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Tartan Ferret


August 1948

One of the incidents of a misspent youth was my attendance at the Geology Class at Edinburgh University. Part of the equipment for our fieldwork was a small phial of acid with a glass stopper and a little dropping rod. This was to test rocks for lime. Moistened with a little of the acid if the stone fizzed there was lime in it. If it did not fizz there was at once a whole list of common rocks that we need not bother about. So properly clothed in vest and jacket - not in the slovenly pullover habit of the present generation - I carried the little phial snugly in my waistcoat pocket. On one of our expeditions, as I walked along white dust kept appearing down the front of my trousers and, though brushed off, the supply was continually renewed. Later the phial fell at my feet, and on taking off my waistcoat I found all the lining and the pocket burnt out through the leakage of the acid. I thought it almost miraculously good luck that the outer parts of my suit were quite undamaged. It was not till years later that I recognised that this was no miracle, but that I had just been introduced to the ordinary process of carbonising. The cotton linings and pockets had been reduced to powder but the wool had remained unharmed.

Carbonising is the process of removing by chemical treatment vegetable matter of all kinds from wool of all kinds. It is based on the fact that vegetable matter, that is to say, cellulose, can be destroyed, or reduced to something very like ashes, by the action of acids, whereas wool, that is to say, keratin, is more or less impervious to their action. " Revolutionised " is a badly overworked word, but it is often used with less justification than in describing the effect of carbonising on the Woollen Trade. Burrs and seeds used to be a very serious deterrent to the wool buyer, an equally serious loss to the wool grower, and a heartbreaking problem to the manufacturer of woollen clothes of all kinds at all stages. Well do we remember as children the discomfort - almost agony - of new underclothing until we had located and removed the little burr hooks which even the most careful knitter could never remove entirely from the thread. In these days carbonising was not applied to high-grade wools, and the manufacturer relied on a wide variety of machines devised for the removal of the burrs. None of them was perfect and in spite of care individual burrs broke up and there was nothing for it but to hand pick the finished product, at best a slow job, at worst an almost impossible problem.
Although the burr is by no means the only bad seed to be found in wool it is by far the most difficult to remove. It is the seed of medicago maculata or arabica a small low-growing plant allied to clover and alfalfa. It is moreover a valuable fodder plant in hot and poor country where fodder is scarce, as over a large part of Australia. As it appears in the wool the ripe seed is about the size of a large pea, but is a little flatter. On close examination you will find this is really a tightly coiled pod about two inches long, and when you uncoil the neatly packaged pod it drops the ripe and shiny seeds and leaves in your hands a couple of strands with sharp little hooks all down one side. These strands look rather like some kind of wiry centipede with little horny hooks for legs. It is these hooks which become utterly entangled in the wool and make it almost impossible to pull even fragments of the pod clear of the wool.

This very curious construction is one of Nature's ways of getting her products hitchhiked round the world - most ingenious and completely successful. There is probably no other seed in which this spreading mechanism has been so perfectly developed. The parachutes of thistles and dandelions and the explosions of the broom pods are amateur efforts compared with this spreading mechanism of the burr. There are now few wool countries in the world, excepting Asia, where the burr has not gained a footing. It has even forced its way into the British Flora, though it is still looked upon as an enemy alien. It is an attractive little plant, and we have illustrated, in the initial letter of this article, the appearance of the seed under the microscope.

Perhaps the next worst seed is the Australian Bidi-Bidi, but nothing is really a good second to the burr. The burr has named the machines which it defeated. It has named the process of picking out bits of vegetable matter - Burling or Birling; the vegetable bits themselves - Burls ; the trade of taking them out in which the women are called Birlers more often than Pickers. Burrs and Bidi-Bidi are by no means the only seeds that infest wool. There are many grasses that are a considerable nuisance, and of these the worst from the grower's side is hordeum murinum, the aulns or ears of which even pierce the skin the sheep, sometimes so badly as to cause death to the sheep and in any case serious damage to the hides.

