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Tartan Ferret

A Dissertation on Patterns

Part I - October 1934

We editors ought, as usual, to apologise for being late. Our irregularities have been worse than ever lately. Our secretary has had shoals of letters inquiring about our issues, and especially our last, which, after the article itself was printed, was unexpectedly delayed. It proved very difficult to find a suitable paper for our new supplementary plates. We had to find a paper to give a beautiful black and at the same time to give a fine texture for ordinary mechanical printing. We were seeking for something of the texture of hand-printed wood blocks in ordinary machine work, for our edition has now far exceeded all possibilities of handwork. To make up for our dilatoriness we shall follow with Part II. of our Dissertation in four weeks or so.
Our last few numbers have taken us into the borders of history, which was not altogether the programme we had arranged for ourselves. To judge by the correspondence they have produced, we seem to have been justified in dealing with Tartans and District Checks, as our last four numbers have been surprisingly successful. There is a vast literature dealing with that most national type of design, the Tartan, and there we had as our chief difficulty the summarising of a great mass of existing work. In the District Checks the problem was somewhat different, for, so far as our investigations disclosed, nothing had been written on the subject apart from advertisements, which as a rule are more concerned in the picturesque than the truthful. Some day we shall revert to other aspects of both our Checks and our Tartans. Some of these days also we have promised ourselves to deal with the old native craft of weaving in Harris and the other parts of the Highlands - but here again there is remarkably little written that is more than the passing impressions of tourists or the picturesque inventions of journalists.
The making of patterns is a much debated subject in the Scottish Woollen Trade just now. In an essentially novelty trade like ours, the Pattern Department is in a way the most important in a mill. The money that the retail section of the trade spends on advertising, we spend on pattern making, and extravagant as the expenditure looks when it appears on the schedule of working costs, it seems as impossible to cut it down as it is for the great store to reduce its publicity and propaganda accounts. Admitted that there is a great deal of waste in pattern work: a great deal of inconsiderate use of patterns by the distributors - both in asking for needless patterns and thoughtlessly keeping patterns when making selections - and in the designing rooms, where useless ideas are often expensively developed. There is also a great wastage by theft of various degrees of directness: from the dealers who deliberately collect designs for sale, to the less direct way of handing over designs to makers who did not invent them - for an idea, though intangible, may have cost a large sum to produce and is as certainly the property of its producer as his ox or his ass. But taking all things into account, it seems hardly possible for the Scottish manufacturers as a whole to reduce drastically their pattern costs if Scottish Woollens are to continue to lead in the fastidious and fashionable trade that they at present serve.
It is not altogether easy to explain technical matters to people not acquainted with the jargon of the trade. Everyday expressions to us are so apt to be quite incomprehensible to others who have not been brought up inside a mill. For example, we are going to use the expression " Overcheck " or " Over-plaid " - English and American for the same thing. An overcheck, as the name suggests, is a check laid over some ground. The definite illustration we are going to use in our description of range making is the little black and white check worn by the shepherds of the Scottish Borders for the great shawls they carried to protect themselves in cold weather. It is illustrated in our District C hecks Supplement. In the Glenfeshie the scarlet check is overlaid on this ground and is called an overcheck. The other word that perhaps needs explanation is "Range", which is standard English, but is here used in a certain narrow technical sense, the explanation of which is one of the objects of our Dissertation. It just means a series of patterns displayed in a particular manner, and becomes a sort of specialised noun not so very remote from its ordinary meaning.
