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Tartan Ferret


This article, written in June 1936 by J.C. Hutcheson*, and although somewhat dated, gives an excellent background to the art of spinning


" And all the women that were wise hearted did spin with their hands."


Spinning is one of the oldest industries in the world and, in its various forms and materials, one of the most useful to mankind. Textiles of all sorts, woven or knitted, from fine woollens to hairy homespuns, from silk to sackcloth, from linen or cotton to fireproof asbestos, all are made from spun yams. Spinning is also responsible for twines for fishing and tying up parcels, and for hawsers for mooring transatlantic liners to the quay. In short, it has innumerable uses.
The theory of spinning is simply that fibres, arranged longitudinally, and then twisted, will give a long, continuous thread, which will be as strong as the material used will allow. In primitive times the fibre had to be teased out by hand to a well-mixed mass, which was put on a stick or distaff, usually attached to the waistband or tucked under the left arm, and from this a few fibres or hairs were drawn off and twisted into yarn. Until a century and three-quarters ago, it was entirely a hand process. Even to the present day, hand-spinning lingers in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and in many parts of the world the machine has not displaced the wise-hearted women who worked at the curtains for Solomon's Temple.

As twisting the end of a thread in the fingers was very laborious, some other means had to be found. The earliest of these was the spindle. This was a stick from eight to thirty inches in length, weighted with a whorl near one end to help it to spin, and with a notch at the other. This is illustrated in Fig. 1, in which c is the wool fibres from the distaff, b the whorl or weight which gives force to the spindle a. To this the yarn was attached, and it was twirled in the fingers or between the right thigh and the palm of the hand, and allowed to fall towards the ground, suspended by the yarn which was being spun. When this became too long, a length was wound round the spindle, caught in the notch, and another length begun.

The whorl was usually of stone or metal, but ancient spinsters were not particular, for any balanced solid little weight can serve to keep the spindle twirling. In the Scottish Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh there are two examples, one made of peat and the other of a potato. At a later date, probably about the fourteenth century in Europe - though 3000 years ago in India - this spindle was placed in a bearing, and rotated by a band passing over a groove in the circumference of the whorl and round a large wheel which was turned by hand. This was known as the " Muckle wheel" in Scotland, and is illustrated by our second drawing, drawn like the spindle from an example in the Scottish Antiquarian Museum.

The next difficulty to be overcome was the winding up of the yarn on the spindle as it was spun, and it is interesting to note that on a modem spinning mule this still gives more trouble than the actual spinning. To the simple spindle was added a flyer, which rotated on it and was driven by a second band from the same large wheel, but which had a whorl of a slightly different size, causing it to rotate at a slightly different speed. The difference in speed of rotation, or the amount by which the one overtook the other, wound the yarn on the spindle, and thus turned the spinning into a continuous process. This more complicated arrangement is illustrated in our third figure. Here a is the spun yarn on its bobbin which is rotated by the right-hand pulley, b is the flyer which winds the yam on to the bobbin. The series of little hooks enables the winding to be controlled by hooking the yarn successively into one after the other and so spreading it along the bobbin, c represents the fibres from the distaff or whatever arrangement has been used to hold the oiled and carded wool. It passes through the hollow spindle by which means the twist is controlled.

A modern spinning mule is an adaptation of the simple spindle, whilst a spinning frame is an adaptation of the spindle and flyer. Having reached the modern mill, we must begin with the raw wool and follow it through the processes preparatory to the actual spinning. These are many and, under present-day conditions, very exacting. One cannot mix up white and natural brown wool and sell the resultant mixture, whatever it may turn out to be. A shade has to be matched exactly, and may consist of one colour to form a solid shade, or several, with or without white, to form a mixture. Colour itself has been written about elsewhere in this series, and this article is only concerned with it indirectly.

Blending wools is a very important feature of good spinning, and it varies widely, depending upon the desired result. Certain costume cloths presently in vogue require blends which might turn an orthodox wool foreman's hair grey. Some of these queer blends mix fine, short Merino with long coarse wools more suitable for carpets, or ostrich feathers and shredded cellophane - or almost any fantastic fibres - but apart from freaks such as these, great skill and knowledge of the characteristics of wools from different countries and of sheep, as well as of cloth-finishing, are required to make a blend which will give a strong level yam and the desired handle, whether soft, crisp, or leathery. Once the wool blend is settled, and has been mixed and dyed, the colours must be carefully weighed out in their proportions and again mixed, which is not such a simple process as might be imagined. It is essential that the colour of the whole making of yarn be level from beginning to end. For instance, without the greatest care in the work, too much white might show in the second half of the batch.

To illustrate this, let us say that a quantity of a certain mixture is required, say, one thousand pounds altogether. Suppose this needs, to produce the correct shade, seven hundred of dark brown, two hundred of fawn, and one hundred of white. The method employed to avoid shading is to spread on the floor of the blending room layers of dark brown and white alternately, using perhaps one hundred and fifty pounds of the dark brown and all the white, then, taking an armful from top to bottom of the pile, as one might cut a many layered sandwich cake in order to get equal amounts of each flavour, this is put through a mixing machine. A second layout is made, this time of the whole batch, in layers of brown, the brown and the white we have already mixed, brown again, fawn, brown, brown and white, and so on until all the colours are used up. Again slicing from top to bottom, this is put through the mixing machine, and the result should be a level shade.

