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Angus MacPhee – Weaver of Grass

I read a book once entitled  ‘The Silent Weaver: The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee’, by Roger Hutchinson (2011). It was a fascinating story about the life of a man born in 1915 and raised on South Uist. He was deeply affected by his training experiences during the second world war and spent the last 50 years of his life in a psychiatric hospital near Inverness. During that time he hardly spoke to anyone, instead preferring to weave grasses from the hospital grounds into ropes, trousers, vests, shoes and bags. Nothing survives from the first 30 years of his time in hospital, but art therapist Joyce Laing realized how important Angus’s art was and manged to save a few items. I was recently lucky enough to see some of these in an exhibition in the Perth Museum and Art Gallery.

Jumper by Angus MacPhee

Jumper by Angus MacPhee

Trousers

Trousers

Satchel

Satchel

Waders

Waders

Sower's pouch

Sower’s pouch

Wheat & barley & Angus Mcfee Aug 2013 148

 Angus did return to Uist in 1996, but died the following year.

Intriguing work.

 

Cotton at Stanley Mills, Perthshire.

Stanley Mills.

(Photograph courtesy of Visit Scotland)

Just above the north west corner of Fife and to the north of the city of Perth is a large old cotton mill called Stanley Mills. It’s now owned by Historic Scotland and part of it has been restored into a museum.

By the 1850s, the cotton industry in Scotland was based mainly in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire. A weavers’ village was founded in 1705 in the Carlton area in the east of Glasgow, where many weavers were involved with serious industrial and political disputes. The mills at Stanley were built more than 200 years ago on the banks of the River Tay. The power of the river drove machinery that manufactured fabrics from 1787 until it closed in 1989. The original Bell Mill at Stanley was designed by Richard Arkwright who invented different machines to speed up the process of making cotton fabric.

Cotton was imported from India and America and shipped to Glasgow. The bales then travelled eastward by road to Stanley Mills. It was then cleaned and spun into yarn before woven up into cloth. Stanley was one of the first mills in Scotland to use power looms. The finer better quality cotton was make into handkerchiefs and underwear while the thicker cotton was made up into coarser jackets, book covers or used for sale cloth.

This is a beautiful old mill in a lovely setting. Many of the old buildings have been converted into apartments and offices, but it is still a lovely place to walk on the banks of the River Tay. I spent some time last year working with Historic Scotland, running ‘discovery days’ for primary school children making visits to the mill. The children had a tour of the mill, learnt about the people who worked there (many of them children themselves) and then had a go at weaving on small looms. It was great fun.

Continuing my research into Fife linen.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries the east coast of Scotland concentrated on producing linen goods which could best be made from Dutch, Flemish and Baltic flax. Designs, patterns and quality of cloths were all influenced by these connections. Fife no longer grew it’s own flax. Much was imported and spun in Kirkcaldy. The 1830s saw the introduction of the power looms and by 1860 the cottage industry was dead. In 1867 over 11,500 people in Fife were employed in the linen industry, but by 1938 this had fallen to just over 7000.

Fine patterned table linen was woven in the Dunfermline mills, while sheetings and window blinds were woven in Falkand. Linen was often mixed with cotton and woven up into shirting and striped ticking fabrics, used to cover mattresses and pillows. Other coarser linens were also woven into sail cloth, tarpaulins and for packaging goods, especially in Dundee before it was replaced by cheaper imports of jute.

During the war years of 1914-18 and 1939-45 flax was grown again in many counties in Scotland and factories were revived to spin, bleach, dye and weave linen cloth again. During the first World War this was mainly for aeroplane fabrics. In the second World War mills in Aberdeenshire, Blairgowrie and Cupar were under government direction and factories tided the UK over during a difficult time. However, costs involved in treating the Scottish flax became prohibitive and they closed down.

There is one last main manufacture of linen left in Fife today and that is Peter Creig & Co, who were established in 1825. They are still weaving in the same mill in Kirkcaldy.

This research is so inspiring me to weave with linen again and to connect to the weavers who lived in my local area. It feels rather like they are talking to me. It would be good to bring back some handwoven linen to Fife. Perhaps even mix it with cotton as some of the local mills would have done to produce softer shirting and ticking. I feel that my next design process is beginning………….

Importing flax and mechanisation.

