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Tartan Ferret

April 1940

War is with us again and the lads are all away, gone as their fathers went just twenty-five and a half years ago. Quietly they departed; there was none of the pomp and circumstance of war, no blazing beacons as of yore called them to saddle and ride, but the call was answered. The gaps in the factory ranks have for the present been filled; but the further call on our manhood will surely come, and then the women will step into the breach and the old men will emerge from their retirement as they did before. The ranks will be closed, history will repeat itself, no doubt with variations, but the spirit is still the same.

Our towns and villages are full of khaki-clad figures and the mechanism of war ; even portions of our Mills are occupied, not by our own men, but by those who will be their comrades in the struggle that lies ahead, and who are for a few fleeting weeks or months our guests, until they move on - to what ? The women are feverishly knitting the comforts that are so urgently needed, and women and the able-bodied older men are busy perfecting themselves in all the manifold branches of ARP, Hospital and Red Cross work; but these are spare-time jobs, and their trade, the manufacturing of the essential material for clothing the Forces, must be carried on at full pressure.

Inside, the Mills themselves there is no very evident change, at least to the occasional visitor. He may note a certain quickening of the tempo, an absence of those signs of slackness that have been all too frequent during the years of depression. Work and seeming prosperity have come, but for the most unwished-for reasons. The pay envelopes are heavier, but the cost of living has risen; the anxiety that blends itself with courage, hope, and determination is there. Let us enter the Weaving Shed, for in other parts of the Mill there is little out- ward and visible change, except perhaps a vaguely sensed feeling of urgency. As we enter, our ears are assailed by a roar and clatter - that is the music of the looms, for it is music to those who have seen them silent and impotent against the rising force of so-called national self-sufficiency and the ebbing tide of export trade. All is now stir and movement, conversation practically impossible, but to another sense, that of the eye, there is also a difference. Glance along row after row of busy looms - where are the bright colours and varied designs of other days ? Nothing but khaki, khaki, its neutral shade fading into the distance. Here and there, however, the monotony may be broken by a patch of Air Force blue or a spot of colour indicative of what is now familiarly called " civilian work," which must be put through as time and material permit.

We have said that history repeats itself, but to those of us who remember the last war, there is a change. There is, for instance, none of the blue and white all- woollen flannel to relieve the eye - it is now made of wool and cotton mixed and is, therefore, taboo in the Scottish Mills ; but more than all do we miss the bright colours of the Highland Tartans. The War Office has decreed, and with reasons which appear unanswerable and must be accepted, that the Scottish Regiments should wear the new khaki battle dress on active service. Few will doubt the necessity and wisdom of this edict, but there seems no adequate reason why kilts and tartan trews should not be issued for walking-out dress. Shortage of material is alleged, but the Scottish Mills could easily cope with this as they did during the last war. Although we are assured that it is only " for the duration," gloomier spirits maintain that the death- knell of tartans as far as the Army is concerned has been sounded. We do not agree, as we hardly think, quite apart from sentiment, that the powers that be will lose sight of the great recruiting value of our historic tartans and the kilt. Incidentally, it may be mentioned that this cloth is a monopoly of the Scottish Mills, and that it is now practically the only one we are permitted to supply in peacetime.

From the looms and their contents let us turn to the weavers themselves. Assiduously and imperturbably amidst the deafening noise they go about their work. From a leisurely three days a week or a spell of a week or two with an occasional holiday, they have suddenly been stirred into the greatest activity; their numbers have been increased by older women who had already retired, and by many married women who, with their men away on service, have relegated their household duties to what would otherwise have been their leisure hours and have come back to their old jobs. The ordinary work of the weaver is often very complicated and requires great attention and skill. The Government work is much more simple, but still it is constant and exacting. There is also the added strain of exceptional winter conditions and the somewhat depressing effect of the " blackout " arrangements, which affect even the daylight hours. All the same there is an air of cheerfulness about, which the company and the movement help to maintain.

We have started with the weaving, but let us now turn back to the beginning and have a look at the Wool Store, where we hope to find wool arriving in large quantities and the foreman cheerfully checking it in. But, alas, there are other alternatives. We may find no wool arriving at all, or it may be someone else's wool. So the foreman may be sunk in gloom and his remarks about the Wool Control will be quite unprintable. At their tables the sorters, depleted in numbers, are busy, mostly on Government work, which although greater in volume is much simpler than the civilian. This remark applies also to the batchers, who revel in a succession of big batches all of the same kind and find even the increased manual labour makes easy going compared with their normal task with its much greater variety.

The adaptability that has been shown by the Scottish Mills in turning over at short notice to mass production is indeed remarkable, when we consider that it is a highly specialised trade and deals mainly in relatively small quantities, very fancy designs, and cloths requiring many different yams even for one pattern. With the bulk orders the machinery output efficiency is enormously increased, and, incidentally, the labour and number of hands required reduced. It is found possible also to combine this with a not inconsiderable production for ordinary civilian trade. We now continue our journey through the Wool Scouring House to the Dye House, where we find all steam and stir. Here again the work, although increased in volume, is considerably simplified. The dyer's tale of woe principally concerns difficulty in obtaining special dyestuffs and also the rising prices of those that are obtainable. But he cannot point to any lack in the supply of the essential dyes for National purposes. A relevant thought strikes us as we pass through the Drying-room to the Willey House, where the wool is mixed, oiled, and teased prior to carding ; oil may become difficult to get.

