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The Paisley Shawl and the People who made it
Chapter V - Weaving of the Harness Shawl


THE shawl was woven face downwards. To the weaver there appeared only a mass of floating threads, without form and void. Close attention on the part both of weaver and draw-boy was thus necessary every moment, in order to prevent any false shot from passing in to mar the design.

The weaver had another constant care before him. Every inch that he wove must measure to the minutest fraction, neither more nor less, than the precise space allotted by the design. This perfect accuracy arose because of the necessity that a plaid of three or four yards in length must terminate within a quarter of an inch of its stipulated length. The former reference to the mode of dyeing or staining the warps will make this obvious.

How much skill and delicacy of touch was required will be plain to every reader. As an aid to guide him, the weaver usually passed a pin through the cloth, and carefully measured each three or four inches, knowing, as he did, that 100 or a 1,000 shots ought to measure a definite length, or complete so much of the design. And it must be acknowledged to be a triumph of weaving, that in a plaid measuring three or four yards in length, with six or seven colours running, and a heavy box-lay to handle, the plaid should be brought to a perfect finish within a quarter of an inch of its assigned limit.

The lay in common use was one of ten boxes, with a drop motion controlled by a trigger under the weaver's thumb, so that he could raise or drop each box in succession, or skip one or more as required. Thus, if eight colours formed the design, it might happen that colour 3 in the gamut of colours was silent in a particular bridle. The draw-boy would see this by a gap being left, and call out "miss ane;" the weaver would then drop box 3 and pass to the fourth colour. When the completed shots of each bridle had passed through, then would follow the ground shot; but as this was often a heavy lift, too much for a boy to raise, he had the control of a strong wooden lever, moving on a spindle, called the "deil" or "douge." Pressing this against the simple, the heavy lift was thus made, and the ground shots were passed through.

The ground colour of the fabric was generally fine Thibet wool (Botany worsted), and being of a smaller count or thinner thread than the spotting or figure colours, there were usually two or more shots put in for one of the spotting colours, the threads of which were always thicker. The bridle was therefore composed of, say two ground shots, one of each of the spotting colours, and then a shot of fine lace cotton. This is the "sma' shot" which is commemorated in the holiday, as explained further on. The small shot acted as a binder for all the other colours, and was not intended to be seen. It was put through a shed formed by the weaver with heddles continuous across the width of the warp, and not by any action of the draw-boy. The ground or back lash was formed by the boy drawing Out all the lashes of a bridle with the left hand and passing in the "deil" with the right hand. Pushing it back with all that remained of the simple, he raised the ground shed, which had to be held up for two shots, the weaver forming the twill by treading the heddles.

It was arduous work for a young boy, requiring continuous attention, as a mistake on his part might work havoc on the design. Like his master, he too needed a careful touch. Lash number x might represent only a few threads of the simple, and so a light touch was needed to make the required shed. Lash number 5 might need all his strength to draw it down and so make a clear passage for the shuttle. If the weaver were harsh and exacting, the poor boy was in constant fear lest a slip might be made. But even under a kindly master, the work was heavy, and often the hours were long, running sometimes near to midnight on occasional emergencies. In cold weather his bare feet would be nestled within his Kilmarnock bonnet, resting on- the clay floor. And yet these boys were a brave cheery race, full of fun and mischief, and ready for any ploy when the web was out, or the "maister" gone for a day to the fishing or curling, or mayhap on the "spree." Indeed, the draw-boys rather preferred a master who occasionally enjoyed himself "not wisely but too well." Not a few of these draw-boys rose to positions of influence in the old country, and in the "Greater Britain" beyond the seas. Peace be to their memory.
In the way we have endeavoured to describe, the old weavers made beautiful and perfect productions. It would be difficult now to find handicraft workers to exhibit such patience, skill, and devotion. It was severe work, both for man and boy. Verily the workers of our day have a lighter lot to face. But these old weavers had some compensations. Out of the travail of this drudgery, was born the patient industry, the intellectual strength, the cultured taste, and that love of beauty in fabrics, in nature, and in song, which marked the weavers of Paisley.

Although the weaving of the Harness Shawl was a delicate operation, and had a highly educative effect on the workman, there were many preparatory and subsidiary occupations connected with the shawl manufacture, where highly skilled labour was also required. No weaver, however wide his knowledge and experience, could undertake the whole of these operations, and thus specialists arose for every department. This was an important point in the spread of the very high intellectual training, which the Harness Shawl trade, above many other occupations, was instrumental in promoting.

