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The Industries of Scotland
Manufacture of Floorcloth

WHEN carpets, from being regarded as luxuries fit only for the upper ranks of society, came into general use, a great advance took place in the popular idea of what was necessary in house furnishing, and many articles and contrivances for enhancing the comfort and convenience of households were devised. One thing that came to be desiderated was a covering for lobbies and stairs, which, while it would possess to some extent the richness of effect imparted by carpeting, would be better able to withstand the tread of mud-stained feet and general wear and tear. In the houses of the upper classes polished oak was used with good effect, but was too costly to be adopted in humbler dwellings. Then, paving stones looked poor and cold, and would not admit of wall decorations; plain deal was little better, and even painted deal failed to satisfy the eye. Painted canvas was tried with better success, and in course of time was generally adopted. At first the canvas was of uniform colour throughout, then a centre of one hue and a border of another became fashionable. From that to chequered and other designs was an easy step; and so floorcloth came to be an article of manufacture. It is little more than half a century since it was introduced; and it is less than twenty years since it began to be produced by other than the most primitive means.

Up till three years ago there was only one floorcloth manufactory in Scotland, but that establishment was and still is the largest of the kind in the world; and the proprietors of it have done more to perfect and extend. the manufacture than all the other British firms put together. In 1847 the late Mr Michael Nairn built at the east end of Kirkcaldy an extensive establishment, in which he began to make floorcloth according to the most improved methods then practised. He obtained skilled workmen from England, and soon won a reputation for the excellent quality of the goods he turned out. Thus encouraged in his enterprise, Mr Nairn devoted himself to the development of the manufacture, which he looked upon as being then in little more. than its infancy. He made many experiments in material and in design, and so successfully that he shot far ahead of all competitors; and the present firm of Michael Nairn & Co. are maintaining the position thus attained. About three years ago Mr James Shepherd, who was taken into copartnery after the death of the late Mr Nairn, withdrew from the concern, and, in company with Mr M. Beveridge, started business on a considerable scale in the neighbourhood of the parent establishment; so that there are now two floorcloth factories in Scotland.

Messrs Nairn & Co.'s manufactory occupies an extensive range of buildings in the vicinity of the ruins of Ravenscraig Castle, at the east end of the "Lang Toon." The original portion of the factory is 160 feet in length, eighty-seven feet in width, and fifty-two feet in height. It stands on the top of a cliff, and occupies all the available ground on that level; so that, when extension became necessary, it could be accomplished only by building on the beach, some fifty feet below. On the latter site a painting house and drying store were erected several years ago. This second block is 129 feet in length, eighty-four feet in width, and eighty-six feet in height; and the space between it and the face of the cliff—sixty feet —is partly occupied by paint mills and a boiler-house, and partly by a covered platform thirty feet in width. The upper and lower buildings are connected by bridges at various heights. The first thing that strikes a visitor to the factory is the almost entire absence of machinery and noise. The cloth is woven, painted, and printed by hand; and the energies of the two steam-engines in the place are almost limited to grinding paint and supplying the stoves with heated air, giving off a little power occasionally to work elevators and move the lathes, &c., in the mechanics' workshop.

The cloth used as a foundation for the paint is made from flax tow yarn of a coarse quality, a rough and fibrous surface being best adapted for taking on and retaining the paint. The cloth is made in immense webs, measuring 150 yards in length and eight yards in breadth, and the looms required to weave it are consequently of gigantic size. Two men are required to work each loom, and the weaving of a web of the dimensions stated occupies them for about fourteen days. When the weaving is completed, the web is cut up into six "cloths," each twenty-five yards in length. The "cloths" are taken to the frame-room and stretched firmly on vertical frameworks of wood. In that position the cloth is sized and painted. The "back," or what is to be the lower side of the fabric, is first operated upon, and after the two coats of size and paint which are bestowed on it have been thoroughly dried by the injection of hot air into the apartment, the cloth is turned and the "face" is subjected to a succession of sizings and paintings.

