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Scotland's Crafts

Highland Textile

Tartan: The Highland Textile (Highland... Library Series)

The Tartan Weaver's Guide

Scottish Spinning and Weaving

A field of flax in flower made a bonny crop,a lake of blue
flowers lapping against the woods and hedgerows.
A useful crop, indeed, for the seeds produced linseed oil, while the straw was “retted,” then processed in some local mill, then sent as tow to the “hecklers,” spinners, weavers, lappers and seamstresses of the factories.

It was useful, too, in this respect, that it brought folk together, both young and old. Even a youngster could help to spread the lint, and an old woman could still sit filling the pirns, and no doubt spin many an old tale besides.

The cultivation of flax and making of linen is a very old craft. Blairgowrie had one of the earliest scutching mills in Scotland, and until recent times the fields along by the lochs of Marlee and Fingask could still show a few acres of flax under cultivation.

The flower of the flax not only created a staple industry, it wove itself into our song and folklore. Even in the 14th century we have Robert Henryson, a Dunfermline schoolmaster, describing the processing of flax in verse:

“The lynt ryipit, the carll pullit the lyne,
Rippillit the bolles, and in beitis set,
It steipit in the borne, and dryit syne,
And with ane betill knokkit it, and bett,
Syne swingillit it weill, and hekellit in the flat,
His wyfe it span, and twynit it in to threid.”

In remote days the spinner made use of the distaff and spindle. Robert Burns, in his poem “Bessie and Her Spinning Wheel,” writes:

I bought my wife a stane o’ lint,
As guid as e’er did grow,
And a’ that she has made o’ that
Is a’e weary pund o’ tow.
The weary pund, the weary pund,
The weary pund o’ tow.
I think my wife will end her life
Before she spins her tow.”

In the old days, a servant lass taking a job was not asked if she could sew or clean or bake or brew.
She was asked, ” Can you spin ?“ For a wage she would get perhaps £1 per year, along with a lippie of lint-seed. This she sowed in a piece of ground in one of her master’s fields, and the crop that resulted became her property, later to be woven into sheets and towels for her “providing” on marriage.

In one old song, “Janet and Me,” the crofter boasts about his possessions, and mentions:

Twa wabs o’ linen
0’ Janet’s am spinnin’
As thick as dogs’ logs
An’ as white as snaw.

But it was a long way from the sown seed to the snowy linen of the dower chest. There was hard work in the fields, weeding and more weeding. When the plant had ripened there was the pulling, and laying in lint-holes. There the lint was steeped till fermentation set in, then soread out to dry.

When dry, it was bundled and carried to the lint-mill. If you look at an old map of Tayside, you will ‘see these lint-mills dotted here and there along the valleys of the streams. The Dighty, flowing past Dundee, was a very hard-worked stream in this respect.

At the mill the wood was removed from the fibre by means of fluting and scutching. Then the heckler took over. His job was a very dusty one. The heckle was a rough stand about three feet high with a heavily spiked board set on top. Over these spikes the flax was thrown, and combed to get rid of the tow, a heavy job as well as a dusty one, and it needed a certain dexterity.

The flax was then put into “heads,” passed on to the rock and spindle, and transformed into yarn. Women took over the job here, winding the spun flax on to large bobbins, from which it was reeled into hanks. Then came boiling and cleaning. On drying it was filled on to warp pirns and beamed, and so was formed the foundation of the future web. Then the weaver came into the picture, and the web was woven.

But it was not all work and no play. There were many social interludes like spinning-bees, at which the lasses demonstrated their skill, to the accompaniment of song and story. Some of these songs are quite charming in their words and melody. Some are comic, such as “The Weaver o’ the North”

There was a weaver o’ the north
And oh but he was cruel,
The very nicht that he got wed
He sat an’ grat for gruel.”

But alas, the day of the blue fields of flax and of the lint-mills have passed. As the great spinning-mills of Dundee, Arbroath and so on came into being, the patches of lint around villages and farms began to dwindle, for now huge supplies of flax were being imported from the Baltic, dwarfing the local crops into insignificance.

So the housewife stowed away her spindle and wheel, and the wobster set aside the handloom that had served for several generations of his family. Gone were the cheerful gatherings, when neighbours came to beam the web, and all that fun and frolic on the village-green at bleaching-time, it now belonged to the past.

But the flax industry, one of the very earliest of human enterprises, still thrives, though in a different way and in a different setting.

And we can still sing the weaving songs:

If it wisna for the weavers, what would we do?
We wadna hae claith made o’ oor woo’,
We wadna hae a coat, neither black nor blue
Gin it wisny for the wark o’ the weavers.

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