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The Paisley Shawl and the People who made it
Chapter I - Early Textiles in Paisley


THE textile industries of Paisley seem to have attained some importance as far back as the seventeenth century. The Poll-tax Roll of Paisley in 1695, as reproduced in Brown's History, shows that there were 66 weavers in the town, when the population over 16 years of age was stated to be 1,129. There were also 32 weavers in the Abbey Parish, which adjoins the burgh. This large proportion would indicate that the weavers worked for a wider market than the town or its immediate neighbourhood could afford.

The trade appears to have grown steadily

In 1766 there were 1,767 looms in the town.
In 1773 there were 2,233 looms in the town.
In 1792  there were 3,602 looms in the town.
In 1820  there were 7,000 looms in the town.

The goods made in those earlier days were of home-spun linen and woollen. Burns mentions that the scanty garment of the witch in "Tam o' Shanter" was "a cutty sark o' Paisley ham." Those linen and woollen goods were, no doubt, of a plain and heavy character, but as improvements in spinning progressed, cotton and silk were added, and as the materials which he could obtain became finer and more perfect, the weaver continually advanced. Linen evolved into Lawn, Cotton into Muslin, and Silk into Gauze.

This period is commemorated in the names of the streets which were added to the town at that time. Lawn, Gauze, Incle, Cotton, Silk, and Thread Streets in the New Town, and Shuttle Street in the Old Town.

The goods were at first comparatively plain fabrics, or they were woven with checks and stripes. The next advance was to put more elaborate designs upon them. This was done in two ways. First, by sewing in a pattern by hand, called "tambouring"; so named from the two rings which hold the cloth, while the worker is sewing in the figure, having a resemblance to a drum or tambourine. The other way was, by mechanical appliances, to weave the figure into the cloth.

By the latter process, the ingenuity of the workers was developed to a marvellous extent. The weavers were in some degree their own designers, and each worked out on his loom his own ideas. The result was that they produced a great many new types of fabrics, and invented several exceedingly clever adaptations of the loom to produce novel effects.

Writing in 1872, the late Mr. William Cross, who had an intimate knowledge of those times, says:-

"The present generation, even of weavers, have little idea of the vast amount of thought and mechanical skill exercised by their predecessors in the trade on such inventions as the harness, the fly-shuttle, the patent net, the bead-lam lappet, the lappet wheel, the seeding frame, the sewing frame, the ten-boxlay, the parrot machine and the barrel machine, the 'deil,' or 'douge,' as it is sometimes called, the counterpoise motion, and the double neck. If these ingenious inventions are not soon explained, and clear descriptions of them put on record, they will utterly perish from remembrance, as if they had never been."

The hope expressed in the last sentence has not yet been realised; and we fear there is little probability that it can now be done with the necessary completeness. At best it would be of merely antiquarian interest. The power-loom has worked wonderful changes, and has superseded many of these inventions; but the harness, the lappet wheel, the sewing frame, and the box-lay, are still embodied in the power-loom of the present day.

There can be little doubt that this was the period—the close of the eighteenth century—when the weavers of Paisley acquired that intellectual culture and technical skill, for which they have been so much noted. These characteristics survived long after the sub-division of labour and the advance of mechanical appliances, had made the weaver less of an original artist than he was at first. This training also qualified him to produce with artistic skill the beautiful textures which reached their perfection in the Paisley Harness Shawl.

The Silk manufacture was introduced into Scotland about 1760, by Humphrey Fulton, who established a flourishing business in Paisley, and died in 1779. This was probably the most prosperous time in the weaving industry that Paisley ever enjoyed.

An Italian gentleman who visited the town in 1788, writes in the following glowing terms:

"The population of Paisley interests the sensibility of a traveller, not only by the constant occupation to which he sees them devoted, but likewise by the simplicity, and, at the same time, the elegance of their manners. The town abounds with most beautiful women: these in the morning and during the day are quite retired and occupied in their trade, without shoes and stockings, as is usual over all Scotland, and poorly dressed. These same women, in summer, about eight in the evening, meet and walk through the long, neat street, which forms, as it were, the whole of the place, divided into bands, dressed with so much elegance and decency, that they invite a wish to prolong one's stay, which the Scotch vivacity, far superior to the English, promises to render agreeable and diverting. In fact, after the walk, almost every evening, there is a dance. At the hour of ten all go to sleep, and the day which succeeds is like the preceding, equally occupied, and delightful, although the town has no theatre, nor that public place, so much a favourite with the English, among whom it is common, called a bowling, green, nor indeed, any other spectacle which collects and entertains the people. It is important, however, to know that this people is satisfied and completely tranquil."

This is quite idyllic, and, certainly, rather highly coloured, and, we fear, could scarcely have been written after the introduction of steam and of the factory system. But, no doubt, there was another side to the picture. Some of the weavers were rollicking blades. The King Street "core," the Thread Street "core," and other "cores," were well known, and kept the neighbourhood in an uproar when they had a drinking bout. Many amusing stories are told of these worthies at times when throats were dry and finances low. Friendship was strong and deep among them. Burns paints this love in "Tam o' Shanter" :-

"Tam lo'ed him like a verra brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither."

No one but a Scot, who has witnessed such scenes, can ever grasp the intensity of the bond of brotherhood expressed in these lines.

It is satisfactory to record that these "cores" were not altogether bad. The most famous of them was the "Charleston Callans," with their big drum. Their successors still keep the name alive, although their occupation is gone. As a Benefit Society they continue to distribute assistance to the indigent in their quarter of the town, and they are not the only Society of "Callans" yet existing.

Some of the weavers' wives were not behind their husbands. Scolding or "flyting" was a common failing, as appears from the records of the police courts. Such scenes as are depicted in Alexander Wilson's "Watty and Meg," written at this time, are unusual now, but were common enough then

"..........Maggie fallow'd,
Flyting a' the road behin.
Fowk frae every door came lamping,
Maggie curst them ane and a,'
Clappet wi' her hands, and, stamping,
Lost her bauchies i' the sna'."

Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, nearly all the textures produced in Paisley were piece goods. The Paisley Shawl proper begins to appear then, and about 1820, the successful effort to imitate the Indian Cashmere Shawl was in full swing, and this was the culminating point of the ingenuity and skill of the weavers.


 

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