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Tartan Ferret

Worsted - v - Woolens

Edward Harrison showing a woven blanket to a visiting dignitary

April 1932


An illuminated capital 'S' with a spinning wheel. Scotland makes Woollens, England makes Worsteds - more or less! According to the " Century Dictionary" Worsted " is a variety of woollen yarn or thread spun from long stapled wool which has been combed and, in the spinning, has been twisted harder than is usual. We are further told that it is called after Worstead, a little village in Norfolk where it was first made. The " Century" is a pleasant book - pleasantly illustrated both with pictures and quotations, and in this example quotes Chaucer's " Canterbury Tales" - the " Prologue," line 262, " Of double worstet was his semi-cope." Chaucer probably died in 1400, so that is already pretty old, and if our reference sends any of our readers back to the " Prologue " to see that incomparable procession passing before his eyes, he should lay some votive offering at the shrine of " Scottish Woollens " for having rendered him so good a service. The line is from the portrait of the Friar, "a wantown and a merye," who was the best of beggars in his house and who "for thogh a widwe hadde noght a sho, so plesaunt was his ' In Principle,' yet wolde he have a ferthing, er he wente." A well-to-do cleric. Of course, had not all the Scottish Woollen Manufacturers been engaged at that time raiding on The Borders, or farther North killing each other, he would have been wearing " Scottish Woollens."

In our first essay we promised not to write as antiquarians, so we are not going to give a long history of spinning bristling with dates - if such sticky things can be said to bristle - but deal at once with the practical differences between Worsteds and Woollens. The fundamental difference is the method of preparing the wool for the spinning, and this difference brings in its train a vast number of major and minor consequences that we shall examine in the course of these papers. &
At this point in our story we wish to pause for a short digression.

"Scottish Woollens, No. 1," has had a surprising reception, both from our friends for whom the series was started, and from the Press. We have had many letters, and our No. 1 was honoured by being reprinted in whole or in part in the trade journals of two continents, and occasionally in papers not devoted to the Woollen Trade. We have had much advice - the good we have taken or shall take - and we want just as much more as people will send to us. On one piece of advice we wish particularly to comment - very flattering and very encouraging - but just now we are not going to follow it. We are urged to publish monthly or even weekly. We are not following this advice for two reasons. We have said in No. 1 that we aim at more than a trade circular. We want our essays to be authoritative and solid. To produce these essays takes a wonderful lot of work. They are being written by practical men actually in the trade, and not by journalists accustomed to rapid writing. Moreover, an " Expert " - horrid title! - has only to start writing on his own subject to discover what a lot of references he has to verify. Our second reason is that these are serious essays, and for their thorough digestion they require more than the casual glance given to a weekly trade letter. To be quite honest there is another reason. Up here in Bonnie Scotland we don't like to see our " siller " spent too quickly !

The difference, then, is that for making Worsted yam the wool is combed ; for making Woollen yarn the wool is carded. The word C OMB is plain English, and in its technical sense its meaning is not changed. The wool is literally combed by various mechanical means, and the obvious consequence of combing either wool or your hair is that you disentangle it and remove short or broken fibres. The fibres in the worsted thread are therefore the longer fibres of the wool only, and they are laid parallel in the thread, disentangled completely.

The word C ARD requires more explanation, for its connection with plain English is remote. In carding all the wool is used. There is no removal of long or short fibres. The wool is carefully and methodically tangled as might be said, though minor tangles are all removed in so doing. The wool is carefully scraped between two flat hard boards covered with strong wire teeth embedded in leather and called C ards, until all the fibres are thoroughly blended into an equally dense mass. This process is now replaced mechanically by rotary machinery, the result is that in the combed yarn the wool lies more or less like the wires in a big electric cable, giving an even, smooth thread, whereas the carded wool is tangled and confusedly mixed in all directions. This fundamental difference of structure runs right through the resultant cloths, affecting their appearance, their lustre, their wearing properties, their range of weights, their touch, their actual warmth, their shrinking and felting, influencing the qualities of wools used for each. The two processes affect the whole industrial organisation, being, in fact, the reason for the great difference between the Scottish Woollen Trade on one side and the English Worsted Trade on the other - a difference penetrating deeply into the social and national characteristics of the two peoples.

It is always dangerous to generalise, for there is always some one with knowledge ready to trip you up on some important exception. There are many exceptions, and we have so little space that we must generalise, but we shall be careful not to be misleading. Broadly speaking, long wools are most suitable for combing, and short wools for carding. It is equally true that any wool can be carded, but there are many wools that cannot be combed, though, as machinery improves, all processes tend to widen their scope.

As a primitive and old-fashioned example of the appreciation of this question of length of fibre - or of "staple" as it is called - we heard an interesting story from an old and very "skilly" carder. As a boy he had worked in a little northern country mill, a primitive little mill with a waterwheel long ago swept away by modern progress. The wool of the district which the farmers brought in to be made into blankets and homespuns for their own use was long Black Face. The future carder was set up with an axe and a block of wood : he had to make the fleeces into a thick, rough rope and then chop it into lengths of four or five inches : a primitive preparatory method called by the quaint descriptive name of "brothering". This shortening of the long fibres enabled the long wool to blend better with the short parts of the fleece.