The paint is prepared in a special department, furnished with a variety of mills for grinding and mixing the colours, tanks for holding oils and prepared paints, and a boiler for boiling oil. The paint is made of the consistency of treacle, and is passed to the various departments either through tubes or by means of buckets. The pigments used are chiefly ochres and leads. About twenty tons of paint are used every week, each "cloth" requiring about half a ton. The mode in which the paint and size are applied is this:—The size is a thin liquid, somewhat resembling soap-suds in appearance, and is put on with a broad flat brush. After all the pieces have been coated, the windows of the chamber are closed, and the hot-air valve is opened. Currents of heated air are made to sweep along the surface of the cloth for a certain time. The place is then allowed to cool, and the workmen, who stand on a series of platforms in front of the stretching frames, shear the surface of the cloth with large knives, which remove all the fibres that have not been "laid" by the size. The paint is then put on. Its consistency does not admit of a brush being used, and accordingly trowels are employed. The workmen rub the paint well in, and then smooth it off with the trowels. This is an operation requiring great care, because any unequal distribution of the paint would be sure to show in the finished goods. Hot air is again admitted, and after the paint is dry the workmen rub the surface with slabs of pumice stone, which remove or reduce any roughness. Another coat of size is then laid on, and so the work proceeds until the required "body" is obtained. The process of manufacture is much retarded by the time required to dry the successive layers of size and paint. After the cloth leaves the loom it cannot be got ready for the market in less than two or three months, and the longer it is allowed to "season" after that time the more durable will it be. An engine of fifty horse power is kept going constantly forcing air through a series of heated tubes into the frame-rooms.

The new block of buildings is devoted to sizing, painting, and drying; and when these operations are completed, the cloth is taken off the frames, rolled up, and hoisted to the printing-room, on the upper floor of the old building. Like other processes in the manufacture of floorcloth, the mode of printing has been much improved in recent years, and much of the credit pertaining to the degree of excellence that has been attained in that department is due to Mr Nairn. The earliest figuring on floorcloth was executed by a common brush, in the hands of a house-painter. As the demand for the material increased, a more expeditious mode of producing variegated patterns was sought, and an attempt was made to supply the want by a modification of the ancient stencilling process. The forms of leaves and other objects were cut out of sheets of pasteboard, the sheets were then laid on the cloth, and the paint applied through the excised parts. Mr Nathan Smith, of London, tried to impress the designs from engraved blocks; and the experiment was so successful that it is still retained, though in a much improved form. The early designs were very faulty, both in conception and in execution; and before the Exhibition of 1851 little progress had been made in the direction of improvement. The criticism which the display of floorcloth at the first World's Show called forth, had a wholesome effect on the trade. Then the design was worked out in dots of colour, arranged on a neutral ground, and it was rarely that more than two-thirds of the surface were covered by the colours of the pattern. The surface consequently was uneven, and the raised figuring was soon worn off. Mr Nairn was the first to remedy this defect, and how he did so is explained in the following extract from the "Art Journal's" notice of the floorcloths shown at the Exhibition of 1862 :—" Since 1851 a most important fundamental change has been introduced and matured by the enterprising and able Scottish firm of Michael Nairn & Co., of Kirkcaldy; and now floorcloth, having got over the long-established condition of dot-printing, has demonstrated that it may be produced with all the richness, the minuteness, and the finish of velvet-pile carpet. The Messrs Nairn have devised and adopted a system of printing which enables them to introduce any number of colours, and any variety and combination of tints, and also to impart to their designs a clearness of definition, with a depth of tone, absolutely impossible of attainment by dot-printing. The new floorcloth presents a solid surface of colours, in actual contact, which entirely covers, and therefore completely conceals, the ground painting—thus at one and the same time affording facilities for the production of a much higher class of designs, and affording a greatly superior and much more durable surface to the wearer. And the inventors of this real improvement in an important and most useful manufacture, have not been slow to carry out, in the matter of design, the advantages which they themselves had introduced by their novel producing processes. Being enabled to produce far better designs than heretofore had been associated with floorcloth, they have executed examples of several varieties of their designs, and placed them in the Exhibition Some few specimens of floorcloths having tile patterns appeared in the Exhibition, in the execution of which there are some laudable attempts to emulate the example set by the Messrs Nairn; but the Scottish firm is without any real rival whatever; and more than this, to them belongs the merit of having first projected every important improvement which has been introduced into their manufacture. We must not omit to add that, in the treatment of imitative marbles and woods, and in chintz patterns, the Scottish floorcloth maintains the same supremacy as distinguishes their original designs of a higher order. Altogether, this is one of the most gratifying instances of superior excellence in a manufacture that the Exhibition adduced, in favourable contrast with its predecessor of 1851; and it is with sincere pleasure that we are able, in such decided terms, to record our admiration for a staple article of British industry." Visitors to the Scottish Floorcloth Manufactory will readily confirm the complimentary language in which the productions of the establishment are spoken of by the "Art Journal."

