Glasgow textiles and dresses – Rebecca Quinton


Courses that may find this source useful: Changing Britain

Rebecca Quinton, Curator of European Costume and Textiles for Glasgow Museums, describes the history of the use of cotton fabric, and in particular muslin, in Scotland, including where it was imported from, the techniques used and how the new material influenced fashion and industry in Scotland.

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Section 1
Section 2
Section 3

Section 1

Cotton is a natural yarn made from the fibres attached to the seeds of the cotton plant. Originally native to the Indian subcontinent, farming cotton was introduced the Caribbean and America during the early colonial period. After harvesting the plant, it was traditionally beaten by hand to separate out the cotton fibres from the seeds, leaves and stem, after which the raw cotton was exported to Britain. Cotton production like this was initially done by hand, but during the 1700s the gradual mechanisation of its manufacturing processes was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.

Carding, the first process that separates the fibres, was speeded up in the late 1740s and 50s by Daniel Bourn, then Lewis Paul and John Kay. By the following decade the second process of spinning, that’s twisting the fibres to produce a thread, was revolutionised first by James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny that by 1769 could make 120 threads simultaneously, and then later by Richard Arkwright’s water frame and Samuel Crompton’s spinning wheel. Finally, weaving, the creation of the cloth, was the last process to be mechanised. In many areas this was still operated as a cottage industry, with men working individual handlings at home. Although the Jacquard loom was patented in 1801, it was not generally in use in the West of Scotland until the 1820s and 1830s.

The Strathclyde region provided a perfect place for this industry. Vast quantities of West Indian cotton was imported via the Kingston docks in Glasgow: over 6 ½ million pounds in 1815, and within a 24 mile radius of Glasgow there were 19 mills working by 1787 (increasing nearly sevenfold to 134 mills in 1834) –their production, aided by the damp climate, that reduced costs by 10%. Not only was cotton carded, spun and woven, in many cases it was also embroidered, dyed or painted, the latter two benefiting from the soft water found in this area.

Section 2

But what was driving this huge industry? The growing desire for the consumption of a fashionable new fabric. Traditionally, most clothing had been made from linen and wool, both materials native to the British Isles, whilst the rich could wear expensive silks, imported in both the raw and finished forms from the continent. However, from the 1770s onwards, cotton slowly became the fashionable fabric. Its initial appearance at the French court caused a stir when it was worn in the form of a simple chemise gown by Marie Antoinette in 1783, immortalised in the portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, which was criticised for showing the Queen in nothing better than her underwear. The fashion spread to London the following year when Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, wore a version of the “robe a la reine” as it was now called, or “The Queen’s dress,” that Marie Antoinette had given her. Initially constructed as simple tube of cotton gathered to make a frill at the neck and tied into a sash at the waist, it gave [way to] a period of softer clothing. Lighter weights of silks, and increasingly cotton, replaced the stiff brocaded fabrics such as the silks and velvets popular in the earlier 18th century.

Cotton, a cheaper cloth, was initially popular with Republicans in France, keen to distance themselves from the ancien régime of Louis XVI’s court at Versailles. Meanwhile here in Britain it was heavily marketed by industrialists keen to exploit the products of the colonies. At first the French Republic with its Directoire and Napoleon looked back to the Ancient Greece through to Imperial Rome for inspiration, neoclassicism defined the age. Women’s dress in particular was influenced by the classical past. Here we can see high-waisted gowns with slim training skirts based on the proportions of surviving statues. Cotton, in particular the fine weight plain weave known as muslin, could be gathered or draped across the female figure to form an elegant line. The natural white colour echoing what was now the white tones of the classical marble statues. The Lady’s Monthly Magazine in 1803, commented that:

a party of highly bred young ladies who were dressed, or rather undressed, in all the nakedness of the mode and could, their tongues have been kept quiet, and been placed in pedestals or niches in recesses, they might have passed for so many statues, very lightly shaded with drapery.

