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The Fine Wools


February 1956

Merino or Botany or Saxony. Three names for the same thing. Our mothers or our grandmothers at any rate used to wear " merino " dresses, but for such purposes this name has faded out. Botany has been adopted by the fine side of the English Worsted Trade as the name for yarns made of fine wool and for the wool itself. The name Saxony has been annexed by Scotland for yam and cloth made of the same wools by the woollen process.


No animal has been so much interfered with as sheep. Everywhere we have tried to modify the beasts to suit our needs. To start with there were many natural varieties of sheep and from the earliest times we have watched over our flocks in every part of the world excepting the tropics. Sheep gave milk and meat and clothing, skins to begin with, wool as we gradually rose in the social scale. Everywhere in ancient days wealth was chiefly centred in our flocks and herds - sheep and cattle, though chiefly sheep.


Today the trade in wools may almost be divided into cheviots and merinos-more logically into coarse and fine. There are great quantities of wools that hardly touch our clothing trade but are made into carpets, felts, and such like articles. We in Scotland who own the name Cheviot would by no means admit them to our territory. Cheviots we have already dealt with in two of our papers, so now to complete our work we must deal with the fine wools.


It is a very big subject so we must take it in stages. Merino Sheep form the foundations of the world's fine wools. The Merino Sheep is Spanish in its origin. In the Middle Ages English wool was greatly sought after and seems to have been the finest generally available. It was chiefly in wool that English fortunes were founded in the Middle Ages. Most elaborate means were taken to preserve as nearly as possible a monopoly of both the wool and the sheep. But for all this development we must refer the enquirer to such books as Eileen Powers' " The Wool Trade in Medieval History." This book was a sort of preliminary canter in the Oxford Ford Lectures and was meant to lead up to a general history of the Wool Trade to be undertaken along with Professor Postan - a scheme unfortunately stopped by Miss Power's untimely death.


In 1464 or thereabouts in spite of all precautions some Cotswold fine woolled sheep were taken to Spain. They were crossed with the native Merino Sheep and these crossbred sheep formed the basis of the vast flocks of fine woolled sheep that gradually spread to Germany, the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, Tasmania, and South America. They were smuggled out of Spain to France and thence to Germany and it was their introduction to Silesia and Saxony that gave us in Scotland our name of Saxony for our fine cloths. It so happened that the first or at least the early introduction of fine wools to the Borders was from Saxony, not from the Colonies.


It is interesting to see how old songs turn up again. Australia is just now taking a plebiscite of their wool men to decide if the export embargo on sheep should be abandoned. Thirty years ago the Federal Government banned the export of breeding merinos, following the ancient efforts of Spain, and England and France. In Scotland where perhaps the finest cattle are raised we make a lot of money from the sale of prize stock. New Zealand is spending vast efforts to tame and to adapt their 300,000 acres of sand hill country to pasture and forestry. They are using the same method we have been using in Scotland for our much smaller problem, the preliminary planting of marram grass to fix the sand and prepare it for trees and sheep. Perhaps some of Australia's merinos will fly across and populate these wastes.


In 1770 Captain Cook in the Endeavour was the first of our people to touch Australia. He landed near where Sydney now stands. In his expedition Sir John Banks, a wealthy English botanist, voyaged with him. Sir John was so delighted with the innumerable new plants he found when they landed that he named the small roadstead " Botany Bay," and there the first settlement was founded in 1788 just fourteen miles from Port Jackson Heads. A few years later the settlement was moved to the magnificent site where Sydney now stands. But it was to Botany Bay that the first Merino Sheep were brought and so it came to pass quite naturally that Australian Merinos were called Botany Wools.


Remember, England - Britain, one might almost say - for centuries was by far the chief wool country in the world, so it was again natural that Britain developed the great prospects of Australia and New Zealand. Now the Commonwealth produces about half the world supply of wool and, at round 1,000 million lbs., Australia produces about half the Commonwealth wool, and most of it is Merino. When the Cape Merinos are added and the small clips from Tasmania, New Zealand, and South America, the importance of the Botany Wools can be understood.
So much for the names. It was again natural that London should develop into the chief market centre and in spite of the great rise to importance of local sales all over the world, in the primary markets in America and in Antwerp, London has remained the centre of the distribution trade.


