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Tartan Ferret

A Word of Introduction


November 1931


A large capital 'S' with a thistle in the backgroundScotland from its climate has always been a sheep country. Sheep, indeed, seem to have followed the ice northward as it retreated towards the Pole after the last glacial epoch, and so from very early times the use of wool for clothing developed, but how spinning and of weaving started is still a mystery and probably will so remain.The object of these leaflets is not to deal with antiquarian imaginings but to give interesting and useful information to those of us who deal in woollen cloths for our daily bread. During the tour of North America by our Delegates of the Scottish Woollen Manufacturers' Association in March and April of this year, they were continually asked such questions as "What is a Scotch Tweed ?" "How are we to know Scotch cloths ?"
"Who started Tartans ?" "What are District Checks - Bannockburns, Gunclub Checks, Glenurquharts ?" "What makes the difference between a Woollen and a Worsted Cloth ?" "What are Cashmeres and Vicunas ?" "Why does a Worsted get shiny sooner than a Woollen cloth ?"

In fact everywhere they were asked for information on every possible aspect of the trade ; information that would be both interesting and useful to salesmen dealing in our woollen cloths. So when the Delegates came home they recommended that we should send out a series of leaflets giving information on all sorts of points that might be of interest and to invite suggestions from salesmen who may wish to learn about any special subject. This is the first of the series, and it is our idea to send out a leaflet about every three months. So as to enable any salesmen who might wish to keep our leaflets for reference we are making them uniform in size, punching them for filing, and to any one who wishes we shall send a file cover in which to store them. If the series rouses enough interest to be continued, it should, little by little, collect quite a large quantity of information on the by-paths of history - for there is a lot of human interest wrapped up in the development of human clothing.

Another point we would like to make is this. Obviously the object of issuing these leaflets is not disinterested. We wish to rouse and maintain interest in our Scottish Woollens. We are wholehearted believers in the goodness of our cloths, but our leaflets are going to aim at giving absolutely accurate information on every subject on which we touch, and to collect and to correct this information we are going to use all the old experience gathered by all the workers in our old, intricate, and highly skilled industry. We aim at something quite different from ordinary advertisement. Something more akin to a scientific publication.

The first subject we deal with is the word "Tweed." It is a word that has passed into the English language completely. It is particularly attached to Scotland and is applied to woollen suiting and coating cloths of various stages of roughness from the coarsest homespuns down to finer but not very dressy cloths. In the medium and rougher types we have something just perfect for outdoor sports wear for temperate climates. All sportsmen have a love for ancient clothes, and good tweeds cannot be beaten for this purpose. They are almost everlasting. The non-conducting property of woollen-spun material - we shall deal with the difference between woollen and worsted spinning later - makes good tweeds a protection alike from heat and cold, the most equable wear possible. The applicability of colour renders it possible to choose colourings which will blend with any background. Modern machinery and modem knowledge have given us weights of cloths suited to any climate where it is possible to wear anything warmer than cotton or linen. Our Scottish Industry has suffered by the fame of its old staple productions.
In countries outside our own Islands the word has stood for the earlier and rougher types of cloth, and Tweeds have been taken for the only production of the Scotch mills. In consequence, overseas buyers have quite unnecessarily sought outside of Scotland for the finer, lighter, more elaborate cloths required by modern fashions.

The modern journalist and the modern advertiser have found that labels are almost necessary, so we now have a vast flock of names for cloths - practically all pure inventions or contortions of ordinary language or ordinary words suggesting the raw materials used in the cloths or suggesting nothing at all. These names for the most part are mere upstarts of unknown parentage, but the older names are aristocratic and can trace their descent from some true meaning and origin in the utilities that form the basis of all languages, and the Scottish National Word "TWEED " is one of these.

In weaving, the simplest structure is the interlacing of two sets of threads over one under one. This is the foundation weave of most primitive cloths and is typical ofClose-up pen & ink drawing of a plain weave fabric the Irish woollens such as Donegals. Curiously enough the Navaho A pen & ink drawing of the arrangement of yarns in a twill weave.Indians have evolved an unbalanced version of this primitive weave in which only one set of threads shows on the surface and in which they have worked out most beautiful and elaborate designs for their blankets. The Scotch weavers, seeking a denser and heavier cloth, evolved the idea of the twill in which the threads cross over two under two and at the same time move forward to the right or left. We cannot claim this weave as the sole and only property of Scotland. It is a logical outcome of the growth of the craft and has been used over all the world in weaving, which, being based in necessity - like the potter's art - is one of the most ancient and most widespread of all arts. This construction - known by such names as the "Two and Two Twill," the "Cassimere Twill," or in Scotland as the "Common Twill" - became the everyday weave in Scotland, and so Scotch Cloths came to be called "Twills," or in the Scotch form of the word, "TWEEL."

This word "Tweel," in fact, became applied even to the thread used in the weaving, as any lover of our old Scotch songs may well remember - "And ye maun reel the tweel, John," said Mistress Grumly. Now the Scottish Woollen Trade being an ancient craft, having its roots in the everyday needs of the people, is remarkably little centralised, as is always apt to be the case where a trade has been introduced full-fledged from outside as was the English Woollen Trade. Both population and sheep were more dense in the South - or perhaps as there were few of either as compared with modern ideas, we had better say both sheep and people were commoner in the South. Moreover, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the Highlands had only recently emerged from barbarism. So when the time came for the old crafts to turn into industries and want power it was natural enough that it was in the Tweed Valley that the greatest concentration of the Woollen Trade was found - and although the river had long been the much-disputed and fought for Border in the days before we finally annexed England, it was on the Scottish side of the Borders that the trade developed. Thus it happened that the early export trade in Scottish Woollens began from the Valley of the Tweed, and the cloths became associated in the minds of our Southern customers with the Tweed. Why should the people of London, let us say, have ever heard about our River ? It is only a small stream after all, perhaps eighty miles, say a three hours' run from where its shining springs bubble up amidst the low green hills, empty save for the sheep and the lonely cottages of the shepherds, down to its mouth at Berwick where it flows into the North Sea. It is a hurried stream, no longer navigable a mile from its mouth and so carrying no commercial fame.

About the second half of the eighteenth century the effects of the Union with England began to tell on Scotland. For centuries the energies of Scotland had been spent on defence against the attacks of her powerful neighbour - now they were released and blossomed forth in one of the most magnificent of National revivals. In literature Bums and Sir Walter Scott were the great manifestations, and Scott's researches in the great stores of Border song and story and his own novels and poems had made ; the Tweed famous beyond any other stream. The fame of Sir Walter is difficult to appreciate at this distance of time. One little anecdote is suggestive. In the Paris Exhibition of Pictures - now known as the Salon - in 1831 over forty of the pictures took their subjects from Sir Walter's works.
Then came a curious and happy error. About 1840 a quantity of Tweel was invoiced by Watsons of Hawick to James Locke, a London merchant. The writing of the word "Tweel" was hurried, and it is pleasant to think of the London merchant having spent the evening before dreaming over some entrancing Border story by the Great Wizard, and with the silvery waters of the Tweed humming in his ears next day he misread the invoice absent-mindedly, and cast the glamour of romance over our Scottish Cloths and called them "TWEED."







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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