If you are wondering what we mean by hand-crafted, these are some of the steps that go into producing each and every bespoke commission on our single-width looms.
Remember, this is often just for a single garment.
Masters of colour
When you order your tartan from us, our first task is to select yarn shades for your fabric. Each tartan sett is unique, and can be woven in a range of traditional palettes, such as bright modern colours, subdued ancient colours, or earthy reproduction colours. So we'll usually suggest a harmonious palette based on our experience. However, you are welcome to specify any colours you prefer.
In most cases we can find a good shade in our substantial yarn stocks, which lets us press ahead with weaving more quickly. But if you need a special shade, we can closely match a physical sample you provide, and dye to order in small or large volumes. Our specialist dye house is just a couple of minutes up the road.
We are always happy to send you small sample twists of suggested yarns to help you decide, before you finally confirm the order for production.
This is what makes these fabrics unique
Most tartans today are woven on high-speed 'rapier' or 'jet' looms. These feed-and-cut weft yarn constantly from one side only, and can be computer controlled, making the fabric cheaper to produce. And we can supply this service too.
But our spiritual heart lies in the traditional "flying shuttle" looms on which we still produce both single and double width fabrics. On these, the weft yarns loop backwards and forwards, never needing to be cut, to produce the distinctive 'natural' no-hem selvedge that's vital for a proper kilt and other top quality garments.
A shuttle loom is much slower, and the weaver must regularly stop to replenish or change the bobbin pirn (a spindle inside the shuttle) that holds and dispenses the yarn.
"Winding" is the job of filling enough of these pirns with sufficient yarn to produce the full weft, end-to-end. That's quite a few.
We also wind the wool from their large storage "cheeses" onto dozens of smaller cones for warping.
Did we mention hand-crafted?
The lengthwise threads on a loom are called the "Warp" (the Weft being the threads that cross from side to side). And every single-width tartan we produce is still warped entirely by hand!
First we arrange dozens of the yarn cones that we've just wound, on the stakes of the cone frame. There's one cone per thread in your sett, placed in position so as not to snag or overlap when pulled off.
Our warper strings out each thread of your tartan sett (repeating pattern) to its full length, onto a special pegged frame called a Stake Warp. We do this a few threads at a time, each into its correct position in the colour sequence. It is tied at one end, then is looped round and round the pegs (or stakes) of the warping frame, and re-tied at the other end.
We do this one sett at a time, which continues until the full warp is complete. That's up to 1630 threads for a lighter weight wool. It is then bunched up, and the process repeats until there are enough sett bunches for the weave.
Newest isn't always best
Many firms boast about their shiny, fast, and modern equipment. We beg to differ. We're proud that our oldest looms are around a century old. Our single width machines started life as pedal looms, onto which we bolted simple motors to save our weavers' legs!
At DC Dalgliesh we still use traditional production methods for good reason. We're not luddites. It's not to save money. The reason is that the very finest tartans can only be produced on traditional shuttle looms. And that's something we care deeply about.
Even the automated parts are hand-made
Our single-width looms are best described as 'semi-automated'. Once the shuttle starts to fly to and fro, the choice of colour for the next weft (sideways) thread is encoded in a loop of metal chain, which acts like a primitive computer.
There is one metal link in the chain for each thread in the sett (repeating pattern). Each link's shape tells the loom to use (a) the same colour as before; (b) the next colour on the bobbin cartridge; or (c) the previous colour on the cartridge. So in fact this only automates three changes - the rest, the weaver stops and moves by hand.
We build this chain by hand for each weave, link by link, using wire and a pair of pliers.
Yes, thread by thread
First the new warp hanks are wrapped one by one onto the single width warp 'beam' (a large wooden spindle) which is then positioned on the loom. This is a heavy three-person job, so your weaver will find a couple of team members to help carry, position, and correctly tension the key parts.
Now comes perhaps the most impressive skill of all. We tie every single thread in the new warp onto the tail-end from the last weave. A remnant of the last weave is always left in place, which is now used to carefully guide the new threads through the reed (the wire mesh).
Thread by thread, our weaver twists your new yarn onto the old ones, in a special knot that is slim enough to glide through the reed to the other side of the loom. We repeat this action twelve hundred times for a heavyweight wool, and over 1600x for lightweight.
Then we pull the new warp through onto the loom, and tension it.
Your beautiful fabric emerges
The weave itself is one of the simpler parts of the tartan production process... which is not to say it's easy! 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. There are few moments to rest.
Once the length required has been woven, your weaver cuts the fabric off the loom (leaving a tail end for the next warp) and takes the tartan for finishing.
Full process QC
Quality control is not just a step in our process. Every member of the production team is responsible for checking quality standards at every stage of the process. And if any imperfection arises they are empowered to stop for as long as it takes to rectify the issue, including re-weaving a piece from scratch if necessary.
Our reputation depends on getting the product perfect every time. So quality always comes first.
A few steps to perfection
We carefully check every inch of your fabric visually, inch by inch, and darn out any breaks or other tiny imperfections. We snip away stray ends. If a thread has broken during weaving, we mend it, hand-darning individual threads. With so many years experience, our darners are eagle-eyed and fastidious in their dedication to ensuring that no tartan leaves their hands until perfect.
Next, before we can send you your new fabric, we thoroughly clean it to remove any residual impurities. Washing and scouring ensures that your tartan arrives spotless. And it also slightly softens the yarn, giving your tartan the tough but soft character that is our hallmark.
Finally we straighten and press your cloth. This task is most arduous with the largest pieces, whose vast weight when wet we hoist onto tenterhooks (from which comes the expression). From there we straighten your tartan to ensure the lines are perfect, dry it, and smooth it out in a sandwich blower press, to leave your material in perfect condition.
Now watch it in action
This film of our production process may be a few years old now. But not much has changed...