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Issue 87 - Weaving the Fabric of Scotland's Past

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016


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Weaving the Fabric of Scotland's Past

Christopher Coates visits the Knockando Woolmill in Moray

The textiles of Scotland are held in high regard across the globe and have an undeniable link with the nation’s contemporary identity. Over the years, its distinctive plaids have held a variable status as cloth of the masses; outlawed symbol of rebellion; cornerstone of industrial and economic expansion; Victorian fashion statement and internationally desired luxury product. Like other enduring commodities, such as whisky, the manufacture of fabric is tightly woven throughout Scotland’s social and agricultural history, developing out of the need for rural communities to diversify their sources of income in order to guarantee a stable level of subsistence throughout the year.

Inhabiting what was often poor agricultural land and frequently employing very basic agrarian practices, many communities of Scotland’s rural North would struggle to subsist solely on the fruits of animal husbandry or farming alone. As such, they would seek to supplement their income by any means available to them, generally by utilising by-products of other processes, whether that be brewing beer or distilling rudimentary proto-whisky from excess grain; rendering tallow from mutton carcasses for making soap and candles; or by trading fleeces at a local woolmill such as the one found today at Knockando in Moray. This is evidenced in the 1680 letter of an unknown aristocrat who wrote: ‘the women of this country are mostly employed spinning and working of stockings and making of plaiden webs, which the Aberdeen merchants carry over the sea; and it is this which bringeth money to the commons; other ways of getting it they have not.’

That is not to say that all early crofters walked the thin line of subsistence at all times; records indicate that even in the 17th Century, hubs such as Perth, Aberdeen and Dundee did a roaring trade with the communities of the hinterland. In particular, Aberdeen operated a successful system whereby city merchants would supply raw materials needed for weaving, such as flax, cotton or wool, to be bought back as yarn or cloth at agreed rates under a system called ‘putting out.’ In fact, even at this time before its mechanisation, the textile industry flourished to such a degree under this system, and demand for quality cloth was so great, that the ‘putting out’ practice largely replaced domestic sheep as the source of weavers’ wool. This was also a market driven supply shift, as wool imported from the south tended to be of better quality, thus yielding superior textiles, on account of the northern crofters’ inferior livestock breeds and poorer animal raising practices. Perhaps as a result, by the 1620s the number of sheep being farmed in upland areas was actually declining sharply.

It must be noted that at this time the production process of textiles was highly decentralised. Many cottars, or ‘tenant farmers’ as they came to be known as the 18th Century progressed, would generally only perform the earlier, less specialised, stages such as ‘waulking’ or ‘fulling’ the wool (whereby it was cleaned of dirt and prepared for processing) and spinning at their smallholdings. Generally these tasks were performed by the womenfolk of a cottar’s immediate family, who would work the wool by hand – or using very basic tools – until it was ready to be supplied to a local weaver, who would produce the cloth on a wooden handloom. On most occasions, the loom would be situated within a weaver’s own home and the bulk of their textile activity would take place following the shearing season, with production minimal during sowing and harvest seasons. In this way, even those more specialised artisans would alternate between different roles depending on the time of year.

This practice persisted in the North until full mechanisation really took off at the start of the 19th Century. To illustrate the rate of change, one must consider figures that suggest the number of power looms in Scotland at the beginning of the 1820s numbered around 2000. By the end of the decade, this estimate had increased to 10,000. Flax and linen cloth production industrialised first, with wool cloth weavers stubbornly hanging on to old practices despite falling profits, until the use of hand looms declined sharply almost everywhere in the 1840s. A few notable exceptions exist, such as the Isles of Harris and Lewis, where those ‘who were specialists, who made very fine high quality goods for an individual customer, those who could do something still too difficult to be achieved on a machine or which had a limited but prosperous clientele’ could find a ‘niche in the industrializing society’ and survive within it.

To give an indication of the extent to which textile production defined the economy of Scotland, one may consider the remarks of Thomas Pennant, who, on his 1769 tour of Scotland, remarked: ‘The town of Cullen is mean; yet has about a hundred looms in it, there being a flourishing manufacture of linen and thread.’ By 1826, estimates compiled by Sir John Sinclair – who famously coined the word ‘statistics’ in the English language and penned the pioneering, 21 volume, Statistical Account of Scotland – suggested that over 250,000 people were involved in textile production, compared to 19,000 working in other manufacturing industries.