The Central Wool Committee at Sydney has published a monograph on seeds annoying to the sheep farmer. Its title is " Vegetable Matter in the New South Wales Wool Clip," and in it over seventy types and species are listed or illustrated. Unfortunately it is one thing to recognise and name your enemies, but to deal with them is a very different matter. In the vast areas across which the flocks of the world graze, no control of these plants seems possible. The variety is astonishingly large, and includes many of the clover group - which bear away the prize for efficiency -many grasses, some even dangerous to the sheep themselves like the hordeum I have mentioned, ferns, which are chiefly mischievous as staining the wool a golden brown, thistles, even forest trees such as some of the Australian oaks and blue gums.

All the time while the burrs were triumphing over the mechanics another form of warfare was developing. It had long been known to the chemists that cellulose, which is the principle material of the framework of all plants, could be destroyed by most of the common acids. So away back in the years about the middle of last century very extensive efforts and experiments were made to find a controlled process by which the vegetable matter could be removed without destroying the wool in which it was mixed. In Great Britain alone, between 1855 and 1876, sixty-nine patents were taken out. Mr Jarmain of Kirkheaton, near Huddersfield, very kindly had this list extracted for me from the records of the Patents Office. French and German names appear on the list besides our own English names, and show how widespread was the effort to solve the problem. The early difficulties of making the trade efficient and profitable can be deduced from the number of patents which subsequently lapsed. It was in 1865 in the middle of this strenuous period that H. Sikes and G. Jarmain took out their patent. The date was 12th April and the patent No. 1042. This was the first real commercial success, and may be claimed as the foundation of the large carbonising trade of this country. It is still fundamentally the process used by Jarmains of Kirkheaton, where the grandson of one of the original patentees is now the head of the business. The Continent of Europe was also working on the problem, but our prominence was natural enough for we were, and are, by far the biggest manufacturers of woollen materials in the world.

Sikes and Jarmain in the preamble to their patent indicate very definitely the widespread efforts that were being made to improve the process of carbonising. They use the word " Improvement " and only apply the word " Invention " to various details of the manipulation of the wool. These articles are not the place for actual instructions of how to do the various processes we describe, but some of our readers who like figures might like to know the patent gives instructions for both hydrochloric and sulphuric acids. With hydrochloric of the density of 1-14 a bath of 1 part of acid to 6 or 8 parts of water was to be heated to 200° F., and the wool soaked for fifteen minutes. Alternatively sulphuric acid of 1-85 density was to be used 4 to 6 per cent., and in the cold bath the wool was to soak for about twelve hours.

Then in any mill a certain amount of cotton inevitably strays into the material, and especially into the wastes made in each process, because at so many points and in so many machines and processes are used string and ropes, and packing cloths and thread, canvas, and dusters. In former days, in New Zealand and Australian wools, wax matches were a dreadful plague. The shearers and the scourers used " vestas " and, of course, many got swept up with the wool or were thrown into the scouring machines as a safe way to extinguish them. The scouring there, or later on in the mills, washed off the wax and left a whole lot of little bits of soft spun cotton which broke up in the preparatory processes and contaminated a whole lot of wool. In the same sort of way in Chinese wools, such as cashmeres, there was and is constant bother over little rags and fragments of the blue cotton that is the usual workman's clothing in China - the trade has now overcome most of these troubles by closer supervision in the packing and sorting.

Now you may say why all this fuss over a few specks of cotton or suchlike. The answer is simple. Very few wool dyes dye cottons. The result is that cotton, invisible in the undyed wool stays undyed, and so in the dyed and finished goods every scrap or tick or tiny fragment of cotton stays white and becomes glaringly evident. To darken those snowflakes often " burr dyes " are used, usually by adding them to the soap in washing off the cloth, but this is only a palliation, not a cure. These burr dyes are really simply cotton dyes which have no effect whatever on the wool.

