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Vicuna

No. 16. February 1937

Vicuna has become an almost fabulous word. A few years ago, round about the beginnings of the Great War, it looked as though the beast itself would soon be a fabulous animal.
The word itself has become, like many other words, deflected by trade use - or truly by trade abuse - so far from its proper and immediate meaning that without the adjectives "pure" or "real" it means something quite different from what it should. The Woollen Trade is perhaps no worse than many another great trade in thus misusing our native language, but it has a very long list of black marks against it.


A number devoted to Woollen Abuses would be interesting and would cover a surprisingly wide field of human activity. Most of these words have passed through a stage of doubtful honesty, some to emerge in respectability: "His honour rooted in dishonour stood." Homespuns no longer remember they ever had a home. Harris had to be reminded by Government that it originated in the Western Isles of Scotland. In the marketplace Vicuna occupied a midway position. It is a real material of so exquisite a fineness that it is capable of imparting the most beautiful smoothness, softness, and closeness to fine black coatings. During the whole of the nineteenth century, and especially in the days of Queen Victoria, such coatings and such coats were the necessary badge of respectability in all the professions and for all business men throughout most of Western civilisation. In this way it came about that to have a black Vicuna coat was the last word in respectability. There never was more than a most infinitesimal quantity of Vicuna wool available, so it became the habit of the West End tailors of London to describe all fine black smooth-finished " broad cloths " as Vicuna : and then less fine cloths, and finally the name sank past the levels of respectability and finished its rake's progress as a blend of shoddy and cotton. In this d├ęgringolade the old reprobate retained but one memory of the ancestral halls from which evil living had banished him - the cloth was still black and still close in finish.


The Vicuna is one of the camel tribe. Its scientific name is Llama Vicuna. It is a native of Southern Peru, and the present geographical distribution of the animal is surprisingly narrow considering that it is not difficult to keep it alive and healthy in zoological gardens in many parts of the world. Its natural home is the high uplands of the Andes, between Lake Titicaca and the coast. These lands lie about 10,000 to 13,000 feet above the sea, and even there attempts at regular domestication seem to have failed completely.

The Vicuna is a graceful, swift little animal, slim and neat like a small antelope. Verrill, in "Under Peruvian Skies" describes how he has seen them on the Sumbay Pampas where "they easily outrun the trains and vanish in the distance ahead," even when the trains are running at forty-five miles an hour. They wander about in small groups consisting of one male with three or four females. They are by nature shy and timid, but unfortunately are most inquisitive and can always be lured to their destruction by any unusual sight, such as a rag or a bit of bright cloth, and our same authority narrates the curious ease with which they can be guided anywhere by a string, which they will not try to cross. The natives used to head them by hundreds for slaughter into corrals by the simple method of stretching converging lines across the Pampas. So keen was the demand for the wool, the skin, and the meat of the Vicuna, and so easy its wholesale slaughter that thirty years ago its total extinction seemed almost certain. After several unsuccessful experiments the Government of Peru has prohibited the killing of Vicunas excepting under strict control. The wool is only exported under licence, which is supposed to cover the natural casualties in the herds; and besides the export duty, the Government collects one-half the export price of the wool. Of course, in so sparsely peopled and difficult country some doubtless gets out through Bolivia and otherwise. There is no part of the world where bootlegging is not a popular trade - but the result is that no statistics are available! One guess is as good as another - our guess is about 10,000 to 12,000lb. of raw wool in a year, yielding about 7000 to 8000lb of yarn. This shows what a tiny affair this whole trade is now. " A cloth for Emperors " indeed.


The wool is the finest that exists. Its fibres measure about 2500 to the inch, about half the thickness of the finest merino sheep's wools. It is a dark tobacco colour, remarkably unvarying and remarkably fast considering the low standard of fastness in the colouring of animals. As is usual, the outer part of the coat is paler, so that the general aspect of the animals is a warm tawny brown that blends perfectly with the bare country in which it lives. The coarser parts - the "britch" - and some old animals are paler, but, broadly speaking, this dark natural ground limits the colours available quite definitely to very dark shades - even blacks are apt to be rusty and navy blues peacock in tone. But the outstanding glory of the wool is its incomparable touch - possibly equalled by some of the softer furs and by the delicious feeling of a small kitten, but otherwise by no means to be imitated. The even rarer but much less valuable wool of its relative the Guanaco - or Huanaco as Prescott spells it - at its best is nearer than anything else; fine Chinese Cashmere is a good second, but though very lovely it is different in character, perhaps we might say as the finest Claret is different from the finest Port - different and a little inferior !


In these little monographs it is not always easy to steer between Scylla and Charybdis; between indefiniteness and advertisement of some particular firm. But it may be allowable to say that we - who must otherwise remain nameless - have now been working Vicuna since 1847 - possibly that was its first introduction to Scotland though not to manufacturing Europe. But by many centuries that was not the beginning of its use. In that strange old communistic empire of the Incas it was reserved for the Royal House. They knew how to spin it to the finest yams, and to this day the finest native work cannot be excelled in quality by our own machinery.