The process by which the designs are conveyed to the cloth may now be described. As in preparing designs for the Jacquard loom and Berlin worsted-work, the figures in most cases are drawn and coloured in dots. The number of colours employed in one pattern ranges from four to fourteen, and each colour requires a separate block. In preparing the blocks great care has to be taken in order to make the successive impressions fall into their respective places. The outline blocks have the figures formed on their surface either in copper or type-metal, and sometimes in a combination of both. The "filling" blocks are faced with boxwood, and before being "cut," the printing surface is sawn into minute squares—eighty-one to the square inch—the saw penetrating to a depth of nearly a quarter of an inch. These squares correspond to the squares in the design, and the block is prepared by all the squares being chipped out, except those that are required for the colour to which the block is to be devoted. The division into squares has another and more important purpose. If a close surface were used, the block would not take up nor lay down the paint properly, and one result would be the squeezing out of the colour, and the formation of a ridge round the edges of the figures. It would appear, then, that "dot printing" has not been abolished after all, persons who have read thus far will be ready to say. As a part of the printing process it still prevails, but a subsequent operation changes, or rather obliterates, its effect.

There are two floors in the printing department of the factory, and the upper is separated from the lower by a space of fifty, feet. The printing-room is on the upper floor, and the object of the great space beneath it is to admit of the cloth being suspended as it is printed. Two men and two boys are employed at each printing-table. Having prepared the cloth, the men apply the blocks in succession. The blocks are about eighteen inches square, and one is required for each colour in the design. For each colour there is a skin-covered moveable table, on the surface of which the " tear-boy" spreads the paint in an even layer, and on that the printer presses his block after each impression. The cloth is operated upon in sections equal to the width of the blocks, and extending across the cloth. It is interesting to watch the effect of the successive applications of the colours, and wonderful to observe the want of harmony that generally prevails until the last colour has been filled in. After all the printing-blocks have been applied, the surface of the work has a dotted appearance, but that is dispelled by the application of the " finishing block," which bears no design, but has its surface divided into fine parallel lines. Under the pressure of these lines the colours are blended and more equally distributed, while the fine ribbed marking that remains makes the cloth look soft and rich. The mode of taking an impression off the blocks is much superior to the old plan of striking them with a hammer, as is still the fashion in calico-printing. Over each printing table is a stout beam, to the under side of which a pair of travelling screws are attached. When the printer lays his block on the cloth, he brings one of the screws over it, and by pulling a lever takes off the impression. In proceeding from side to side of the cloth he slides the screw along with him. As each section. of the cloth is finished, it is passed over the side of the table and allowed to descend through an opening in the floor. Both ends of each "cloth" are secured to a beam, the bight only being allowed to go down; and when the piece is finished, it hangs in a long loop with the printed side outward. Thus suspended, the cloth may be moved from one part of the building to another on a peculiar kind of railway constructed on the ceiling of the lower room. When a certain number of cloths have been got ready, they are run into another compartment of the building, and there dried by means of hot air, a process which occupies several weeks. All that then remains to be done is to cut the margins off the cloth and make it up into rolls. The variety of cloth made as above described is of one pattern throughout; but other kinds are made with borders, such as the narrow cloth used for stairs, several widths of which are printed on one web of canvas.

Messrs Nairn rank among their customers all the reigning families of Europe, and have received the highest honours at the great Exhibitions in London and Paris. The piece of floorcloth shown at Paris was the most magnificent work of the kind ever produced. It was designed by Mr Owen Jones, and illustrated in an extraordinary degree the capabilities of the art. Only four colours were employed, but there was great variety in the figuring—so much, indeed, that upwards of 100 blocks were required.

The number of persons employed is nearly 200, all men and boys. The printers serve an apprenticeship of five years. They begin as "tear-boys," when they receive from 3s. 6d. to 5s. a-week, and from that are promoted to be assistant printers, with from 8s. to 14s. a-week. As journeymen in charge of a table, they receive from 21s. to 23s. a-week. The "trowellers," or those who put on the ground paint, have pretty heavy work; but as it requires less skill, they receive only from 18s. to 20s. a-week. The quantity of cloth turned out weekly is 40 pieces, measuring 25 by 8 yards. Each piece weighs from 11 to 12 cwt., the paint being equal to five-sixths of that weight.

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