Made in Bri­tain

Daniel Har­ris wel­comes us to his weav­ing stu­dio where he cre­ates be­spoke cloths us­ing orig­i­nal Vic­to­rian looms

Period Living - - Contents - Words Rachel Crow | Pho­to­graphs Ka­sia Fiszer

Us­ing sal­vaged Vic­to­rian and vin­tage looms, and cen­tury-old tech­niques, Daniel Har­ris pro­duces beau­ti­ful, be­spoke fab­rics

Daniel Har­ris stands in quiet con­tem­pla­tion study­ing his vin­tage loom, try­ing to fathom the cause for the slight vari­a­tion in weave on an up­hol­stery fab­ric. Tied with hun­dreds of del­i­cate lengths of cot­ton and wool yarn, the in­tri­cate and com­plex ma­chine can pro­duce won­der­fully de­tailed and tac­tile tex­tiles, yet a frac­tional change in its set-up can spell a fun­da­men­tal change in the wo­ven cloth. Part weaver, part en­gi­neer, part tex­tile de­signer – ‘and al­ways cov­ered in oil’ - Daniel has had to learn by trial and er­ror how his collection of ‘cum­ber­some relics’ work. Each an amal­gam of at least two ma­chines, these an­ti­quated, un­wieldy beasts have been care­fully dis­as­sem­bled, re­assem­bled, cru­cial com­po­nents re­placed, and then grad­u­ally coaxed back to life.

A com­pletely self-taught weaver, Daniel had never even seen a shut­tle loom be­fore he ac­quired his first – a rust­ing Vic­to­rian footped­dled Hat­ter­s­ley that he res­cued from a derelict barn in Wales, where it had been sit­ting dor­mant in pud­dles for about ten years. ‘I can­not em­pha­sise enough how lit­tle thought I had put into this,’ he says, smil­ing. ‘I knew hand-weav­ing was far too time-con­sum­ing, and the mod­ern ma­chines too ex­pen­sive and com­pli­cated. I thought all I’d need was a loom, but you should see my spares depart­ment – it’s end­less!’

With a sewing back­ground, fol­low­ing a de­gree in Cos­tume In­ter­pre­ta­tion at Wim­ble­don School of Art, Daniel worked for ten years on nu­mer­ous fash­ion projects and com­mis­sions rang­ing from the ob­scure to the op­u­lent: adult baby out­fits for an Aldi com­mer­cial, a wed­ding dress for a Shet­land pony in a Stella Ar­tois ad­vert, to sewing loose cov­ers for the Queen’s pri­vate apart­ment in Buck­ing­ham Palace. ‘But I’d had the idea to weave my own cloth a long time ago.’ So in 2011 he swapped nee­dle for shut­tle and set up The Lon­don Cloth Com­pany in Hack­ney, the cap­i­tal’s first mi­cro-mill, sup­ply­ing fab­ric to fash­ion houses around the world and even­tu­ally ex­tend­ing to premises in Ep­ping as he ac­quired more looms, winders, warp­ing mills and re­lated ephemera from all cor­ners of the Bri­tish Isles.

We meet at Daniel’s new mill, housed in an old agri­cul­tural barn in the ru­ral sur­round­ings of the Nether­wood Es­tate near Ten­bury Wells, Worcestershire, not far from where he grew up in Malvern. Now split­ting his time be­tween the two sites, rather than an un­der­ground com­mute and in­dus­trial, ur­ban sur­round­ings, here he en­joys a tran­quil jour­ney through bu­colic, se­cluded farm­land. Curl­ing around his legs as he takes a brief pause in his fre­netic ac­tiv­ity, and oc­ca­sion­ally mew­ing for a bis­cuit, is his mill cat and trav­el­ling com­pan­ion, Florider, who turned up one day at his Clap­ton site, ‘a small, scraggy and skinny kit­ten that never left,’ and who now is al­ways at Daniel’s side as he trav­els be­tween city and country.