According to Prescott's authorities it was made into curtains and carpets - which seems inherently improbable unless in the limited sense of fine mats - clothing and, in particular, ponchos. The poncho is the almost universal outer garment of South and Central America. It is simply a straight piece of cloth -a blanket, in fact, with a slot in the middle through which passes the wearer's head. It is very practical and very primitive. On horseback especially it shelters horse and rider from sun and rain, and like a large cavalry cloak it covers the saddle, the knees, and the reins. Like a blanket, it varies through all degrees of workmanship, from the roughest and coarsest material to the most beautiful and elaborate examples of weaving and embroidering. We have examined both ancient and modern ponchos ornamented both with woven silk and added embroidery that we could not excel - so fine and so close as to be almost waterproof. Where we moderns excel is in our elaborate surface finishes by which - at the sacrifice of a good deal of thriftiness in wear we must admit - we can to a far greater degree than the native craftsman bring out and exhibit the beautiful softness of the wool.


Is Vicuna a wool or a fur ? According to the late Professor Cossar Ewart of Edinburgh University, no line can be drawn. In his day Professor Cossar Ewart was the greatest authority on certain aspects of animal breeding and especially in regard to fleeces and all matters connected with wools and hairs. He said that parts of the Vicuna fleece could not microscopically or by composition be distinguished from such a hard straight wool as Leicester. Vicuna mills or felts quite freely like a sheep's wool - better than many types. It dyes alike, though more reluctantly as it were, and takes more dye to produce a corresponding shade. It is curiously warm, but whether this is a direct result of its fineness or that it actually has higher insulating properties in its composition we cannot say. Certainly weight for weight it is the warmest clothing of all the wools.


It is not an easy material to deal with if the best results are to be got. It requires very careful and fine sorting. The individual fleeces are small, from three-quarters to one and a half pounds, and contain at least as great a variety of qualities as the fleece of the sheep. In common with all wools verging on the furs, the fleece of the Vicuna consists of two sets of hairs - a fine set grown on the outer skin and a longer and stronger set grown on the underskirt. In many species of animals the strong hair is developed into a close and shiny surface capable of throwing off heavy rain, and the fine, soft under-fleece provides warmth - an arrangement beautifully illustrated in our domestic cat. For fine cloth-making the long, coarse hairs must be removed. The natives do this by hand plucking, and the first lots in this country were likewise hand plucked. That has long passed the limits of practicability and the hair is now removed by special types of carding machines, such as we have described in our numbers dealing with " Woollens versus Worsted " and " Carding and Spinning." It is a very slow and consequently dear process.
It is a small affair this trade in Vicuna. It would still be small if all that the natives of Peru use in their handicrafts were added to all that reaches the mills of Europe and America. But it is a trade without which we would be poorer for it is one of the most exquisite luxuries that the craft of man has evolved out of his surroundings, and it is one of the few threads that carry us back to possibly the oldest civilisation in the world, the Empire of the Incas of Peru.


It is always difficult to know where to stop in writing a " Scottish Woollens " number. It is like wandering through a picturesque and beautiful country. In admiring the lovely views of mountain and lake, pausing to watch a bird or a moth, to examine a flower or an unfamiliar tree, to appreciate the comely art of a cottage or a roadside church, in admiring all these and a thousand other things of interest one forgets that night falls and that a bed must be reached! So in our subjects we are lead to countless interests of life and art and economics into which it is tempting to turn aside. It is tempting to quote Prescott's fascinating " History of the Conquest of Peru" - the preface dated Boston, 1847 - not up to date perhaps, but still the classic authority - to follow his accounts of the four Peruvian " sheep" - the ALPACA, the LLAMA, the HUANACO, and the VICUNA : how they live on the ychu grass that does not come north of the Line and so limits these beasts to the Southern Andes: how in the days of the ancient Empire of the Incas great roundings up of the countryside took place every season, but never oftener in one place than every fourth year - sometimes a hundred thousand men being used in one of these great battues: how the wild beasts were killed and the " sheep " shorn and the wools stored in the Government storehouses: how the Vicuna wool was reserved for the worship of the Sun and for the ceremonial chaplet and clothing of the Royal Prince at his inaugural ceremony. And thence all the history of the Conquistadores, of Drake and his raids, of the later peaceful raids of the little ships built of good Scotch pine along the shores of the Moray Firth and manned by eight or ten men who brought the Vicuna wool to our shores : of trade amongst the ruins of the Spanish Empire - " round the Horn and back again " - so interestingly told in Dana's " Two Years before the Mast." But we have reached our limit and, like Pepys, must close our book " and so to bed."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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