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Peebles and Selkirk
Manufacture of Wool


In a district famous for sheep, the chief manufacture is naturally that of wool. At one time Selkirk was famous for its shoemaking. The "Souters," however, with their "single-soled shoon" have long since disappeared. "Single-soled shoon" were brogues with a single thin sole, the purchaser himself sewing on another of thick leather. "Souter" has continued to be the distinctive appellation of the inhabitants of Selkirk. The quaint ceremony of "licking the birse" is still performed by the recipient of the honorary freedom of the Burgh, the "birse" being the bristles with which shoemakers point their "lingles" or thread, and the licking being performed by dipping the bunch in wine and then drawing it through the lips.

In 1587 Parliament passed an Act to encourage the settlement of Flemish craftsmen and the employment of Scottish apprentices. About this time, also, we find the first mention of the manufacture of wool at Galashiels, which then had two "wauk" mills. By the seventeenth century three mills were busy felting or milling the webs made from the wool of the district and spun by the women in their houses. The thieves of Liddesdale held the Galashiels "hodden grey" in high repute. During the days of the Civil War numerous acts were passed to encourage woollen manufacture in Scotland. The Board of Manufactures in 1728 appointed in Galashiels, Hawick, Jedburgh, Peebles, and Lauder, persons skilled in sorting, stapling and washing coarse, tarred wool. Each received a salary of £20 and also utensils. These grants were continued to the woollen trade till 1840. In 1835 Galashiels manufacturers built mills in Selkirk; about 1850 the first cloth-mill was established in Peebles; and thereafter the trade took root in Innerleithen and Walkerburn.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the kind of cloth manufactured was shepherd tartan, of which travelling cloaks were made. Trousers were made of the same pattern, and Sir Walter Scott’s may still be seen at Abbotsford. Mr Dickson of Peebles manufactured trousers of the plaid pattern for the London market, and the only variation of pattern attempted was the size of the black and white check. Then checks of black and brown were introduced and other colours tried. Following the checks, twills were tried, and new combinations of colours followed. Every change gave the trade a fresh impetus, and Scottish fancy woollens became the fashion. The local supply of wool proved inadequate, even though a corresponding development took place in pastoral farming; and in 1834 fine wool was imported from abroad. Within six years four-fifths of the wool was imported—at first the fine merino of the continent, but soon the more suitable wool of the colonies was employed.

From the 400,000 sheep in the district the yield of unwashed wool is upwards of 2,000,000 lbs. As the district probably possesses more sheep per acre than any other region in the world, it is not difficult to understand why the Scotch Tweed trade should find its home in the valleys of the Tweed and its tributaries. But, great though the home supply is, it is insufficient to meet more than one-tenth of the trade requirements.

There are 43 woollen mills, using annually about 18 million lbs. of raw wool, valued at over £1,000,000 sterling. These mills contain 200 sets of carding machines, about 160,000 mule spindles, and 1900 power looms, employing altogether about 7500 workpeople, earning, it is estimated, £375,000 in wages per annum. The capital sunk in the woollen industry of the two counties will exceed two millions sterling. Fully 60 per cent. of the Scotch Tweed produced is manufactured in the counties of Peebles and Selkirk.

The Scotch Tweed manufacturers have always been strong supporters of technical education. In 1883 classes for instruction in tile technique of manufacture were commenced in Galashiels under the auspices of the Manufacturers’ Corporation. In later years the classes attained a remarkable degree of success and their good work was so appreciated that, when the manufacturers were invited to contribute towards a scheme for a Technical College for the south of Scotland, a sum of £ 11,000 was readily forthcoming, which, augmented by an equivalent grant from Government, enabled the promoters to erect a college worthy of the traditions and importance of the woollen trade. Galashiels has become a name to conjure with throughout the world not only on account of the excellence of its "Tweed," but also on account of the skill of its Tweed designers, and in consequence many Borderers are to be found all over England, Ireland, Europe, America, amid the colonies holding high positions in woollen mills.

The kinds of cloth manufactured in Galashiels, Selkirk, and Peebles vary from time to time, and it may happen that while trade is busy in one town or in one manufactory of a town, it is extremely slack in another town or factory. The staple manufacture of the district, however, is Cheviot cloths suitable for sport and motoring and out-of-doors wear, Saxony and worsteds not lending themselves to the make-up of garments for such purposes. It will be seen, therefore, that in the Tweed manufacture a great deal depends upon the readiness with which the manufacturer can anticipate arid supply the popular taste.

The origin of the word "Tweed " in its industrial sense is interesting. In the early part of the nineteenth century a considerable trade in Scotch " Tweels " had sprung up with London merchants. In 1826 a firm in the south of Scotland consigned a quantity of these goods to a leading woollen warehouseman in London. The invoice clerk by a slip transformed "Tweels" into "Tweeds" and the merchant, thinking this an appropriate designation, repeated more "Tweeds." The name and cloth caught the public favour, and "Tweed" is now the accepted trade description throughout the world.


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