The designing was a very special department, and demanded a wide culture. Designing for a garment that is to be draped on the figure, differs materially from that destined for a wall-paper or a carpet. A good shawl designer had not only to be a careful student of Indian art, and of design in general, he had also to understand the limits which a loom imposes on design, and to know the number of warp threads which the harness could control, and so construct his pattern that it would be possible to produce it on the loom that then existed, and at a price that would command the market. Thus the designers requiring in addition to their artistic skill, to possess considerable technical knowledge, were quite a superior class of operatives.

Dyeing was equally important, and required highly skilled workmen. From the necessity of having the parti-coloured finish on the border, and different coloured portions through all the length of the warp, dyeing became practically a system of printing, and had to be most carefully done. Men were thus trained in handicraft to a degree of skill, and with an intelligence that has very little counterpart in many of our present industries. To enable the dyer to properly stain or print the warp, the warping had to be so carefully done as to create another class of specialists known as warpers. The kind of work to which these men devoted themselves required the utmost delicacy. One of the most exacting parts of the manufacturer's duty was the drawing of the dyeing plan, so as to guide correctly both the warpers and the dyers.

The placing of such a stained warp on the beam ready for the weaver, was the work of the beamers, and this also required a specially trained class of men, who entirely devoted themselves to this operation. The stained portions had to be placed accurately at their proper place. Certain little flaws might be afterwards remedied with a paint brush, but any material error in the beaming would produce a damaged plaid, hence this important operation came to be a special industry.

Designing, warping, staining, and beaming were operations outside of the loom, and none of the weavers undertook any part of these operations. But in the loom, the harness-tying and the entering were occasionally done by the weaver himself, if he were competent, but in most cases these matters were confided to specialists. Harness-tiers thus became a separate class of operatives, who had great skill in this work and could do it much quicker than any weaver. Entering the web, that is, passing each thread through its proper eye in the mail or heddle, became a distinct profession of the enterers, who were much more expert at this delicate and responsible operation than any weaver could be.

The work of the flower-lasher, also, formed a separate profession. This subdivision of labour not only produced the best work, but it widely extended the culture of the operatives.

Even when the shawl came out of the loom, it had to go to professional clippers, to clear the under part of the loose threads, a work that had to be confided to specially trained hands. The clipping machine was a framework carrying a set of steel blades, which revolved at a great speed, under which the shawl was passed several times, each closer than the preceding, till all the loose threads were cleanly shaven off. The weight of the shawl would thus sometimes be reduced from one hundred ounces, when it came out of the loom, to thirty four ounces, which was considered the average weight for a good quality of plaid. It is evident that this operation, although done by a machine, required an intelligent and skilful -worker. The slightest error in the adjustment of the knives might destroy a valuable plaid.

Then followed the fringing, finishing, and pressing of the shawls, which again employed people specially trained to these matters. Thus all the workers connected with the manufacture of the shawl had to be intelligent, patient, and skilful. The work in all its branches contributed to form that cultured character which marked the Paisley operative.

The Paisley Shawl as now described, was woven on the draw-loom by the aid of the draw-boy. The mechanism of this loom is shown in Plate 13.

Attempts were made as far back as 1728 to do the draw-boy's work by means of perforated cards. This invention was perfected by a French weaver, Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834), in the machine which bears his name, and which was first shown in i8oi. The French adopted it much earlier than the Paisley weavers. Ultimately it made its way here, and gradually superseded the draw-boy, who was rarely employed after 1850.

Mechanical improvements of this kind were inevitable and desirable, yet the tendency of machinery is to alter entirely the type of workman, and thus the old cultured and ingenious weaver gradually disappeared.

Before leaving this subject, it may be well to mention the introduction of the double or reversible shawl. The harness shawl, as we have said, was woven face downwards, and the loose threads at the back were cut off by a clipping machine, so that the pattern was shown only on one side. In the reversible shawl, the warp and weft threads were so arranged as to show a pattern on both sides, and no loose ends required to be cut off. Mr. John Cunningham was principally concerned in this invention. Plate 9 shows a shawl of this class. It will be observed that the part folded over, is the same design as the lower portion, but with the colours reversed.

Large numbers of reversible shawls were made between i 86o and 1885, but the invention came too late to give the inventor the reward which his ingenuity deserved. The shawl as an article of dress went Out of fashion, and no improvements or cheapening of production, could revive the demand. Even if fashion had not changed, the hand-loom industry, which had so much to do with the development of the peculiar character of the weavers of Paisley, was certain to decay, in face of the general adoption of the power-loom. The great mass of the public will always purchase in the end, the machine-made article because of its cheapness.


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