Making a Northumbrian piper’s plaid

When we moved to Northumberland in 2010, one of the things on Stephen’s list was to learn to play the Northumbrian pipes.  I won’t go into the Northumbrian pipes in detail (you can find more about them here), – just suffice it to say that unlike the Highland pipes which are blown, the air in the Northumbrian pipes is produced by elbow action. And they aren’t easy to learn to play!

(But they produce an enchanting light sound. According to organologist Anthony Baines, they are “perhaps the most civilized of the bagpipes …”)

Most impressively Stephen did learn to play them, and joined the Alnwick Pipers group, later setting up a local group, the Spittal Pipers.  These groups play for pleasure, and also at shows and exhibitions. In 2016, for BBC Music Day, the Spittal Pipers were asked to play on the Union Chain Bridge. They assembled early on an exceptionally cold June morning …All wearing their fine Northumbrian plaids – bar Stephen, who didn’t have his own, so was lent one … err, a lady’s one.  The difference is that the lady’s plaid is a short shawl, while the gents wear a magnificently long piece which sweeps right round the body.This year I decided it was time to give him his own plaid, and approached a fellow member of the Tweed Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, Janis Embleton of Flight Weaving for help because I knew she’d woven a shepherd’s plaid before.

However, Stephen didn’t need a thick plaid designed to keep you warm and dry in all-weather shepherding work.  He need a formal  Northumbrian plaid to match in with the other plaids in the Spittal Pipers’ group. So we turned to Stephen’s fellow piper, Lyndon, for advice – and the loan of his plaid.  Here he is being fitted in Lyndon’s plaid as a guide for length …When we knew exactly what we wanted (more or less a copy of Lyndon’s) and had a set of measurements for Stephen’s height, I went back to Janis to ask her to make the plaid.  She came up with a most generous plan.  She would weave the plaid, and I would finish it off – tassel, wash and pleat …

Janis works on a vintage Ulla Cyrus Loom, passed on to her by a fellow weaver some years ago.  To my ignorant eyes, it is a most beautiful – and very complicated – piece of woodwork. Parts are worn smooth and darkened from repeated handling, but it carries a story of the love and care it received from one weaver – and now another.

She sent me these fascinating photos of the loom when it was first set up to weave the black and white Northumbrian plaid. My goodness, what meticulous hard work is involved in setting up the loom for a large piece of woven cloth!Later, she welcomed us to her studio to see how the weaving was progressing. By this time there was a substantial piece of cloth already woven …She invited me to have go with the shuttle, and I can assure you it’s not as easy as it looks!I was struck by the complexity of the loom – all those interconnections …And in many ways, it felt as though there was an organic integrity between loom and weaver …When the plaid was completed, I visited again for a lesson in tassel-making. First Janis showed me how to remove the cotton bands which edge her weaving …Then the fringing was trimmed to the length we wanted …Starting to make the tassels with her dinky little tassel-maker …I finished the tassels off at home, and then came the terrifying moment when I had to wash the plaid …Despite testing for colour run before she started work, Janis had discovered the black wool was leaching colour onto her hands, so I was advised to handwash the plaid first in cold water – it did indeed come out quite black …Then it went in the washing machine for a 30 degree wash. Scary! How relieved I was to have it out blowing on the washing line, soft, clean and slightly shrunken!Now for pleating. Lyndon’s plaid was pleated with narrow folds over the shoulders, fanning out to wider folds at the hem of the plaid. Hard to find a clean floor long enough to lay out such a huge piece of fabric …Tricky – especially when I got help …Now for some very careful pinning and tacking all the way down the pleats.  I copied Lyndon’s plaid and machined the pleats in place at judicious intervals (over the shoulders) …Finally the whole process was finished off with some very damp ironing using a white vinegar/water solution.  I discovered this pleating trick from a very helpful website on historical sewing .  Apparently this was the old-fashioned method to secure pleats in place.  (My solution was 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water.) And yes – the room did smell like a fish and chip shop, but the smell has now vanished!Time for a fitting. Here’s my Northumbrian piper in proper piper’s plaid! Just magnificent! And here he is playing the pipes!This has been such a happy project.  The plaid isn’t just a beautiful piece of work by a very skilled weaver, it’s a record of history – and in particular, for Stephen and me, the lovely folk who helped bring it together.  Thank you so much Janis for so generously allowing me to work on this project with you – it truly made it memorable.  And we can’t thank Lyndon and his wife Heather enough for their patient advice every time we needed to consult on some technical aspect of pipers’ plaids.