Mechanically, then, the problem was to get the acid into contact with the sticks and seeds in the wool without spoiling the wool itself - for wool is not entirely acid proof. As in all the processes of woollen manufacture the principle is very simple, but it takes a high degree of skill, care, and experience to do the job well. On the Continent the gas method has been most fully developed. In this the acid in the form of gas is passed through the wool and as the vegetable matter has greater affinity for the acid than the wool it attacks and destroys the vegetable matter first. The wool is then put through crushing rollers to reduce the burned seeds to powder, dusted, and then the acid is neutralised in an alkaline bath.

We shall describe the wet process a little more in detail though fundamentally it is the same as the gas process. Usually the wool is first washed to remove the natural oils which tend to waterproof the vegetable matter and prevent the acid from getting at it. The wool is then passed through a bath of weak acid, generally ordinary sulphuric acid, but within limits any acid will do as witness my waistcoat in our opening story. The wool may then be very lightly washed off in clean water just to remove any surplus acid - but this is not essential.

The surplus water is then removed by squeezing or otherwise as the carboniser may fancy, and then the wool passes into the drying chamber. Here heat is applied slowly, and at the end, when the wool is nearly dry, the heat is raised to about 200° F. It seems that during the slow drying the acid, which of course does not evaporate, gradually concentrates in the vegetable matter and helped by the heat reduces it to black cinder, this cinder is then crushed or beaten and the dust is removed by suction fans. The clean wool then passes to the neutralising tanks where all trace of any acid remaining in the wool is removed. This is one of the simple details that must be very thoroughly performed, for if the acid is left in patches the wool will dye unequally. Acids have great fondness for one of the principal groups of dye- stuffs, the acid dyes. Any excess of acid in one part of the wool will pretty surely precipitate the colour unevenly into the yarn and then into the cloth or knitted garment with dire results. Moreover it is one of these faults that cannot be seen at all by examining the wool or the yarn or the cloth, and the fault only shows when it is too late to do anything about it.

It is quite beyond our idea to give the long list of "noxious weeds" as they are officially called, with which the carboniser has to deal. We have mentioned how many plants contribute their quota of trouble. To the carboniser they are all just vegetable matter dealt with in the same way by being burnt up with acid. The acid process has almost completely superseded all the mechanical processes, so that they can really be ignored by every modem manufacturer. It is as well that this is so, for in the last fifty or sixty years the "noxious weeds" have spread and multiplied all over the world, and were it not for the perfecting of carbonising our troubles would be endless, and what is worse, increasing. This is of course part of the price we have to pay for modern transport and world-wide trade. It is another way in which we are now "One World."

For some purposes it is easier to deal with the wool after it is woven into cloth. Here the process is virtually the same. It is entirely a matter of convenience like dying in the wool or the cloth. The woven cloth as it comes from the loom goes through the usual processes of inspecting, darning, and so forth. It is then washed as usual to remove the working oils. It is then put into a bath of acid and water and thoroughly impregnated with the solution. The web of cloth is then passed through an ordinary drying machine, but rather hotter than for the usual drying. When absolutely dry the piece is crushed or shaken, most usually in an ordinary cloth milling machine. As has been described in the treatment of the wool the cloth is then thoroughly neutralised. It then steps back into the ordinary routine of the finishing processes. The whole work would be perfectly simple if it were not that acid destroys a lot of materials besides burrs ! But for many purposes it is much easier and better than having to pick the cloth in the finished state with all the risks of damaging a fine surface or of making actual holes in the fabric.
But there is another side to this business of carbonising. Wool as a raw material is very valuable. It is the most perfect clothing material that man has discovered. It is vastly more adaptable than furs. It can be made into an infinite variety of materials and used for an infinite number of purposes over and above our clothing. In the form of bunting we cheer ourselves with flags and banners. It covers the ink rollers of our printing machines. In the form of felts its uses are almost as various as in our particular form of woven cloth. We sleep on it and under it. It covers our windows, our furniture, our floors, but to mention all the uses of wool would fill the whole of this "Scottish Woollens."

