Textile History

From the mid c.18th machines were developed which over the next 100 years would replace the hand operated 'home work' of spinners and weavers. The first of these was the carding machine - simple to mechanise, carding was time consuming and bothersome by hand and therefore gained earlier acceptance, supplanting a task often done by children. A simple arrangement of rotating drums clothed with fine spikes 'opened' wool sufficiently to hand spin and together with wool washing and dying, the carding mill allowed for an increase in production to hand spinners and weavers. Access to constant flowing water was essential for washing and dying and, as machinery developed, for motive power.

1760 - 1780 saw the development of spinning machines - the 'jenny', the water frame and finally the 'mule' of Samuel Crompton. Resisted by home workers, the mule in a factory setting now meant that spinning capacity outstripped that of handweavers. The period to 1850 saw a steep increase in handweavers to accommodate the glut of yarn (est. 250,000 handlooms in Britain c. 1800) together with strong resistance to the development of power looms which only gained ascendancy 1820 - 1850 in England and later in the Borders and Highlands. The carder and dyer of wool could also usefully employ his water source for the washing and shrinking of woven cloth - 'waulking'. Washing and drying tasks were happily relinquished to a local mill, spinning and weaving were guarded in their 'home' setting, but inevitably the factory setting came to encompass all trades.

From 1850 on, the small Highland mills took in machines and working practices from England which would provide a relatively stable trade for a few generations - until the 1930's, the local mills were widespread and viable. This viability was often reliant on the dual income derived from farming alongside the mill work, a strong pattern of self-sufficiency. However, price determines markets and machines get ever quicker. Some small Highland mills grew into large 'vertical' concerns, incorporating all aspects of manufacture. Conversely, in the Borders trade, mills that were once vertically integrated came to specialise as individual spinning, weaving or finishing companies in a small area. By the 1930's, small mills were dwindling, by 1950's, very few remained.