Now it is to the London wool sales that the trade looks for guidance in prices and in supplies. Not only is Britain the chief distribution centre but until far on in the Great War when the United States displaced us we were the greatest wool users. We are now once more almost in our old position at the top of the list.


It was an evident convenience in so international and varied a market that some definite method of classifying wools should be devised. Wool and tops went under somewhat vague descriptions as Hog, Super, Wether, Fine, Medium, Low. Then gradually about 1850 it became the habit to quote the size of yarn to which the wool would spin. The English spinners had a system of stating the size or thickness of their thread by the number of hanks of 560 yards they could spin out of a pound of wool, so it came about that, let us say, 60s meant that 60 hanks of 560 yards each could be spun from a pound. That is theoretically. Actually the wool merchants being very optimistic men, the spinner would be rather put to it to get all that length of thread from his pound of 60s. Broadly speaking Botanies come down to 60s, Crossbreds from 56/58 for fine cheviot cloths, to 46s for rougher cheviots, down to the 40s and below that to blankets and such like, down again to carpets about 28s. In spinning qualities there are many other elements - length, softness, and so forth that modify these standard numbers for the spinner, but broadly speaking they do mean the thickness of the individual fibres. 60/64s is looked upon as average merino and forms the vast bulk of the wool. It is about 1200 hairs to the inch. 70s Super may be called about the finest ordinarily available in commerce and it is about 1500 to the inch. The finest available in small very select clips is 90s/100s ranging up to about 2000 fibres to the inch, and at the other end of the scale the cheviots range from about 1000 down to about 400. Quite at the top end of the scale stands Vicuna with about 2500, and Cashmere is not far behind, but these two wonderful wools, though they are actually very fine, do not depend for their exquisite qualities purely on the thinness of their fibres. We have to thank our Research Association in Leeds for finding these figures for us.


Most of this vast quantity of fine wool is made into worsteds - by the way the name comes from Worstead, a small village in Norfolk - and earns the name Botany, but a good part, especially the shorter clips, becomes our Saxonies.


As these papers are primarily concerned with Scottish Woollens we cannot go through all the complex history of the development of worsted manufacture which is elaborated in many large volumes. In his " History of Woolcombing " Burnley enumerates 481 patents in the century ending in 1889. Starting with Isaac Mills in 1723, it was not really till about fifty years later that the flood broke out. Almost every major invention in the Woollen Trade dates from that wonderful fifty years shared by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and behind all that progress stood Watt and his kettle - or perhaps it was Voltaire ?


A curious and interesting point in all this great development is the number of important inventions devised by men unconnected with the woollen trade or, in fact, with any industry at all. Arkwright the barber sets up his spinning frame and becomes a great industrialist. Hargraves the carpenter invents the spinning jenny. Crompton the small farmer fiddling in the orchestra of Bolton theatre thinks of the self-acting mule. Cartwright abandons Oxford and poetry and the Church to invent the power loom in 1784 and the first moderately successful mechanical comb in 1790 and thereby started the extinction of the ancient trade of hand-combing with its 50,000 combers. After that follows a wonderful list of ingenious men, mostly English. Hawksby in 1783, Toplis ten years later. Passman and Amatt - sometimes engineers like Donisthorpe and Rawson in 1835 and 1840, or men quite outside of the trade like Isaac Holden in his Lanarkshire country school at Hurlet. In all that wonderful procession Holden is the only important man we can claim as Scottish. His adventures prospered greatly along with Lister at Alston and in France during that most turbulent period. Holden's square motion comb at one time combed about half the tops in the world. Then Noble after fifty years of experiment patented the circular comb in 1853, possibly the most-used comb in this country now. And there were many cross entries in the credits for Donisthorpe and Rawson, and Lister came into the accounts of Noble's invention. There are crowded in such names as Gilpin and Collier in 1814, Platt in 1827, Hitchcock and Donisthorpe again in 1836, and the same recurrent name coupled with that of Lister produced the perfect nip comb in 1843. After that, inventions dealt with details only. Meantime on the Continent Josue Heilmann of Mulhausen, watching his daughters combing their hair, thought of a new mechanism and, along with Schlumberger, brought to perfection the third type of comb which is now the favourite machine used on the continent of Europe.


