Tag Archives: history

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







Sower's pouch

Sower’s pouch

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

Intriguing work.


The design and making process.

I wanted to show you the complete process from inspiration to finish product. All of of my work is inspired by the outdoor world around me. I love to walk and roam and I see colours and textures on my walks around the Fife countryside, coastline and elsewhere in Scotland. Until recently I preferred to weave with British wools and alpaca yarns, but living in a old weaver’s cottage, made me think differently. Something seemed to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘hay, we used to weave linen cloth here’, and I started delving into the history books. You can read more about my discoveries in earlier editions of this blog. I am intrigued to learn who used to weave in this cottage 220 years ago, but I am saving that research for another day. I wanted to weave this project with British flax, similar to that which used to be grown in Fife, but I couldn’t find yarn spun thin enough from the UK. So this linen is from Sweden. It is a beautiful yarn and very good quality. I have also added some cotton from the USA, which was similar to that imported to Stanley Mills over 200 years ago.  Eventually flax was no longer grown in Fife and all supplies were imported from countries around the Baltic, as I have done for this project.

Inspiration. West Sands, St Andrews.

Inspiration. West Sands, St Andrews.

Designed on computer with linen yarn in mind.

Designed on computer with linen yarn in mind.

Threading the linen yarn through the heddles on to the loom.

Threading the warp yarn through the heddles on the loom.

Then through the reed.

Then through the reed.

Tie the warp to the front of the loom.

Tie the warp to the front of the loom.

Starting to weave.

Starting to weave.

Using a shuttle to weave in the weft.

Using a shuttle to weave in the weft.

Weaving at the loom.

After 200 years weaving has returned to this cottage.

All wrapped up!

The finished wrap.

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We have had fewer bees this year.

We have had fewer bees this year.

Click on the photographs for a larger image.

The wrap will be available to buy from my shop very soon!


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.

A Fife friday walk around the Hill of Tarvit Estate.

Finally it feels like summer has arrived. Last winter was long, the spring was brief, but the summer brings hope of new colours and patterns in the landscape around Fife. These pictures were taken during a walk around the Hill of Tarvit Estate. This is a National Trust for Scotland property near to Cupar. It particularly interests me because the estate was bought in 1904 by Frederick Bower Sharp, who was a wealthy jute mill owner from Dundee.

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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………….

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.

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

A loom returns.

I live in a weaver’s cottage. Not long after I and my family moved in, we began to notice a strange smell in one particular room, whenever we returned from a few days away. The smell was very intense and only lasted for a short while, but it happened repeatedly. When I bought and installed my new loom in that very room, the smell disappeared and never returned.  It was as if the cottage was more content now a loom had returned.

Whenever I am weaving, I can feel the history of this cottage and often wonder who it was who wove here before me. Perhaps one day I will find out.

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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.