From Sheep to Shawl textile and dying manual

A Guide to the Textile Heritage of the Clyde Valley

Filed under History & Archaeology

- Karen McCusker, CAVLP Heritage Project Assistant, January 2017

For the From Sheep to Shawl project, volunteers came together to forage for wild dye plants to use in natural dye experiments, to process wool and create their own natural dyes, tried their hand at spinning wool on a drop spindle, and explored the world of historical knitting and crochet patterns.  

This was an experimentation process, as we learned hands-on the art and science behind colour production, a process that would have been passed down through generations of textile manufacturers in the Clyde Valley and in the wider country as a whole. The volunteers also explored hand spinning wool and then used that wool to create handicrafts according to patterns widely available in the 18th and 19th centuries. This allowed volunteers to really immerse themselves in the pre-industrial heritage and social history of the Clyde and Avon Valley and explore the history of textile production in a little more detail.  

Volunteers learning to spin wool by hand.

In the Clyde and Avon Valley, there were several dyeworks. In Larkhall, the remnants of the Avonbanks Bleach and Dyeworks can still be seen in the landscape near Morgan Glen. At New Lanark, the dyeworks building is still standing and makes up a vital part of the story of the cotton mill.

Turkey-Red Dyeing was a major aspect of the industrial textile industry in the Clyde Valley. This dye, which comes from the root of the madder plant, has existed for millennia; however, dyeworks in the Clyde Valley became famous for its production in the 19th century.

Calico-printing was another major feature of the local textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many improvements to the calico-printing industry were discovered or invented in the Clyde Valley, the most valuable of which was the creation of the cylinder printing process by Thomas Bell in 1785.

Bleachfields were present in nearly all major towns in the Clyde and Avon Valley, and can be seen on many historic maps, particularly the early edition Ordnance Survey maps.  

Prior to the development of these industrial-scale operations, dye making was a family tradition or cottage industry that was often carried out by women in the home. Historically, little has been written about dye recipes in Scotland, as these women often considered it proprietary knowledge to be passed down orally between generations. From what we know, however, there have been few changes to the natural dye process over the course of the past several thousand years. 

All stages of wool preparation, from raw fleece to dyed wool ready to be used.

All stages of wool preparation, from raw fleece to dyed wool ready to be used

For the average person, however, dyes most often came from local sources – the plants that grew in their local landscapes.  On the coasts, this may include various seaweeds; in rocky landscapes, lichen-based dyes were popular. The manual on the right will guide you through the dye plants that would have been available to the residents of the Clyde and Avon Valley. They can be found naturally in a variety of habitats throughout the valley and many make lovely garden plants. 

The manual included as a resource here explains the science and method behind creating natural dyes, and explains some of the colours you can expect to get from local plants - sometimes with a little trial and error!  Try for yourself at home and create lovely, naturally coloured wool for use in your own garments and craft projects.

This museum item was created by CAVLP Heritage Project Assistant, Karen McCusker, as part of the ‘Capturing the Past’ project, recording the working lives of people in the Clyde valley over the centuries. The project was managed by Northlight Heritage and supported by Historic Environment Scotland and Heritage Lottery Fund supported Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Project.


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