Although we are dealing primarily with Scottish Woollens it is interesting to find how the more ancient Yorkshire trade differs from ours. Long before the coming of the Flemings the West Riding had a large trade in Kersies, heavily milled cloths woven in units of 20 yards, 36 inches wide. Somewhat like our present-day Highland weavers, these weavers were small farmers and weaving was a secondary employment though practically universal. Their Kersies or Kersimeres were about 26 oz. to our 58-inch yard and were sold white ready to be dyed. The farm lands were distributed over the uplands and because of the heavy felting the cloth required, from early times power was used for milling or fulling. The many little fulling mills were necessarily set along the small streams and rivers in the narrow valley bottoms. Later to these were added the carding machines for preparing the wool and still later mechanised spinning. The weavers stayed in the uplands and this is the chief reason for the separation of spinning, weaving, and finishing which is the usual organisation at the present day. In Scotland our cloths were looser - not beyond the reach of hand milling. Also, as our trade developed much later, power was sooner to take over and so our tendency was to assemble our workers in the valleys along the rivers which supplied the only power available. Also owing to the shape of the land our cultivation was mostly in the valleys, and only the sheep lived amongst the hills. These various circumstances acting together laid the foundations for the very marked general differences in the trade organisation of Yorkshire and Scotland. Our firms are almost all " vertical," buying the wool and turning out the finished cloth. In Yorkshire that is the exception rather than the rule. Any of our readers who wish to explore these byways of social history further will find a lot of interesting details in such books as Crump and Ghorbal's " History of the Huddersfield Woollen Industry," published by the Tolson Memorial Museum in Huddersfield.


Another useful thing the merino sheep supplies is the base for nearly all cosmetics - Lanoline and Glycerine and many things with formidable names besides soda ash and other less recondite chemicals. These are extracted from the washing water from the wool-scouring machines. The sheep of course knew all about it and most successfully invented and produced the kindest and most perfect substance for hair dressing and for keeping their hidden skin soft and pliable. Some fine merinos lose up to 80 per cent. of their clipped weight when washed and not many lose less than 50 per cent. Of course a good deal of this loss is just sand and general dirt but there is enough of the " yolk," " suint" or wool grease left to make our ladies both happy and even more beautiful than they were originally.
So we come to the uses of Merino Wools. The comb produces a continuous ribbon called a " Top," from which worsted yam is spun. This contains the long part of the wool, and in making this Top it discards the short fibres which are called " Noils." Strictly speaking the Noil is a by-product, but a by-product so valuable and important to the woollen spinner as to be pretty nearly as expensive as the Top. The shorter merinos are made into a special kind of Top for the woollen man. This is broken into short lengths and sold as " broken Tops." These, along with much of the fleece wool, are used by the woollen spinner under the name of Saxonies. We have already dealt pretty faithfully with Worsteds and Woollens and have outlined the different and very fundamental effects of the two preparatory methods of spinning.


So we arrive at the end of our tale. Fortunately for us who live by wool there seems no chance of our inventing a process for making a fibre that can truly replace wool for the great majority of our clothing needs. Wool has a complex physical structure quite impossible to reproduce. Depending largely on that structure it possesses properties most valuable for clothes. It can absorb up to two-fifths of its dry weight without feeling damp and so can deal with perspiration to an extent which none of the synthetic fibres can manage. Made into thread it is strong, even if not so strong as nylon. It is elastic - more elastic than any artificial fibre - and thus is comfortable in use. Wool absorbs - and keeps - dyes of many sorts on the whole more firmly than other fibres. The curly and scaly form of wool tends to enclose more little air spaces in a fabric and so gains warmth. Wool contains as part of its normal make-up somewhere about 17 per cent. of water, varying with the surrounding atmosphere. Cotton only contains about 6 or 7 per cent. So wool has a far wider margin of variation to compensate for changing temperatures and conditions. It is also a better insulator both from its structure and its composition. Thus it is warmer in cold weather and cooler in hot. In fact - fortunately for us who live by wool - there is nothing that can replace wool - as yet - and it seems most unlikely that there ever will be

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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