Just because of this universality of wool we cannot afford to waste any. So a vast world-wide trade has slowly grown up for the collection of all these wool materials when they are worn out. All these old worn-out articles are carefully sought out by little men who wander through our streets collecting rags, bones bottles, and suchlike. Gradually these little trickles converge on the waste merchants, who classify the rags. They also collect the even more valuable waste products of the cloth and knitting mills, the tailors, the clothiers, and the garment makers in general. All this huge mass of material is dealt with as carefully and as skilfully as the original wools are dealt with, and for the most part it is sold at such great centres as Dewsbury in Yorkshire. Before the war material from every comer of Europe and much of Asia used to find its way to the skilful classifiers of Dewsbury. A great amount of complicated machinery and a vast amount of ingenuity, experience, and skill go to the proper preparation of these " wastes " before they are ready to be reabsorbed into the Woollen Trade. Nor are these reincarnations to be despised, though each reincarnation shortens the fibre, for so varied are the original raw materials and so varied the rags that many "shoddies" are better than many "virgin" wools. Here is the great stumbling-block for the wool labeller, for many a cloth containing what must be described as "reused" wool, that is, "shoddy," may be far better and more expensive than a cloth that can honestly be described as" pure new wool."

A queer, romantic trade this in-gathering of old clothes if we look beyond the unsavoury presence of this ceaseless salvage. The collectors in the hidden parts of eastern cities bartering little trinkets for an old coat; new blankets for old all over the civilised and uncivilised world; they visit alike the slum and the palace; all the capitals, all the villages of the world. Slowly as by some mysterious attraction the old garments and scraps of material make their way to such centres as Dewsbury. There knowing eyes appraise their value and allocate their use. On the preparing tables skilful hands rip out the seams, cut away pockets and linings, every scrap of the structure of the garment that might contain cotton or linen. These bits are handed over to the carboniser, who burns out the sewing cotton, and the linings, and then the whole goes through the complex and careful processes which will start the wool on a new life of usefulness. There is a rather subtle distinction between the product of these old garments .and the more aristocratic cuttings from the makers-up which have never been in use. These are "shoddy," the old clothes are made into "Mungo," a word of mythical origin. The story goes that the carding foreman in the mills of one of the early experimenters sought out the master with the complaint that his blend wouldn't go. "It mun go, lad," was all the comfort he got. Well, the Yorkshire spinner does claim now that he can spin "anything with two ends!"

Up till the time of the First World War we in the Scottish Woollen Trade knew nothing of these mysteries. But wools were becoming scarce. The whole woollen manufacturing districts of Europe were devastated and we were left to clothe the armies of our European Allies and a good deal of yours too. Men and women worked night and day and made a vast and marvellous quantity of every variety of cloth needed. But supplies were low, so the Government organised the intricate salvage system of the United Armies. We were given up to 35 per cent. for our battle-dress khaki, a "shoddy" with a picturesque and strangely romantic name that told tales of battlefields and camps and hospitals. "Old trousers seamed; seams carbonised and returned to bulk." But in the Scottish Woollen Trade we are not to be beaten. In a short time we overcame our fear of a material we had all been brought up to despise, and we did as well as the best.

A young man regretted to the great Dr Johnson that his attempts to become a philosopher had all ended in failure because cheerfulness would break through. The late Mr Mombert also found that even in the Wool Trade cheerfulness would break through, so we end on a somewhat frivolous note by quoting lesson VII. of his "The Wool Trade : A Guide for Beginners." Those who wish to continue the course will find the complete set in "Rhymes of the Wool Market."

A Burr is quite a common seed
That looks just like a centipede,
When, in the combing, it uncoils
And spreads itself among your noils.
When you observe them first, no doubt
You do your best to pick them out;
But in the end you'll find it wiser
To send them to the carboniser.
For, if they're woven in a shirt,
Men scratch themselves until they hurt;
And if girls get them in their undies
They musn't go to Church on Sundays,
For, when they're kneeling down in prayer
They shouldn't scratch themselves and swear.









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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