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The Paisley Shawl and the People who made it
Chapter VI - Culture and Skill of the Weavers

THE age of handicraft is passing away. The steam-engine has worked the greatest revolution that has ever taken place in the affairs of men, and marks a dividing line between the old and the new states of society, more sharply than any other event has done. Before the application of steam power became general, hand labour held the field, and the economic conditions were such, that men could thrive simply by manual labour. But steam has put an end to all that. Power being now available, the invention of labour-saving machinery has so lessened the cost of articles of primary necessity, that hand labour cannot successfully compete.

We must, of course, accept the condition and changes which the advance of civilization imposes upon us. Our duty is to conform to them and utilize them to the best advantage. Yet it may be permissible to note with regret the deterioration in the character of the workman, which the adoption of machinery and the factory system, in their early stages, at least, have produced. We cannot go back to hand labour, but the problem of the future will be, how to counteract the demoralizing effect of machinery on our working population. Handicraft is an education. The hand worker has scope to exercise taste, invention, harmony, art, and genius, in a way that the worker who simply tends a machine can never have. He has therefore opportunities of being a far more cultured man; and this is well illustrated in the weavers of Paisley. The work they had to do required great nicety of touch, patient skill and devotion, and was thus in itself an education. The result was to produce workmen who, for general intelligence, have no counterpart at the present day. We have heard it remarked by a well informed bookseller, that many of the weavers of those days had libraries equal to those of ministers or professional men.

Some occupations are so noisy that an operative cannot think while they are being carried on. Others require a great amount of muscular exertion in circumstances most unfavourable for thought or reflection, such as blacksmiths or miners. Others again require to be performed by a number of men at one time, working into each others' hands, so that one cannot stop unless they all stop. Others, as baking and moulding, require to go on when once started, otherwise the material is spoiled. But hand-loom weaving, as practised in Paisley at the time of which we are now writing, had not one of these disadvantages, but had many peculiar advantages which rendered it especially favourable to intellectual development.

The population had not increased then as it has done since the introduction of the Irish element, brought about by the Irish famine and the making of our railways. The people were native Scotch. The parochial school system was sufficient to overtake the wants of the population, and in the country districts, at all events, even the humblest were sure of a fair education. Any one who reads the letters of Burns will see that he, educated at a parish school, could write as good English prose as any peer's son who had spent the best years of his life at Oxford or Cambridge. The lads, therefore, who flocked in from the country to learn the art of weaving, brought with them the elements of a fair education. The work they had to do was indoors. It was not very noisy. It was not pressingly continuous. It was even to some extent mechanical, and left the mind and the tongue free to exercise themselves even in the midst of the operation. Yet it was not an uninteresting labour. The setting up of the web and the handling of the delicate materials then used, required nicety and skill, and gave scope for much ingenuity. The brain was not allowed to slumber, and the eye was educated by dealing with brilliant and harmonious colours and elegant designs.

Then the work was not conducted in a factory, where a man is merely a unit, nor in a private house, where he is alone. The system of "shops," where four or six looms were set up in the same apartment, brought the weavers into constant contact with each other, so that, as of old, "As iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend." At meal times, and before resuming their work, the weavers would gather round the fire, or on bright days, at the front door, to smoke and talk. Of course they must argue. The man who would not differ from his neighbour, and show good reasons for so doing, was no true Paisley weaver. Newspapers were expensive in those days, but the weaver would want many things before he would do without his paper, so they usually combined to purchase a weekly journal. Generally one was set up to read to the others, and so the well-worn copy of the Reformers' Gazelle, or the Glasgow Chronicle, went the round of the shops. When the time was up, the weavers went back to their "seat-trees" to ruminate on the knotty points, and prepare for another debate on the earliest opportunity.

Then, again, the work was paid by the piece, and not by time. The weaver generally owned the loom at which he worked, or hired it for a lengthy period. He was thus his own master. If the weather was fine, and the woods and meadows inviting, he could enjoy himself as he pleased, and make it up by overtime. After his web was set up, each man could work quite independently of his neighbour. If then a weaver were behind with his work, he had only to light his candle or "crusie," and go down to the shop—they mostly lived over the shops—and drive away at his loom as far into the night as he desired to work, if he had a plain web which did not require the help of a draw-boy.

Thus the weaver was delightfully self-contained and independent. He could lay down his shuttle at any moment, and take it up again when it suited him, and neither he nor his web was any the worse. All the conditions of his work and his surroundings were favourable to intellectual development.

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