It follows then that there is more variety of raw material available for Woollen cloths than for Worsted cloths, and this is one of the great sources of strength in the Scottish Woollen Trade - this unrestricted choice of raw material. Every wool can be used by the Scottish Manufacturer: the coarsest Black Face grown on our own Highland hills, most of which finds its way into the American carpet mills, where it is used in its "unbrotherly" state ; beautiful crimpy English Downs, so run after for the finer knitting yarns because of their bulkiness ; fine Merinos from their native Spain or from their adopted Australia; silky C hinese C ashmeres or C amels' Wools ; C rossbreds from New Zealand and South America ; the ill-bred wools of C hile and Peru, and the finest, most aristocratic of all wools from the same country, Vicuna ; Mohairs from Anatolia and Tasmania and the C ape; rabbits, guanacos, llamas, alpacas - an endless procession of four-legged beasts, enough to fill half the room in Noah's Ark. In fact, there is no country outside the Tropics that does not furnish materials for the woollen spinner.

We have only room in this introduction to the subject of Worsteds versus Woollens to touch lightly on the most immediately practical results arising out of these structural differences. Let us start with WARMTH, one of the most important features of clothing. Air is one of the best insulators in nature. In the untidy structure of the Woollen thread it is quite evident that there is far more air included than in the neat and orderly build of the Worsted thread, where one fibre lies smoothly against another. So important is this feature of included air that modern scientific manufacturers working on this fact have produced cloths that enclose as it were little blobs of air in their cellular construction, and have evolved warm cloths from such naturally low insulating materials as linen and cotton.

C ountless implications arise out of this. The warmth of feathers, of down quilts, of the cotton wadding faced with silk used in C hina where there is little wool; of thin walls built of hollow brick ; of furs ; of a still day as compared with a windy day; of snow, which differs from water only in its bulk. Think of the comfort and warmth of a thatched roof made of layers of little straw tubes filled with air. See how Alpine and Arctic plants have evolved downy surfaces to protect themselves in winter with a blanket of air kept motionless by the frozen surface above. Everywhere throughout all Nature and in all the Arts where the passage of these elusive thermal units must be checked, still air is the surest and the commonest and the cheapest! Remember it is heat that is the active element - cold is only the absence of heat - clothing and shelter are needed to protect us from heat and cold alike. It is Woollen C loth the Arab uses for his great picturesque burnous which acts as cloak by day and blanket by night. It is Woollen C loth the Navaho Indian makes for his most intemperate country. It is sheep and goat skins that clothe the shepherds of the Mediterranean hills now as in the days of Homer, and it is still wool and skin that shields the Arctic explorer from the cold or keeps in the warmth of his own body or of his small lamp. And as a sort of practical anticlimax to all this, every one accustomed to wearing a suit of Scottish Woollens knows the unpleasant chilliness of a Worsted suit.

In two points the C ombing process has a very real advantage also arising directly out of structure. Owing to the orderly arrangement of the fibres a much smaller thread may be spun, and because the fibres are lying smoothly parallel one with another, each fibre takes its full share of tensile strain and produces a thread - theoretically at any rate - of the utmost strength of which the raw material is capable. From this follows the implication that wool cloths of the very lightest weights are for practical purposes made of combed or at least partly of combed yarns.

'One more point of advantage in combed yarn is its superior brightness - not of colour, where the advantage is in some respects with carded yarns - but brightness of lustre. This depends not only, or even chiefly, on the lustre of the individual fibres composing a thread, but on the angle of reflection. The effect of lustre shows only where the elements of the reflecting surface are able to reflect the light in one direction, a feature admirably developed by the parallel structure of the combed yarn. The pattern on a white linen damask table cloth is a very perfect example, as the whole design depends entirely on lustre As you sit at table and look to your right the pattern may show dark on a light ground. As you glance in front of you while engaged with your plate there is no pattern. You turn to exchange a word with your neighbour on your left and, behold !-the pattern is light upon a dark ground. So you come to all the wonderful array of damasks, brocades, and shot effects ; to the queer opaque transparence of opals and tiger stones ; the dazzle of a smooth wet road before the windscreen of your car, and so onward into all that wonderland of light and unreal colour which we shall explore a little when we speak of C olour itself. One real and practical drawback goes with this superior lustre of the Worsted thread. A Worsted cloth glazes much more, and much more quickly, than a Woollen cloth. Although very little combing is done in Scotland quite a large weight of combed yarn is consumed, for Scottish Manufacturers have recognised the extra scope the use of Worsted yams has given to their work. They make regular Worsted Suitings, though for the most part with a difference - the Scottish methods of cloth making tending to influence the construction, finish, and general manipulation of the cloths. Within the last few years Scottish work has developed greatly in the direction of very lightweight dress goods in which many beautiful effects are obtained by the combination of combed and carded yarns.

There is the curious tough yet soft handle given by combing. The partial loss of spring which gives Worsteds the advantage over Woollens for trouserings, and in so different a purpose - hair belting for machinery. There is the very marked effect on the milling or felting of a cloth, which makes Woollen yarns essential for printers' cloths and many upholstery purposes, an aspect that will be dealt with later when we write on felting. It seems to us that a generation will pass before "Scottish Woollens" can hope to touch on all the interesting and useful subjects our survey opens up. So to sum up the points we have been able to touch upon : for ladies' cloths Woollens are for some purposes best; in men's suitings Woollens are best for most purposes ; for overcoatings Woollens are supreme almost to the exclusion of Worsteds ; and for such cloths as exist purely for their warmth and their clothing capacity, such as blankets and steamer rugs, Woollens are the only wear.

Our illustrations : The Spinning Wheel and the Cards are drawn from old Scottish examples in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh , the threads from magnified samples of yarn.










 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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