In 1815, French prisoners from the Napoleonic War were used to drain the bogs of central Fife and more profitable crops were introduced. Supplies of flax now had to be imported, initially from Russia and then later from the Netherlands. In 1838 it was estimated that there were 85,000 hand looms operating in Scotland, of which 26,000 were from linen production, mainly in Fife and Angus. The late 18th century saw the mechanisation of spinning and it’s transformation from a cottage industry to be based in factories in Dundee, Glasgow and Kirkcaldy. Initially change was slow. The Industrial Revolution started in 1780 and continued until about 1880. This period brought the development of the power loom mills. The Fife county town of Cupar had 3 power loom factories by 1870 and wove locally termed  ‘brown linen’.

Gateside Mills 2013

Gateside Mills 2013

Gateside Mills in Fife,  originally manufactured linen, but by the 20th century the mill was producing bobbins and shuttles and only proved work for about 80 people. It was built on the River Eden like so many mills in Fife and a water wheel provided the power for the machinery. The mill is now a centre for small creative businesses. (My son has very good guitar lessons there!)

The textile heritage of Scotland continues to fascinate me, drawing me closer to the people who used to live here in Fife and elsewhere across the country. The factory based textile industries were concentrated into different areas and I am gradually visiting more and more of them, (watch this blog space for further developments!). The cotton industry was based in Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Glasgow. The Woollen industry developed mainly in Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire, but also in Perthshire, Stirlingshire and the Scottish Borders. The linen production, based mainly here in Fife and Angus had it’s centre in Dundee. By the 1861 census the city and it’s surrounding areas employed nearly 50,000 people in mills and at hand looms. The silk industry, although small, was based around paisley in the middle of the 19th century. There is so much to explore!

An 18th century weaver’s tale.

I discovered recently the story of Chris Reekie, a hand loom weaver in the late 18th Century who lived all his life in Falkland, Fife. The ‘Scotsman’ (newspaper) and the Bible were his daily companions.

One day Chris was going home with his ‘cut’ and on the way he went into a public house for a dram. The parish minister was Mr Barrack and he was a rigid teetotaller. One day Mr Barrack met Chris after he had had a dram and he said to him:- ‘Chris, drunk again. Why do you take such strong drink?’ Chris answered:- ‘Because I like it Mr Barrack’.

Falkland market was always held on the third Friday of June. On the Saturday, Chris and some companions went over to Kinnesswood to Mungo Craig’s public house. Much drink was consumed and in the end they found they had not got a copper with which to pay for it. The publican sent for the police and locked the men in a room. Chris threw up the window and saw that a crowd had collected. He addressed the gathering thus:- ‘Friends and fellow citizens of Kinnesswood, draw nigh and hear the wail of a poor Falkland weaver’. The crowd had a collection taken and the prisoners were released at once.

May 14 2013 025

May 14 2013 030Old weavers’ cottages in Falkland, Fife.

Bessie and her spinning wheel.

” I bought my wife a stane o’lnt,

As gude as e’er did grow,

And a that she has made o’that

is a’e puir pund of tow.

The weary pund, the weary pund,

The weary pund a’tow,

I think my wife will end her life

Before she spins her tow.’

A poem by Robert Burns (1759 – 1796).

The Howe of Fife was a poorly drained boggy area of land where only one crop, flax, was able to grow. So since before the 16th century the production of linen cloth had been the main source of employment locally. In Scotland, linen was known as ‘lint’.  The flax was pulled and spun by hand and then woven into cloth on hand looms.

The farmer, in order to get labourers for his farm, gave 10 yards square to the labourer to allow him to sow the ‘lippy’ of lint seed. The flax was grown for the labourers family, who spun and wove the cloth for their own use.

In 1680 the government passed a law declaring that, ‘ hereafter no corpse of any persons whatsoever shall be buried in any shirt, sheet or anything else except in plain linen…………………made and spun in the Kingdom.’

There was not a village in the county that did not have it’s hand loom weavers. They were even found in the fishing villages of Crail, Pittenween, Anstruther and Largo. The cottage of the weaver might be described as a ‘but’ and a ‘ben’. The ‘but’ housed the kitchen, beds and living area and the ‘ben’ was a separate room for the loom. As time went by weavers would take their cloths to merchants to sell in Edinburgh and London.

Fife  weaver's cottages, single storey and nestled into the hillside.

Fife weaver’s cottages, single storey and nestled into the hillside.