Other technical terms, such as "warping" and various parts of looms, must await our paper on weaving for full explanation. Meanwhile, to be going on with, the "warp" is the series of threads fixed in the loom - the long way of the cloth in fact - and the "weft" is the series carried across by the shuttle. The Old English word "woof" is now almost wholly a literary word, and is the old form of "weft".
We have always claimed that the undoubted lead we hold in the fancy woollen trade is not a matter of chance and not altogether a matter of harder work or more acute intelligence than is to be found elsewhere. That would be a claim too immodest even for us who are not famed for modesty. It is rather a national aptitude in the land, just as every country grows or produces something peculiarly its own.
It is not technical instruction that adds that final touch that makes a pattern range live. Always and everywhere it is that intangible essence that transmutes our dross into gold. That sort of felicity that maketh an excellent thing in music. That part of the poet that is born not made. We in Scotland are well served by our circumstances. Nature in the long run is the fountain of such inspiration, the ultimate fountain of all life, as our city dwellers often forget. We have an incomparable variety of scenery - climate, geology, all our circumstances combine to give us endless variety of colour - a wealth of colour far more brilliant than elsewhere - in, as we might say, its everyday appearance. Did not Leonardo da Vinci when he came north from his native Italy , with its "grey repose of light", marvel at the exquisite blueness of the sky? Did not Linnaeus, that wonderful cataloguer of our plants and animals, fall on his knees and thank God for the spring glory of our gorse? Who that has seen them can forget the purple miles of our August moorlands, or the golden fairyland of our autumns of birch and bracken? It is not in Scotland but one fleeting moment, but every moment, so that men dispute which is the loveliest season of the year. More than that, we have a profound inherited love of Nature in all her aspects, as is witnessed by our great store of folk-songs, one of the finest in the world and showing everywhere a strange sensitiveness to landscape beauty. With such a heritage in the midst of such surroundings, how could we fail in inspiration?
That is something of the spirit. Let us now consider the form in which that spirit is embodied.
Pattern work at all its stages is extraordinarily wasteful in a weaving plant, chiefly owing to certain points in the arranging of a job for the loom. It must often have been a heartbreak to the housewife in the old home-weaving days to see thrown away so many yards of the thread that had cost her laborious hours of skilled work to spin.
Let us follow in outline the history of a design from its start as a more or less indefinite idea in the brain of the designer to its arrival in the garment. Let us suppose it is to be developed in a cloth already established. From the available colourings of the yarns already in use for that cloth the designer picks out a group of shades that seem most likely to give him the result he has imagined, and arranges them on a suitable weave. The necessary working instructions are written out and the warper collects the yarns specified and prepares a small length, let us say two yards long. This will yield nearly a yard of cloth, which the designer has concluded will give him enough scope for the development he requires. You will notice half the warp length will be wasted. This waste is the same for any length, and that is one reason for the high cost of weaving short lengths. This length of wasted yam is called a "thrum" - a word immortalised by Sir James Barrie in the title of his earliest and one of his greatest successes, "A Window in Thrums".
The warp is then rolled on the back beam of the loom and by hand each thread is drawn through a small eyelet in the weaving harness - whatever kind it may be. This process also is the same whatever length is being dealt with. It is illustrated in our Plate IV. which we send out as supplement to this number, though Plates II. and III. have not yet been issued.
Part II
November 1934

