Six thousand years ago, early Europeans were beginning to adopt a new way of life based on agriculture. Through time, these new cultures adopted a number of other innovative technologies. One of these technologies was weaving, using threads made from vegetable and animal derived fibres.
It is uncertain, when humankind first created textile
materials by means of weaving. It is likely, however, that weaving
techniques were first developed by the makers of basketry, where
flexible wooden stems are worked by bending, in and out of a
framework of unbending parallel stems which remain in position as
the process of manipulation takes place. The ability to produce
extended lengths of thread by entwining fibres in a process
described as 'spinning', created the possibility of weaving thread
(or 'yarn') together, in a similar manner, in order to produce
textile fabrics. The threads which wind in and out of the weave (or
'web') are referred to as 'warp threads', while the parallel
straight threads around which the warp threads are arranged, are
termed 'weft threads'. Weaving is carried out on a structure with
moving parts called a 'loom'. On the type of traditional
hand-operated loom which was used in Scotland in the 19th Century,
the moving parts, include frames called 'heddles' which control the
action of the warp threads as they move up and down and a shuttle
which carries the weft thread laterally, through the
Evidence of early textiles is rare because they only survive for long periods in unusual conditions. In the period before historical records were kept, weaving activity is indicated by the presence of the most durable components used in textile manufacture. The presence of small pottery or stone 'spindle whorls' on an archaeological site, indicates that the production of thread, by spinning fibres together, has been taking place. The spindle whorls were used as rotating weights, in order to sustain a spinning action. The discovery of larger stone or pottery 'loom-weights', indicate that a weaving loom has been operating. These weights were suspended from the ends of the warp yarn in order to maintain tension on the warp, when set up on the loom. In the earliest looms the warp hangs vertically. These are known as vertical looms.
Textile material from the remote past, can itself, at times, survive. The waterlogged, light and oxygen free environment which exists, in what remains of Scotland's ancient lake-dwellings or 'crannogs' offer the perfect conditions for the survival of textile fibres. A fragment has been found under such conditions, in recent years, dating to approximately two and a half thousand years ago. A period which we refer to as the 'Iron Age'. This discovery provided evidence that people in Scotland, at that time could produce a 'twill' weave - a type of weave which requires a loom whose operation is relatively complex. The weaving of wool to make clothing for local use, continued in communities in Scotland throughout the following centuries.
During the Middle Ages, specialist workshops existed in order to weave the ornate tapestries which would have graced the walls of the houses and castles of noblemen. These were not made in Scotland but would have been imported from the continent from an area which is now part of modern Belgium. At this time, royalty and the wealthiest of noblemen wore garments made from sumptuous decorative fabrics manufactured using complex weaving processes with rare and unusual materials such as silk and gold thread. These were also imported, but from farther afield, from the middle-east and beyond
The 18th Century, in Scotland, saw a period of significant economic growth. The textile industries formed a major part of this process. Whereas, in the past wool alone would have provided the 'yarn', or thread for weaving, now the use of other fibres was being encouraged. A government body set up to promote economic activity, provided financial incentives for the growing and processing of flax in order to produce linen yarn. Silk began to be imported. Weavers in small communities across the south -west of Scotland began to use these materials on their looms. Looms themselves became more sophisticated and were now able to produce a range of fabrics which had previously been imported from outside Europe. At this early stage in the evolution of the industry, weavers worked from their own homes. They were employed by merchants who were termed 'manufacturers'. The manufacturers provided the weaver with yarn in the form of a 'web' and collected the finished product for which the weaver received payment. The Ayrshire weavers worked for Glasgow and Paisley based manufacturers, while weavers in Dumfriesshire worked for both Glasgow and Carlisle manufacturers. As the decades past, linen and silk were largely ousted by a new imported fabric - cotton. In 1787 a mechanised cotton-spinning mill was established on the river Ayr, at Catrine by a local landowner, Sir Claude Alexander. He had made a fortune abroad and was now investing it in this cutting-edge textile manufacturing technology. A similar enterprise was embarked upon in Galloway by the entrepreneur, William Douglas. These advanced industrial enterprises supplied yarn for the increasing number of cotton hand-loom weavers of the area. Silk and linen did continue to be woven and the villages and towns of the south-west developed their own locally specialsed industries. Wool also continued to be important as a raw material. Kilmarnock in particular, was renowned for a range of wool-based products, most notable among these being carpets. Carpets were also made in Galloway and at Sanquar in Dumfriesshire. The coarse wool of the local moorland sheep provided suitable raw material.
