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