In the weaving stage which follows, the work may be either carried out in a hand loom or in a modern power loom. In pattern making the actual production part of the work is so trifling that it matters little to the speed whether the old-fashioned hand loom or the modern fast loom is used. In this way the pattern rooms of the trade are the last refuges of the old hand methods that have been completely superseded in the general modem scheme of production.
The weaver ties his job into his loom and puts in the weft or shuttle threads for a few inches, and the "trial" is ready for the designer, who then proceeds to develop the idea. This is done by breaking off certain threads in the pattern and tying on to them threads of other colours. These are drawn back through the weaving harness and a few inches of the altered design woven. Let us say, for example, that the original ground chosen was a Shepherd C heck in black and white, such as is illustrated in our District C hecks Supplement, and the designer wishes to develop his idea with overchecks or over -plaids on the lines of the Glenfeshie. He breaks off a little group of the black yam and on to each thread ties a scarlet thread. This little group is then drawn back through the harness and tied down so that it will not slip, and the weaver then with his shuttles follows the same arrangement of colours and so produces his new design, which we also illustrate. And so one after another various developments of the original ground are tried out.
This trial we have imagined might yield a yard of cloth 18 inches wide - say three patterns in the width, for in the ordinary men's wear trade 6 inches is a convenient size for the display of such sized designs as men's somewhat feeble nerves and very conservative tastes will endure. So we finish up with eighteen patterns all different. This bit of cloth like a patchwork mat is then passed through all the regular and complicated finishing processes given to full pieces of the cloth. This bit of cloth is called a "Trial".
This preliminary work of trial making goes on for the most part in the gap that occurs between one showing season and the next - possibly a couple of months. Next the trials are assembled and looked over very carefully, and the most promising of the developments are chosen for range making.
Let us imagine that our Glenfeshie has been chosen for one idea. As things now stand this is a childishly simple idea and would never be the subject of a "Trial" in any ordinary cloth, for the days have long since passed when any one connected with the trade has any doubt about what the Shepherd with a scarlet overcheck looks like. Yet Mrs Ellice did not live so very long ago, and when her ingenuity devised this lovely pattern it was a most original and outstanding novelty. We take it now as an easy illustration, so far have we moved.
Several methods of development are open to the designer. For example, he may consider the black and white as the base of the idea and develop black and white with different forms of over-plaids, or he may consider the arrangement of the pattern chosen as his foundation. Let us suppose he decides on the latter scheme for his "Range". This time he will aim to produce a piece of cloth, say, 30 inches wide divided into five patterns 6 inches wide and, say, a yard long. His chosen pattern is, you will remember, black and white with a scarlet overcheck. He decides to arrange for a grey, a couple of browns, and a dark green. The first 6 inches of his "Range" will display his black and white ground; his second, grey and white, possibly with blue for the overcheck; his third, brown and white with orange; and so forth to the completion of his scheme. The sections of his warp will be separated by some special thread - possibly scarlet - to show where each pattern ends. The weaver then weaves, say, 7 inches of each. The result of all this activity is a piece of cloth 30 X 36 inches consisting of twenty-five squares of cloth of which five are "perfects" and twenty are various "cross effects," which may or may not be good according to the type of design that has been the base of the range. A piece of cloth of considerable cost and inconceivable utility! A glance at our sketch will at once show just what must happen. The first weaving is the black and white with scarlet overcheck A. These yams carried by the shuttle must cross the cloth from side to side. The second pattern B is therefore grey and white crossed with black and white, the overcheck blue crossed with red, and so forth over the whole range till F is reached with its green and white ground and possibly a gold overcheck. The "perfects" are obviously A, C , D, E, and F.
As usual, when you make a statement of some kind, whole clouds of exceptions come humming out of the surrounding air. When we began French did we not all sadly wonder why we should bother to learn rules to which there were so many exceptions? Looking back, we see we have said "the yams carried by the shuttle must cross." They really don't need to. It is just a case of expediency. Bits may be put in by hand, and it is quite a common practice to make all the over-plaids "perfect", for cross effects do not happen to be popular just now,
Next this collection of "Ranges" forms the season's "pattern set", and they are taken round the distributors to let them choose their styles - a privilege they often do not appreciate!
