Fabric of a nation: survival and revival of the Scottish textiles industry

“I said to him – could you not use a switch?” Rob is fondly recounting a memorable visit to his workplace. The visitor was the NASA engineer responsible for developing technology to prevent spacecraft from combusting during launch. At that moment, however, the engineer was mystified by a more pressing concern: “How can you work your machine uncomputerised?”

Operating a textiles mill is clearly of rocket science proportions.

Decorated in his well-worn blue overalls, complete with what appear like distinctly earned, dark stains, Rob now attempts to explain the seemingly multi-algorhythmic process of the machine to me. The technology is second nature to him. I nod – feigning to understand – while simultaneously sinking into a seductive haze of colourful fabrics, dusty bi-products and the hypnotic rhythms of the clanking machinery which surrounds us.

Scotland was once described by nineteenth century literary figure and General Solicitor for Scotland, Lord Cockburn, as a nation of manufacturers. While still revelling in the glories of our manufacturing capabilities following the opening of the Queensferry Crossing – a symbol of national economic strength, despite the globalised nature of its production  – the reality for this diverse workforce cannot always be seen through such rose tinted spectacles. A prime example is the textiles industry: one of Scotland’s unique cultural icons. Yet deindustrialisation helped to deplete the workforce of this formerly prosperous and confident industry. Between 1965 and 1979, 5.5 thousand jobs were lost. In the 1980s, rationalisation resulted in a further loss of 60 per cent in textile manufacturing capacity. In its heyday, the Scottish Borders alone boasted 54 active mills. Today, just 7 remain. Rob works at A. Elliot (Fine Fabrics) Ltd. at Forrest Mill in Selkirk.

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Rob, Chief Mill Operator, Forrest Mill

“You couldn’t make it up. I’ve got 18 years of apprenticeships…” He is interrupted by the chugging industrial noises of the mill machinery. The sound is immediately reminiscent of the piston valves of a steam train all moving in synchronicity, a destination in mind (albeit with multiple stops along the way). As the machines halt temporarily I fade back into Rob’s description of another machine’s function. Conversations of a mill fit it in between the timings of the machinery.

“I did a bit of everything and a lot of helping folk. After I’d served my time in the weaving trade learning to keep these old looms running they put me in a pattern weaving department. I was in charge of weaving all the samples and converting the designer’s ideas into fabrics.” 

This year marks Rob’s sixtieth as a mill operator. How long was he out of work during the deindustrialisation period? “Five minutes. I finished my shift at 2pm along the road then I came here”. As Rob separates and fastens threads on the warping mill to pegs on the ground, he does so with patient, understated elegance – qualities upon which Scottish traditional production have been borne. The description a clothes designer I know offered of what constitutes an artisan seems to apply: a truly skilled master of one’s craft, manically focused, who – through time and experience – becomes a Jedi master. Definitely fits. “The machine over there”, he continues, “it predates the Titanic. It’s seen itself through two world wars. The stories it could tell!”

It certainly has witnessed a lot of changes. Including, with the exception of Rob and a handful of others, a labour force lost in time.

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Warping wheel, Forrest Mill

The main shift between yesterday and today’s Scottish economy can be seen as a move from industrial production to services. With regards employment, the services sector, while in the 1960s  was comparable in size to the industrial sector, is today more than eight times its size. However, regional specialisms played a part in how the Scottish economy responded to this shift. Edinburgh and the Lothians’ lack of a monopoly industry labour force somewhat ironically enabled a smooth transition into the service sector. On the other hand, the focused – yet ultimately limited – range of industrial skills in other areas of Scotland, such as shipbuilding and steel works in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, worked to significantly hamper their transition. A monopoly on an economy typically works to increase profits by hamstringing competition. However, if the economy is fundamentally altered, this principle becomes as redundant as its unprotected workers. It is perhaps no surprise that, even today, issues of unemployment and social security take-up is highest in former industrial areas.

The working class consciousness would have surely found it hard to ignore the rumbling overtones of the political economy at the time: that commitment to a trade is dead (or dying). Indeed, it would seem building confidence into blue-collar trade was not a tenant of contemporaneous UK Government administrations. One need only look at Heath’s stubborn denial of strategic plans for industrial renewal of central Scotland (a key operation entitled ‘Oceanside’); followed by Thatcher’s ‘instant post-industrialisation’ plans, whereby anti-inflationary fiscal mechanisms designed by her Chancellors to dampen roaring growth in the south were experienced as crudely deflationary instruments in industrial Scotland, further speeding up the contraction of primary production. This all in the back-drop of – and adding to – Scotland’s developing lack of confidence in its own self-Governing abilities, now materialising through unsupported ambitions of devolution and lacking national identity of the 1980s (popularised in Bill Forsyth’s cult films Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero). But the consumer textiles market was changing too.

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Rob operating a spinning machine

“People were wanting washable, easy to wear, off-the-peg garments. Woolen garments didn’t fit in with that. People were wanting things like polyester, poly viscose, crimplene [laughs] remember crimplene? The mills around here didn’t produce that…”

I find myself now holding a chipped tartan cup filled with builder’s tea. Its fragrance accompanied by the surrounding mouldy mill scent and the view of lichen coating thin strips of roof glass panes, permitting shadowy light into Forrest Mill owner, Robin’s office space. The last vestige of a formerly competitive industry left to fend for itself.

