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Tartan Ferret

November 1946

" For we that live to please, must please to live."

One of the facts that all historians sooner or later come up against is that few movements have definite beginnings. It is only when looked at from a long way off that they seem simple. The grand design of the New York skyline is quite undreamed of in the streets behind the water front. Nevertheless it is from that grid of gloomy chasms that springs the vision of fairy palaces that charms and delights the voyager from the Atlantic. So this historian of that little niche in industry, the Scottish Ladies' Trade, has found it pretty well impossible to put a date on its start. Of course in the ultimate view it never " started " at all for the women of Scotland have necessarily always worn Scottish Woollens, but we are really dealing with a definite and special phase of the clothing of our women folk when we use the term " Ladies' Trade." We mean, of course, that phase when our Scottish Woollens were designed and used for those people who consciously dressed decoratively and ornamentally, and not just to protect themselves from the weather and to keep themselves warm. Or perhaps it would be truer to say used our cloths for decorative occasions, for the making of clothes for decorative occasions has from very early times been a feature of human behaviour.

The first thing to remember is that our Scottish Woollen Trade is still very young as an industry. That is one of our advantages. The dew is hardly dry on our fields. We still preserve much of the freshness and keenness of our youth. We still enjoy ourselves, are still interested in experiment and adventure, are still seeking after something new. Our mills still remain small enough to be very personal in outlook. In Scotland in the days of the youth of the nation, while we were struggling for our existence against our strong and aggressive neighbour, England, our fine ladies made their ceremonial clothes - as in fact did our fine gentlemen - from cloths imported from Northern Italy, from France, from the Low Countries. A little later, when we had subdued our unruly neighbours, our gentlefolk wore English silks and satins as well and even men wore " guid braid claith " from England also. That took us up into the early years of last century. Then Queen Victoria led the great invasion of the Highlands and perhaps that was the beginning of our movement. Of course, that again goes back to the " Author of Waverley," the Great Unknown who turned out to be a lame Edinburgh lawyer, Walter Scott - undoubtedly the greatest national advertiser we ever had. But here again how far back are we to go ? When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed on the " Mayflower," how many years of oppression, what local persecutions had been needed to goad them to forsake for ever their Country, their friendships, and their old-established habits ?

Anyhow, by the middle of the nineteenth century quite a few of our wealthy invaders boldly made costumes for use on their Highland mountains - of course in these days even the young ladies did nothing so unladylike as shooting, but they followed the guns and they went out with the picnic baskets and the ponies, and helped to escort home the day's bag and the whiskered gentlemen with the guns and dogs. Then about the eighties these same ladies began to appear in London wearing " tweeds," and the term " tailor-made " was added to the fashion journalist's vocabulary; but these cloths were for the most part really men's cloths. This was the stage in the movement which we have described in our papers dealing with the development of our Scottish District Checks (Scottish Woollens, Nos. 6 and 7). In one direction this movement led to the adoption of protective colouring for our army and then of the armies of all the world. In another direction it led by slow degrees to the present very active stage of our entry into the Ladies' Trade proper.

About 1880 the Hillfoots district led off in the production of cloths quite definitely intended for ladies' wear. This group of small towns had always been on the border line of the Ladies' Trade for it was in the group, Alloa, Menstrie, Alva, Tillicoultry, that the shawl trade had been specially developed. It was of course to Paisley in the West Country that fell the honour of naming the finest and most elaborate of these garments which had become an almost essential part of the trousseau of every bride. The weaving of tartan shawls in the Hillfoots started about 1800. It was so successful that by the thirties the population had doubled. The weaving was carried on by small manufacturers owning two or three looms. They went to market twice or thrice each year to sell the shawls they had made. Up till the sixties this was the staple trade of the district. As it was a seasonal trade many of the weavers tramped back to the Borders or to Yorkshire for the other half of the year.

By 1870 there were some forty of these little manufacturers in Alva alone. Then gradually the hand looms were displaced by power looms and the trade changed from a handicraft to an industry in the modern sense. In this way these little towns formed a channel for the flow of highly skilled craftsmen from Yorkshire, who were one of the strongest influences in adding refinement and intricacy to our somewhat stolid weaving craft. A fine export trade to America was the natural reward of so much skill and energy. And then in a night the blow fell. It was silent and invisible but it was no less devastating to these little towns than the great fire was to San Francisco or the eruption of Mount Pelee to Saint Pierre. The blow was the M'Kinley Tariff of 1890. Perhaps if the politicians were imaginative enough to see the results of their work beforehand they would more often hesitate to impose destruction and misery on a helpless population. It is a long time since the question was asked: " Am I my brother's keeper ? "