Let us suppose again our Glenfeshie is chosen. The distributor may decide to take three or four or more patterns, and chooses, let us say, A the black and white, D and E the browns, and F the green and white. In the usual practice of the Scottish Woollen Trade this whole "style" or design becomes his exclusive property. It is not made again, and the remaining patterns on the range, though they may be quite as good as those chosen, go into the ragbag. It has become a "confined" style. The distributor then orders for immediate delivery whatever length of cloth he needs for his travellers and a "piece", generally about 50 yards, 58 inches wide, for delivery in five or six months.
The pattern cloth might be anything from, say, half a yard up to 5 or 6 yards, 28 to 30 inches wide, in the ordinary wholesale merchanting trade or "model" lengths in the making-up trade.
The making of these lengths of pattern cloth finishes the manufacturer's part of the work. The tale is not yet ended. The distributor, if he is in the wholesale cloth trade, cuts his cloth up into bits of convenient size for his travellers to show to the tailors or the dressmakers who place their orders for the goods which they in turn will later display to the connoisseur who requires a new suit. If the distributor is a maker-up of clothes he makes a specimen coat or suit. Or if the cloth is destined for the fashion trade for ladies, its progress will be a little different and it will pass through the stage of the Paris or London dress shows and be displayed by carefully chosen mannequins before an audience as carefully fenced from gatecrashers as any society function. Thereafter our Glenfeshie will appear worn by some one in the fullest confidence that being clad in Scottish Woollens he or she is safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The life cycle is complete.
Besides this direct progression, there is the other modem development of sampling that has greatly increased the wastage of good cloth, and that is "bunching". In every tailor's shop hang pattern bunches, or for the ladies probably pattern books. To a greater and greater extent this method is spreading, so that the tailor not only can show you a few lengths of cloth to choose from, but has countless bunched patterns from which you may make your choice, thus saving the tailor the capital involved in stocks, but in the long run adding to the cost of distribution. It is not easy to say which stage is most guilty of extravagance. Though the distributor pays full price to the manufacturer for the pattern cloth, this is but a small contribution towards the cost because of the exceeding wastefulness of making small quantities of cloth.
In this article we shall not touch upon the sources of inspiration, or how the ingenious designer can reduce a lovely landscape or a beautiful picture or any charming scheme of colour he may see to the elements which constitute its attraction, and how out of these elements he can then build up a design for a suiting or a scarf or a shawl. Just as in the studios of Hollywood a scene full of colour is reduced to chemical and electrical symbols to be shown on the other side of the world as a picture in black and white accompanied by re-embodied voices, so can the accomplished designer reduce the riot of colour of the autumn woodlands or the calm beauty of a summer night to the ordered sequence of woollen threads to swathe the person of my lady or to clothe the lower limbs of her lord.
We are often asked what the designer does to instruct the maker of his cloth. Whether he paints a picture of his cloth or how he goes about his job. He does not paint, he does not do anything that looks even the least like cloth. He need be no artist in the everyday immediate sense of the word. He makes a little plan symbolising the weave. We shall go on with the Glenfeshie.
His plan looks like this. The crosses mean that the weaver arranges his loom to lift each thread twice and drop it twice when he is crossing his warp with his weft. We give a picture of the cloth much enlarged to illustrate the construction. Next, for the colour arrangement of the threads he writes: 6 of Black and 6 of White for 78, and 6 of Scarlet - according to the habit of the mill he may write this in many ways, but that is what it will amount to. He then gives a row of figures to show the width of the cloth; the size and quality of the threads, the number per inch; and all the rest, and the result no more resembles the brilliant Glenfeshie than the roll of film resembles what will later appear on the screen.
If you have followed this argument carefully you will recognise that the inventing of a pattern begins a long time before it appears in the street. In fact, in the ordinary routine of pattern making the interval is a little over a year. During Winter the Scotch manufacturer is making ranges for the next Winter, and at the same time he is making the cloth for next Summer.
You will also recognise that all this time the pattern department has been employed destroying good material. About half the yarn it obtains is wasted at once, and all the cloth it manages to weave goes to produce rags and nothing more excepting, with luck, orders. You will also appreciate the logical justice of the harsh American saying, "Nothing for nothing", and will understand that the world somehow, sometime, must pay for its patterns or do without them. Also that this pattern work has to be done by some one if we are to retain any high standard of beauty and novelty in our cloths. The mass producer is definitely not interested in novelty, for he can only run his plant on types that have already been accepted by the world, and have reached the stage of being required in bulk.









E.S. Harrison



One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

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