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What, exactly, do we mean by a “heritage craft”? Well, for a start, it must require a certain amount of skill and then, probably, to have been around for a long time. What fits that definition more aptly than “weaving”? It is certainly one of the oldest of crafts dating back to before the Stone Age when early man twisted plant fibres together to make the first of what we now call textiles.
The technical definition of weaving is the interlocking of a set of vertical threads (the warp) with a set of horizontal threads (the waft). This mixing of warp and waft can be achieved either by hand or by machine; the machines themselves range from small, hand-operated looms to large power-driven giants.
Before the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century weaving was essentially a hand craft often carried out in the home; the archetypal “cottage industry” in fact. The invention of the steam engine, spinning jenny, and power loom changed all that and the development of our modern mechanical, computer controlled, mass production methods began. They grew and spread as manufacturers concentrated on low-cost production with scant regard for the societal or environmental impacts.
Only now, 250 years later, is a major re-assessment taking place amid concern for the way human beings treat each other; how they use (or abuse) the earth’s resources, and how they care for its environment. This seems slowly to be leading to action at multi-national and macro–economic levels aimed at reducing carbon emissions and conserving the planet’s natural resources. The jury, however, is still out on whether action will take place quickly enough.
Over that same 250 year time frame the Highlands and Islands of Scotland faced many problems and suffered many tragedies but mechanisation was not one of them. Still today, woven woollen cloths and tweeds are being produced just as they have been for centuries past. Using wool, shorn from sheep living outdoors grazing hill and mountainside, washed, dyed, spun and woven locally, the resultant products could not come any more sustainably sourced than that.
This craft of weaving has become very much part and parcel of the Region’s cultural heritage but there is a constant danger of the skills and techniques being lost if craftspeople cannot see market demand for the results of their hard work. Fortunately, the response to the environmental challenges referred to earlier does seem to have produced a resurgence of interest in and popularity of woven natural fabrics and the products made from them.
Highland Hiddle worries about the potential loss of craft skills like weaving and supports many artisans making handmade goods in traditional ways. There are several weavers on its ecommerce market place making their own cloth and Harris Tweed on looms which is then turned into scarves, shawls, bags, brooches, cufflinks , bow ties, and even sleeves for hip flasks.
A 21st Century direction, perhaps, for a heritage craft with all the future promise that offers for weavers and buyers alike?
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