In the Carding Room and Spinning Flats the same tale may be told of the comparative ease of dealing with large quantities, and we hasten on lest the foreman, who we can see is pondering the subject, should raise some matter for a grumble; indeed we can almost see a probable cause as we note that the shaft is going a bit slowly - the peak load of the day is now on. Every department is busy and the engines evidently all out. We now cross over to the Yarn Store, the anteroom of the Weaving Shed, and in passing note another wartime change, the bulk of the yarn, instead of being carefully built into boxes, a laborious process, is hurried away straight from the spinners' baskets to the yarn winders.

We will step aside for a moment into the adjacent Pattern Shop, as the Pattern-weaving Department is called to distinguish it from the Pattern Office where patterns and orders are dealt with. Here we see the only apparently derelict part of the Mill, a row of empty looms, or perhaps one or two running. These are, of course, narrow looms and cannot produce ordinary full-width pieces. Most of the usual weavers are away or have been absorbed into other jobs. The head designer is in his office, but he is working with a skeleton staff. The work of pattern-making is reduced to a minimum, but the export trade at least must go on, and possibly the customers will find that a smaller and less bewildering set of patterns is not altogether disadvantageous. We pass through the Weaving Shed a second time and come to the Mending Department. Here one can see the large rolls of khaki cloth passing quickly over the birlers' tables and the darners' perches. Knots and other little blemishes are removed. Threads broken in the weaving are replaced, but there are no fancy threads here or elaborate decoration to take up the darners' time; indeed if it were not for a certain proportion of ordinary goods the usual staff would be too big.

At the Mill House, our next stopping place, we are brought face to face with a major problem that the Scottish manufacturers have had to tackle in this war. The Royal Army Clothing Department has concentrated its demand from the Scottish Mills chiefly on the Army greatcoating. It is a heavy and very well-milled cloth; relatively it is easily and quickly woven, but takes a great deal more time in the mill than an ordinary piece. Milling, we might explain, is the felting or fulling of a cloth to thicken it by means of soap, hot water, and friction, thereby reducing the width and length in the case of this particular cloth by about 25 per cent. and greatly increasing the weight per yard. This naturally improves both the wearing and weather-resisting qualities. As the time occupied in treating this cloth is three to four times more than is usual for Scottish cloths, it naturally upsets the balance of production as between this department and the weaving. The Mill House, therefore, forms a bottleneck, which can only be overcome by longer hours or added machinery. The milling of the greatcoating cloth is a very heavy job, both for the men and for the machines, construction of which is relatively light, being intended to meet only the needs of the ordinary trade. Many, therefore, are the breakages and small and large repairs that have to be executed, with consequent loss of time and production, and the head millman's job is more harassing than his colleagues' work in other departments. The problems have, however, been tackled and overcome, and Scotland is pulling its full weight in producing the necessary goods.

The cloth has also to be waterproofed - a process presenting new problems to some of the manufacturers. Little need be said of the Finishing Department, where the Government cloths are easily handled, and so the pieces eventually arrive in the Warehouse, where they are passed and measured over a table and checked by machine, and then laid aside for the Government inspector when he pays his weekly or biweekly visits. This wartime inspection of the goods at the Mill is a great advantage from many points of view. The normal peacetime procedure is to send the consignments to the Government stores, where they are passed and afterwards distributed.

No account of the wartime changes in our Mills would be complete without a reference to the " blackout" and the onus it has put upon us. This is not, of course, peculiar to our trade, but an ordinary woollen textile mill has hundreds of windows and acres of glass roof. The windows present no particular problem except a financial one; but the roofs are a very different proposition, and also from our point of view a novel one. Painting, although we were advised to do so at first, has proved unsatisfactory ; it chiefly excludes the light through the day and does not keep it in at night. Most of this work has had to be undone and curtains substituted - a costly proceeding, indeed it runs into hundreds of pounds even in a moderate-sized factory. To work constantly in a half light would have had a depressing effect on the work people - the very thing we wish to avoid - and would not have helped efficiency.

It might be asked, how, under existing circumstances, do we hope to carry on our export trade, which has always been the backbone of the Scottish industry and which in common prudence we should try to preserve in unbroken continuity. Our ability to do so depends on certain factors, the chief of which are the availability of machinery and of raw material, and, of course, the command of the seas. Owing to a certain amount of foresight on the part of the Government, it would appear that they will overtake their military requirements without commandeering all the textile machinery, and a fair proportion should be available for normal purposes, and especially for making goods for export. The ample supply of raw material depends to a large extent on the third factor, which we must leave to the British Navy. Other difficulties can and will be overcome.

Again, after an interval of less than twenty-two years, we are asked to beat our ploughshares into swords and our pruning-hooks into spears. We do not complain, we only " trust that somehow good will be the final goal of ill." Twice in less than a generation we have seen our sons go forth to war. Again we see the structure of our trade trembling, rebuilt after the devastation of the Great War with so much patience and enterprise. There is no grumbling at these sacrifices. The spirit of our work people is that of the Crusaders of old. No doubts exist in our minds as to the righteousness of our cause or the final issue of the conflict. The work of two decades falls in ruins, but we will rebuild in a better world.


" Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.
" For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
" And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight conies, comes in the light;
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly !
But westward, look! the land is bright."









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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