The years immediately following the Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815, brought economic slump and industrial change. The previous century had seen important technological advancements such as the 'flying shuttle' which allowed acceleration of the weaving process and increased the breadth of cloth which could be produced. In the towns, 'loom shops' and factories were set up in which a number of weavers would work together rather than in their own home, in a way which improved efficiency. Up until this point, weaving had been carried out on the 'hand loom' where the only form of power involved was that produced by the weaver's own physical effort. Now, fully mechanised looms were being built, which were powered by water or steam engines. This allowed them to far exceed the productivity of the hand loom weaver. The rate of introduction power loom varied along with fluctuations in economic conditions and demand for woven products. The new power loom factories were being set up in the bigger urban centres rather than rural areas.
For much of the 19th Century, only the most simple weaving processes could be carried out on the power loom. As a result of this, the hand loom weavers, working in the smaller towns and villages of the south-west of Scotland, continued to make a living by concentrating their efforts on finer materials like silk and fabrics with intricate decorative structures. These required looms whose movements were complex, and whose operations were controlled by mechanisms such as the 'jacquard box' and the 'lappet wheel'. In Dumfriesshire a woollen manufacturing industry thrived based on the factory system with hand-loom weavers producing tweeds which were much in demand south of the border.
By the end of the 19th Century, the power loom had been developed to a point where it could replace the hand loom almost entirely. For some years, toward the end of the century, young men from weaving families, abandoned the hand-loom trade and entered other industries such as engineering and coal mining. As the ageing hand loom weavers died off, so too did the tradition of hand loom weaving in the south-west of Scotland. In Ayrshire the renowned character, Matthew Fowlds - 'the Fenwick Centenarian' - is believed to be the last of his breed in this part of Scotland.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the textile industries consolidated themselves in the larger towns and geographically defined areas such as the Garnock Valley and the Irvine Valley in the north of Ayrshire. Large factories continued to produce woollen tweeds in Langholm and Dumfries. The linen weaving industry in the south-west of Scotland had been dealt a fatal blow during the 19th Century by competition from Ulster and the towns on the east coast of Scotland, and was now no longer a factor in the economy of the area. Carpet weaving in both Ayr and Kilmarnock expanded in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Cotton spinning and weaving continued at Catrine in Ayrshire, into the second half of the Twentieth Century under the management of James Finlay and Company. This company was continuing the industrial venture which had been initiated during the lifetime of Robert Burns by Sir Claude Alexander and his collaborator, David Dale of Stewarton. In some of the smaller country towns of the south-west a variety of products such as blankets, tweeds and rugs continued to be made during this period. The later part of the 20th Century saw the contraction and disappearance of the textile industries in many parts of the south-west of Scotland, along with manufacturing industry in general, in response to competition from abroad and periodic economic slumps. Carpet weaving in Kilmarnock reached a critical point in the 1980s with a slump in orders. Now this manufacture has gone, bringing to an end a local industrial tradition which extends back in time, for three hundred years. Although machine lace, warp knitting and hosiery manufacture continue in Ayrshire, weaving as a manufacturing process has almost entirely vanished. One interesting exception is the production of 'Madras', which has survived up until the present in the town of Newmilns in the Irvine Valley. This is a decorative gauze which resembles lace, but which is made in an entirely different way - a process known as 'cross weaving'. In essence, it is the same cotton-based product which the weavers of the Irvine valley wove on their hand looms, in their small cottages in the early years of the 19th Century. Weaving on an industrial basis, no longer takes place in Dumfriesshire or Galloway but a few individual craft hand loom weavers continue here and in Ayrshire and Arran. These weavers make only part of their income on the loom, but this is not new. It reflects the economic circumstances of their predecessors in the 18th Century, before the days of the power loom and the factory system.