Advancements in mechanisation coincided with a concerted effort to more efficiently utilise water power, which until this point had been harnessed by relatively rudimentary means and generally drove only a single set of machinery at each given mill, whether it was a sawmill, mealmill or waulkmill. With regard to the latter, it is worth noting that communities in the North East were likely being served by mechanised waulking – complete with mechanical hammers to emulate the beating previously done with clubs, fists or feet – by the mid 1700s. Indeed, it was as a waulkmill that the Knockando Woolmill has its first documented origins, in parish records of 1784, under the tenure of a William Grant – he is not to be confused with the William Grant of Glenfiddich whisky fame, as the name was common in the Strathspey region at the time. During this period, the mill would have prepared wool for spinning by local ‘spinsters’ (local women using individual spinning wheels) and also likely carried out washing, dying and carding – although at this time the carding machines would have been hand- operated, rather than powered by the mill.

It was the introduction of vertical water- wheels, the first of which were cast in iron in English foundries around the 1790s, which heralded the shift to more advanced industrialisation. These overshot wheels, fitted with buckets, were considerably more efficient and allowed mills to control the power generated more effectively through the adjustment of water flow. For the wool industry, these developments at first only led to powered carding machines, as at first the mechanised spinning machines and power looms were more suited to cotton and linen; however by the 1850s the machinery was specialised enough to produce woollen cloth mechanically from start to finish.

This correlates with developments at the Knockando Woolmill, where in the 1850s a semi-mechanised spinning ‘billy’ (which could spin 20 threads simultaneously) was installed. Soon after, the site was taken over by the Smith family, who formed A. Smith & Son in 1865 – the mill would operate under this name until 1975 – and began upgrading the machinery to that which, with a few exceptions, can still be seen functioning by visitors today.

However, these additions came only as and when profits allowed and almost none of the machinery was purchased new; this haphazard approach is also evidenced by the construction of the mill’s buildings, which up until their restoration in 2010 - 2012 were put together in a very basic fashion. Materials were largely recycled from local demolitions and in many areas the structure did little more than keep the weather off the machinery. This practice is thought to have been common for rural mills of this type, where evolution was dependent on the ever-changing financial success of the crofters.

By 1903, industrial weaving on a huge scale was well established all over Scotland, especially in Renfrewshire and the Borders. However, although by this point the Knockando Woolmill had brought all aspects of wool cloth production under one roof, it still only really existed to serve the local community seasonally, rather than operating as a constantly working factory. The balance of mill and farm work persisted to modernity and up until the late 1970s the surrounding land was still used by the former weaver, Duncan Stewart, for grazing cattle and other agricultural purposes.

The outbreak of the Great War saw production increase significantly at mills across Scotland, as demand for uniforms and blankets rose exponentially. However the interwar period subsequently saw a massive decline of the remaining small, rural mills such as Knockando, which soon all but ceased to exist. Against all odds, the site continued much as it ever had done under the ownership of Duncan Stewart and his wife Winnie, whom he married in 1930, and little changed as the decades passed. The waterwheel was retired and electricity introduced in 1948, a tractor replaced the horse-drawn plough, and still the mill lingered.

In 1976 the mill passed to the present weaver, Hugh Jones, who was patiently taught the art of weaving by Duncan, who continued to farm at Knockando until his death in 1991, aged 94 years. Hugh continued to operate the mill until, by the early 2000s, he knew that significant investment would be needed to save the site from disrepair. In 2003, the whole site was A-listed by Historic Scotland as one of international significance – the lateness of which perhaps goes some way to demonstrate how ‘under the radar’ the mill really was. Aside from the specialised machinery, a particular article of importance noted by the report was the iron and wooden ‘tenter frames,’ on which freshly washed cloth would be stretched taut to dry in the sun. The textiles would be affixed to the frame by ‘tenter hooks,’ from which we get the expression ‘on tenter hooks,’ meaning ‘in a state of tension or suspense.’ Hugh then formed the Knockando Woolmill Trust, to which he signed over ownership of the mill, and by 2010 the trust had raised the £3.5 million required for a full and sympathetic restoration of the buildings, waterwheel, bridge and machinery.

Visiting today, one is struck immediately by the feeling that one has taken a wrong turn at Cardow and accidentally stepped back in time. Walking among the machinery, in all its robust, intricately engineered, Victorian glory, is an assault on the senses. The pleasing aroma of oil, metal and lanolin, engrained in the very wood of the building from centuries of use, fills the nostrils; the almost deafening clatter of the operating machinery confounds the ears and the hypnotic motion of an uncountable number of moving parts makes for quite the experience. It is as if history is truly alive before you. Even after the full process is explained by one of the knowledgeable guides, it still all seems a little like magic.

That one can go to the mill’s online shop – perhaps exemplifying the peak of modern commerce – and purchase yarns and material, created at the United Kingdom’s oldest continuously producing mill, seems a paradox that stands in defiance of history. But perhaps it isn’t so strange. After all, the mill is simply doing what it has ever done: produced a desirable, high quality cloth; provided local employment and engagement of tradesmen and, importantly, served its community.

Visitor Information
Knockando Woolmill Trust
The Woolmill, Knockando, Moray, AB38 7RP
+44(0) 1340 810 345