threads. The original shuttles were wooden but today’s are more durable nylon with pointed metal ends. These travel at 90 times a minute, first one way then the other. “When a shaft goes up or down, the warp threads go up or down with it,” says Hugh. “When the shuttle flies across, it trails a thread between the warp threads that are down and the threads that are up.”
Blankets are commonly woven in 2/2 twill. In this weave, one weft thread passes over two warp threads then under two warp threads and so on, creating a diagonal pattern. The reed beats up each new weft thread tight against the previous one to form the fabric. It is a noisy operation as the old loom clatters rhythmically at speed.
The finishing process
The cloth is sent away to a textile finishers in Galashiels. Finishing involves washing, which removes the conditioning oil, and shrinking. “When it comes off the loom, it’s just a bunch of threads put together,” says Hugh. “When washed, the cloth shrinks as the fibres mill together.” If the cloth is being made into blankets, it is put through a teasel gig, a drum with barbed natural teasel heads that raises the pile so it feels soft. The raw edges are then blanket-stitched.
After its refurbishment, the mill is now equipped to continue the cloth-making tradition that began at Knockando during the Industrial Revolution.
“People are looking for natural fibres much more than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Hugh. “The idea is to produce simple but handsome, good quality designs. The smallest of the industrial producers, we’re still using traditional skills in a unique environment.”
Words: Caroline Rees Photography: Mark Mainz