“…so the people who were working in these mills, the majority would have gone back and retrained. At that time there was an electronics boom and probably most of Scotland and England were in electronics… The irony is that then their time came and they started closing shop 10-15 years ago.”

The questions around why firms such as Robin’s (set up originally by his designer father, Andrew Elliot) were able to survive such a drastic transformation of an industry when others simply collapsed are those now posed to business historians. It’s clear though that the question of marketability of what they were providing was never really in question, at least not for long.

Modern technologies had enabled fashion’s entry into the world of mass production and manufacturing bases whistled abroad to the tune of lower labour costs. As a result of increased production and sustained low prices, a hyper-consumption market evolved, with new fast fashion outlets saying everything about the value placed upon the garments they sold (which, incidentally, have now helped to pit textiles next to oil and coal as leaders in waste production). But the rise in mass production of textiles worked eventually, in contradistinction, to engender a renewed interest in traditional weaving produce. As Robin explains, “People are [now] buying into this ethos of what’s indigenous and unique but that’s done in a way that’s stylish”. For all its economic strength, the mass produced textile market was always lacking in one area: story. The Scottish weavers, on the other hand, could supply a surplus of this particular material.

Crafts men and women have worked in textile mills in Scotland – scattering the landscape in no discernible pattern – since the late seventeenth century. Indeed, the ‘insta-artisan’ worker of today’s coffee shop, craft beer start-up and bread maker owe a considerable portion of their marketability to the tradition of manufacturing and all the encoded messages of generationally afforded skill attached therein.

Tweed, a product weaved out of the yarn that arrives to Forrest Mill, is a key player in the revival of traditional textiles and owns a unique place in Scottish culture. The finishing process of Harris Tweed, which historically used urine in its purification via repetitive beating of the cloth, led to the development of waulking songs – a form of music most resonant with an original, female working class of Scotland. This was recently brought to the modern consciousness once again via the television series Outlander (a more confident, if earthy, depiction of Scottish nationhood than Forsyth’s 80s portrayals). This class have been used to poor working standards throughout the centuries. Much as the fabric’s coarseness was originally designed to withstand the harsh Hebridean climes, it is perhaps no surprise that a resilience to other forms of storm have been passed down the line.

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Robin Elliot, Owner of A. Elliot (Fine Fabrics) Ltd.

A long reaching smile comes over Robin’s face as he describes how, after his father started A. Elliot Ltd. in 1965, his mother was the one who had to reign him in with his excitability towards outlandish design ideas. There was a love, a partnership that fed the early operation, and one that has inspired Robin to carry on the legacy. In contrast, back on the mill floor, a different impression had emerged as Rob described the “thieves and dishonest people in the trade”. The tale of his former colleague who would fill his car every night with yarn and use it to fund his own knitwear company. Or Barry from Hawick’s Friday night cashmere delivery out of an estate car. He offers a shaky rendition of the Only Fools and Horses theme tune: “no income tax, no VAT..”. I hear it, in amidst the mill’s steady murmurs, as a dystopian appropriation of the waulking song: the undertones of being burned through others’ greed over the communal spirit which encouraged workers of yesteryear.

And so what of the future of the industry? Robin is optimistic. “You can say there’s so few of us left – surely that means there’s more business for everyone. But I think it’s a case of making sure what we’re doing – that the promotion of what we do is absolutely right. I think in tweed the last few years has definitely seen an upturn in sales. Harris alone shows this”.

The Harris Tweed Association was formed in 1910 to offer protection for the manufacture of its uniquely woven fabrics from indigenous virgin wool. In 1993, a Bill in the UK Parliament received Royal Assent, giving statutory rights to the former voluntary body (renamed the Harris Tweed Authority), adapting to protect the trademark in the European Economic Community and elsewhere. This effectively made Harris Tweed the only textile in the world to have its own geographic protective legislation. The net result, however, was a loss for competing Scottish producers, despite the often experienced, skilled labour to hand. As Robin explains, “if you were a connoisseur of champagne you would scoff at sparkling wine. And it’s the same with Harris Tweed.

Nevertheless, the regional monopoly on the artisanal production of tweed has, with a few down periods, proven beneficial for Harris producers throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – in a way that could not be said for particular regions during deindustrialisation. It’s enabled Harris Tweed’s supersedence over Dundee’s famed jute, for example. The (formerly vibrant) link Dundee had with the international economy suffered during deindustrialisation and has since slowed to a halt – due in some measure to jute’s replicability in former import destinations, such as India – leaving the Tayside city in what’s been termed a state of ‘deglobalisation’. It appears a material requires more than a rough exterior to weather a storm.

At Forrest Mill, the proverbial 5 o’clock whistle has blown and it’s time for Rob to call it a day on the factory floor. He leaves me with one last tale. Apparently, prior to electricity, the mill used to be powered by a water wheel: “There was a salmon farm up the road and they swam up under here. Workers used to take up the floorboards and guddle for the fish. Once a man got caught by the wheel”. Oh my god, what happened? I hastened. “He was taken under and drowned. There wasnae a way to stop the wheel”.

If only they used a switch…

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