To ensure fast dyeing, the natural fat and all other dirt must be washed out of the wool, but as oil of some sort helps wool to card and spin and counteracts the electricity in dry wool, a special oil is added, usually whilst the mixture is travelling in a thin layer along the feed-board of the mixing willey. This having been done, the wool - blended, matched as near as possible for colour, opened, mixed, and oiled - is ready for carding. We are now faced with another problem. The yarn to be produced must be of a uniform weight throughout. To this end each portion of the wool fed to the carding machine is automatically weighed and the correct amount fed - so many ounces per minute. From this point onwards a careful check must be kept on the weight.

Carding wool consists of passing the oiled wool between finely adjusted rollers, covered with innumerable small sharp wire teeth called card clothing. These pluck each lock as it comes along, until every individual fibre has been pulled out and rearranged. This card clothing is like a fine wire brush, about as long as the bristles of a toothbrush. Another article in the series deals with the difference between carding and combing and the respective woollen and worsted cloths which result. (Harrison Archives)

At this point the colour is finally checked very carefully and any necessary correction made. In the batch we have been following, a few pounds more of fawn might be required, or perhaps, if the brown dyeing were too yellow, the addition of a small quantity of a redder brown would be necessary to bring it to the exact shade of the standard.

The wool must next be " condensed," that is, formed into thin ribands or " slivers " which, when twisted, form the yarn. There are several ways of doing this, the most common in Scotland being to use a roller covered with the ordinary card clothing from which the wires have been cut away in rings right round it, to form gaps of, say, one-quarter of an inch in every inch. This roller is the last on the machine. It is called the doffer - a nice old English word with a flavour of bygone days lingering about it - and is probably about thirty inches in diameter. As it revolves, it only picks up wool on its clothed three-quarter of an inch rings, and the ribands of wool from these are removed and rubbed between oscillating leather rubbers to form thin regular slivers, like threads without any twist, and these are wound on spools.
The scene now moves from the carding to the spinning shed. What is now called the self-acting spinning mule is an elaboration of Hargreave's Spinning Jenny, invented in 1764, which was able to spin eight threads simultaneously. It has been improved by Crompton and others, until to spin between four and five hundred threads at the same time is now quite common in the woollen industry. A drawing of a modem mule was given in Plate II., and by contrast Plate VIII. sent out with this number illustrates the old simple method of the distaff and spindle. The spools of condensed sliver are laid on the delivery drums of the mule, and each end is passed between rollers and given a turn round the spindles, which are on a movable carriage. When the mule is set in motion, these spindles revolve, giving twist to the sliver. At the same time the rollers deliver more sliver and the carriage moves away, keeping the yam taut. When about two-thirds of the way out, the delivery rollers stop, but the carriage continues to the end of its two-yard travel, and the yam is reduced to its correct weight by stretch, the fibres, lubricated by the oil on them, slipping alongside one another till they are finally bound by the correct amount of twist.

If an uneven piece of sliver is twisted, the twist all runs into the thin places. If the yarn is now stretched, the stretching will all take place where there is least twist, that is to say, at the thick bits, and will thin them down and automatically level the thread. This happens from the time the rollers cease to deliver sliver until the carriage stops in its farthest out position. Additional twist is now added, the amount depending upon the purpose and required strength of the yarn. Practically speaking, the less twist the softer the handle - the more twist the greater the strength. The carriage now moves in again to the delivery rollers, winding up the spun yam as it goes, and then the whole process is repeated. The whole complicated action of spinning and winding is automatically controlled. The boys and girls who tend the machine have nothing to do but mend threads that break and empty the machine when its bobbins are full. This is by far the most complex and wonderful of all the wonderful machines of the textile trade and its official name is the Self-acting Mule.

Many of the best cloths are made of twofold, threefold, or other fancy yarns which require additional processes, but with that exception, the yarn, when wound on to suitable bobbins, is ready to be woven into cloth.

* J.C. Hutcheson worked with Beckett & Robertson, spinners of Innerleithen, near Peebles and was the uncle of Colin W. Hutcheson, a Tartans Authority Governor (2004) and editorial contributor to this website.


Hand Spinner
This shows the most primitive method of spinning - with the Distaff or Rock and Spindle. The mechanism required is nothing more than a couple of bits of stick and a weight of some sort, and it is a sad lesson to some of us to compare our efforts, helped by the newest machinery, with the work of a really skilled user of these primitive tools. We have gained speed and little more. Edward Harrison 1936.
Machine Spinner
This plate illustrates the Self-Acting Woollen Mule, or, as it is known for short in Scotland, the 'Jeeny.' It is a machine of wonderful intricacy, the cumulative result of countless invetnions and patents. Thw workers, known as 'piecers' mend or 'piece' the threads that break, and 'stip' or empty the machine when the bobbins are full and put in a new set of bobbins or 'pirns.' Edward Harrison June 1936.







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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