All this time technique was improving - in the woollen trades as in all other trades. The historian looking at ancient Persian work or the tapestries and brocades woven in France and Lombardy in the Middle Ages may demur at this, and it would really be more proper to say mechanics and power and knowledge of their application had spread vastly. In our own lifetime, appreciation of beauty and the possession of beautiful things has gradually ceased to be the privilege of the few. We were among the first to pioneer this new knowledge, but as knowledge spread we Scottish manufacturers found that our neighbours in the South were improving their cloths and their colours and were little by little trespassing on the field of quality and beauty which we had considered our own. Then, after the Great War the clothier trade took a great bound forward and at the same time - spurred on by the example of America - gradually improved the qualities they worked. Thus they came up into the price category which brought Scottish Woollens within their reach.
While all these tendencies were moving our Scottish Woollens nearer and nearer to the Ladies' Trade, a few of the great designers, seeking after new effects and ideas, discovered that in the foundations - the " set-up " - of the Scottish Trade lay the possibilities of a most useful development. They saw that the small size of the firms went far to guarantee exclusiveness. This was further influenced by the scattered positions of the mills. And there is still another element. In provincial France the innkeeper has long recognised that his goodwill lies in his kitchen, so with great common-sense he is his own cook and no one can spoil his trade and hold him up to ransom. So in the Scottish Woollen Trade, the owners of the businesses recognise that designs and specialities are their goodwill and they are usually their own head designers and devisors of cloths. Moreover, we are an extremely conservative people and our " labour turnover " is very very small. Still further there is a very tough core in Scottish folk - we hate to be beaten, and will go almost any length before we admit some idea submitted to us is impracticable. The combination of all these features has made the Scottish Woollen Trade of great value to those sections of the Ladies' Trade that appreciate quality and originality. It is a type of trade that calls for co-operation between the dress designer and the cloth designer - but for the dress designer who cares to take the trouble the reward is certain.

The light weights needed in the finer part of the Ladies' Trade have always been a real difficulty, for yam spun on the Scottish Woollen system cannot be made so small as is possible on the English or Worsted system. We have dealt with these limitations inherent in the two types of yarn in several of the earlier numbers of Scottish Woollens and so need not elaborate them here. This has largely been overcome by the extended use of English Worsteds along with our own Woollen yarns. Partly the makers-up, or clothiers as they are now called - a hundred years ago it was we manufacturers who were called " clothiers " - have ceased to demand firm cloths and have learned how to use open, soft, fine, draping fabrics. A generation ago any clothier would have thought any manufacturer offering such cloths just silly.

Now there is opening before the trade still another possible development in the use of soluble materials in conjunction with wool. This is not so much new as showing lively signs of new development. In the past cotton has been used in some fabrics to act as a scaffolding for the weaver, the cotton being afterwards burned out by " carbonising " with acids of one sort or another. This ingenious use of a well-known process has been little more than a technical curiosity, but there are great possibilities in the soluble threads or fibre blend of the new alginate rayons made from seaweed. This development is not likely ever to become used on a great scale for it is obviously expensive to use a fairly dear material just to wash it out, but in the fine trade it promises a new scope for the novelty man.
We have not found it easy to discover what proportion of our trade is now devoted to the Ladies, but probably the estimate of one of our most experienced members is pretty near the mark when he suggests half, and that is a remarkable development for say twenty-five years. It is a proof of that liveliness and adaptability which we have always claimed for Scottish Woollens.

Today the range of materials for women made by our Scottish manufacturers is very wide and is growing. Six ounces to the broad yard is no longer a curiosity. We have seen samples almost as fine as cotton gauzes, making quite a serviceable appearance at less than two ounces. In a few years it is not unlikely that such cloths may be in fairly wide use.

Another change that has influenced this development in Scottish Woollens is the great spread of all kinds of sport amongst women. With all our modern science we have still no control over the weather and so for outdoor use the old requirements of clothing still govern us. Knitting has come in for outerwear and our Scottish Woollens blend better with knitted garments than the more dressy types in which Roubaix and Bradford excel.

But Fashion is a fickle jade. No one can tell what she may be up to next. There is no saying what further changes may be in store for Scottish Woollens, but that blend of conservatism and adaptability that has always been a national characteristic is not likely to fail us in the future. Fashion changes in the Ladies' Trade are rapid and somewhat bewildering to the cloth maker trying to plan his programme of production. His stocks are expensive and the variety of his raw material astonishingly great. The Fashion Trade and the Manufacturer have not yet settled down into that practical understanding of each other's needs that is essential, but that understanding will come. Meantime, transport and fashion journalism have made changes quicker and quicker. Not so long ago it took fashions six months to travel from New York to the Pacific Coast. Now there is hardly any " lag."

We finish up with a story. One of our members was lecturing to a Fashion Group in London not so long ago. To illustrate this terrific speedup he said: " Nowadays, fashions created in the Rue de la Paix on Monday reach London on Tuesday, New York on Wednesday, the Pacific Coast on Thursday..." At this point a voice in the audience mockingly interrupted, " When do they reach Scotland ? " To which our lecturer replied, " Scotland has been busy all the week preparing the fashions for next week."









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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