The mills are al­most akin to a work­ing mu­seum, with Daniel’s mot­ley crew of near-ex­tinct, for­got­ten ma­chines dat­ing from the 1870s to 1970s, pro­duc­ing a range of beau­ti­ful wo­ven fab­rics – from rope-dyed plain, her­ring­bone and twill indigo cot­tons to multi-hued woollen her­itage tweeds, tar­tans and blan­kets. His be­spoke cloths have been used for fur­nish­ing fab­rics in homes and restau­rants to grac­ing op­eras or film sets, such as the re­cent Solo: A Star Wars Story.

When he slowly cranks up his vin­tage Dobcross power loom, the sound is al­most deaf­en­ing as the shut­tle hold­ing the weft is fired back and forth, pass­ing over and un­der the warp in its fast, hyp­notic ac­tion more than a hun­dred times a minute, weav­ing up to seven colours. While Daniel is keen to stress this is not a craft - ‘these ma­chines

‘These ma­chines were at the fore­front of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion – in their day they were seen as killing craft’

were at the fore­front of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion; in their day they were seen as killing craft’ - there is no deny­ing that there is the same ‘craft­ing’ ethos in how this one-man mill op­er­a­tor has a hand in ev­ery sin­gle stage of the weav­ing process.

Hav­ing drawn on the ac­quired knowl­edge and skill of a net­work of former mill work­ers dot­ted around quiet cor­ners of the country, as well as his ap­par­ent nat­u­ral abil­ity for fath­om­ing the quirks and in­tri­ca­cies of these tem­per­a­men­tal ma­chines, Daniel has been prac­tis­ing and per­fect­ing his weav­ing tech­niques since his first tweed – which took four months of per­se­ver­ance to pro­duce. ‘I use the same tech­niques that have not changed for decades, but to make this work as a busi­ness it had to be sim­pli­fied. We only re­ally weave two things but within those two there is a huge range. We use a cot­ton warp with a wool weft, 28 ends of yarn in the warp per inch. It can be any colour or struc­ture, but that is the stan­dard set-up; I won’t de­vi­ate from that. By lim­it­ing your­self and do­ing the same thing over and over, chang­ing it in­cre­men­tally each time, you learn so much more about how the ma­chine be­haves.’

As Daniel darts be­tween tasks – one minute wind­ing weft on to bob­bins, the next adding links to a pat­tern chain – his con­ver­sa­tional tan­gents weav­ing about the sub­ject of his oeu­vre, it is clear that there is noth­ing sim­ple about the process. With some 200 ends in the Indigo fab­ric on one ma­chine, each of which is 500 me­tres long, re­quir­ing 163 ki­los of yarn to be wound on to a warp­ing mill and then set up on the loom, his is a phys­i­cally and men­tally de­mand­ing pro­fes­sion. ‘I can tie on 480 knots an hour by hand, and to set up the loom could take two days, but once weav­ing it can be re­ally quick; it’s weirdly ef­fi­cient,’ he adds of the var­i­ous looms, ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing from five to 20 me­tres an hour.

It is ap­par­ent that Daniel is pas­sion­ate about re­con­nect­ing peo­ple with where cloth comes from. His next aim is to ex­pand on his up­hol­stery fab­rics and in­te­ri­ors prod­ucts; he has cre­ated a be­spoke tar­tan to grace the in­te­ri­ors of the new café and restau­rant open­ing in Novem­ber in re­stored old farm build­ings on the Nether­wood Es­tate. ‘One of the rea­sons I set up this new mill was be­cause I have too many looms, but these premises change ev­ery­thing,’ he en­thuses. ‘Here I have time to think. It is bring­ing back the cre­ativ­ity.’

‘To set up the loom could take two days, but once weav­ing it can be re­ally quick; it’s weirdly ef­fi­cient’

Above:

Left: Blan­kets made from Bri­tish and Ir­ish Done­gal wool for Sut­ton & Tawney, and cush­ions in a beige tweed fab­ric. Blan­kets from £100; cush­ions, from £40Daniel’s mill com­pan­ion, Florider, can be found weav­ing his way be­tween the looms, and boxes over­flow­ing with old wooden bob­bins and yarn

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