I am taking part in Craft Scotland’s ‘Meet Your Maker’ event on the weekend of 7th – 8th September 2013, at St Andrews Museum in Fife.
Eight different venues across Scotland will be show casing the work of 14 different craft makers. It’s a chance to meet the makers and learn about their inspirations, design process and techniques behind their craft. I will be demonstrating weaving and visitors (both young and old) will be able to have a go for for themselves.
Look forward to seeing you there!
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
Angus did return to Uist in 1996, but died the following year.
(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.
As you can imagine, having researched the history of weaving linen in Fife, I am now enthusiastic about designing and weaving my own linen fabrics. It’s been a while since I have woven with this fibre having spent the last couple of years concentrating on using British wools and alpaca. Which I absolutely love working with. However, there is something about flax and linen that’s calling my attention. Perhaps it’s knowing that the fields around East Fife were once swathed in blue when the flax plant was in flower. Something I wish I could of seen. But I think it’s also intriguing to know that someone sat at a floor loom and wove linen cloth in this very cottage, over 230 years ago. Who was he (I say he, because I understand that it was mostly the men who wove the cloth at that time while the women spun the flax), but maybe it was a she after all. I wonder if the house is whispering to me!
I am currently searching high and low for British grown flax linen yarn. An organization called the The Flax Growers and Processors in the UK, have told me that flax is now only grown on a small scale and there are no longer any manufactures of commercially spun flax in Britain. Which is such a great shame. If I had the land it would be fascinating to grow some flax myself, but I am not a spinner. If there are any hand spinners out there in the UK that work with British grown flax, I’d be very interested to hear from you. I’m still looking though, maybe I’ll find you first! I may however, have to look eastward and import linen yarn just as the merchant manufactures did from the late 18th century.
I came across an interesting tale of a merchant called John Lockhart who lived in Fife around this time. He did business with the hand loom weavers by giving them imported linen yarn that they wove up into cloth. He then paid them for the finished fabric. Before the railway came to Fife it was said that John would leave Kirkcaldy by road and on foot on a Monday and walk to Leuchars (a distance of about 25 miles). The next day he walked to the ferry and did business in Dundee, (7 miles) perhaps stayed a day and on his way back he would walk far into the night in an endeavour to get home to Kirkcaldy, (30 miles approx). I wonder if any of my walks have crossed his paths.
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 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!
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.