The finest of these muslins was originally from Bengal in the Indian subcontinent, imported by the merchants of the East India Company. However, with the improved threads and weaving techniques mentioned earlier, it was not long before British weavers were able to match the quality of Bengali muslins, and a House of Commons report in 1793 stated that:

the consumption of Indian cotton textiles was reduced to almost nothing and the British made muslins were equal in appearance of more elegant patterns than those of India and about 25% to 33% cheaper.

The pretty white dress here, we can see, dates about 1800-1805 and is a rare surviving example of a dress made from muslin made in Paisley. The town was already an established weaving centre that had originally been focusing on silks and linens, but with the growth of the cotton industry in Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, became a major manufacturer of muslin with 6,750 cotton looms in operation by this period. This particular muslin was made by Brown, Sharp & Co. a firm initially established by Andrew Brown on 3rd December 1753, who later took on his son-in-law, William Sharp, as partner. The firm manufactured both fine muslin and silk gauze weaves as well as embroidered fabrics. Several of their designs can be seen in the pattern books which were donated to Paisley Museum and Art Gallery in the late 1800s, including the design of this dress, number 1416, which is one of several variations on the design.

As well as having its main premises on Shuttle Street, Paisley, the firm also owned an office in London where their fabrics were distributed for sale throughout Europe, including the Imperial court in Paris where they can be seen in many of the portraits of the Empress Josephine. Hortense, her daughter from her first marriage, wrote of her stepfather’s [Napoleon Bonaparte] reaction to British muslin in 1803:

When mother and I entered the room dressed up, his first question to us was always ‘you’re wearing muslin aren’t you?’ We would reply that it was linen of Saintt-Quentin, but a smile would leak out and he would immediately rip the foreign made dress in two. This catastrophe happened repeatedly, and finally we were forced to wear satin or velvet.

Section 3

At this period dresses could not be purchased ready-made, instead a length of material was purchased from haberdashers and either made up at home by a professional dressmaker peripatetically, or possibly by your maid. In an era before printed paper patterns, the only way of knowing the latest fashions was to look at the fashion plates published ladies magazines that were available via the subscription lending libraries, or could be viewed at larger shops. The dresses were completely hand-sewn generally in neat lines of running stitch. It would be another 50 years before sewing machines were commercially available through agencies.

The dress with the green trims is from slightly later in the 1820s. We can see that the slim-line of the early neoclassical Empire dress has been influenced by a growing Romanticism: the silhouette is starting to widen, with gigot sleeves, and more material gathered into the waist, and around the bottom of the skirt we have flounces and padded rouleau added to give additional width. It is likely, although not certain, that the muslin was woven locally, but according to the donor of the dress, Mrs JH Turnbull who donated it in 1945, the decoration on the frills was worked in Anderston. The pattern and the quality of the two frills is different: the top one has been made using a single green, and the bottom, larger design is worked to a finer quality using two different shades of greens, suggesting that there were purchased as separate trims rather than made en-suite. The technique, which superficially looks like chain-stitch, is tambour work, which is made with the fabric stretched over a frame known as a tambour, and the decoration applied from the top with a small hook rather than with a needle from below and chain-stitch. The technique originated in India and was introduced to Europe in 1759, famously appearing in the portrait above by Drouais of ‘Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame’ which is now in the National Gallery.

Tambour work was introduced to Scotland in the late 1782 by the Italian Luigi Ruffini, who was supported by the Board of Trustees for the Fisheries and Manufactures of Scotland. He not only set up workshops to train women in this new technique, but designed a new style of frame that allowed several workers to sit aside each other working on one length of muslin. By the early 1800s this new trade of decorating muslin was flourishing in and around Glasgow, including Anderston. In many cases it was the wives and the daughters of the weavers who ‘flower’d’ the muslin. Before the advent of the first census in 1841, it is hard to gauge exactly how many females were employed in this industry, especially as it was often sourced to individual out-workers. However the names of several merchants are listed in the Glasgow directory, including ‘J&W Campbell Sewing & Tambour Works at 20 Candleriggs’ in 1827. This industry only flourished for a short period but eventually set the groundwork for what would become the famous Ayrshire industry.


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