The fabric of the Scottish nation
One of my favourite books in my library is a collection of essays on weaving matters written by the legendary E S “Ned” Harrison, the boss of Johnstons of Elgin on either side of the Second World War.
Collected under the title of Scottish Woollens, this is a 245-page compendium of promotional and educational pamphlets produced between 1931 and 1956. All but a handful were written by Harrison.
They are superbly crafted pieces of journalism written by an obviously educated and passionate man who loved the luxury textiles business. The chapter headings speak for themselves.
The volume, which was bequeathed to me more than a decade ago with other precious books that belonged the eminent menswear journalist Stanley Costin, was published under the auspices of The National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers. The list of that trade body’s members in 1956 which appears at the front of the book is a poignant reminder of how, in a couple of generations, a once-thriving industry was almost disappeared. As I was born in 1955, this change has happened almost exactly within my lifetime.
About 90 spinners, weavers, dyers, finishers and other textiles firms are listed. Just 57 years later, fewer than a dozen are still trading. As James Sugden OBE, Ned Harrison’s distinguished successor as head of Johnstons and still a director of the firm, observed to me: ” That gives you some idea of the decimation of the industry which only now is just beginning to grow back again. Let’s hope that in 20 years we could grow that figure up.”
Indeed! But in the meantime, it’s time for those surviving companies to take a bow. So let us applaud the following for continuing, as the Association’s springing lamb urged, to Keep the Quality up!: Alex Begg, Heather Mills, James Johnston (aka Johnstons of Elgin), A & J Macnaughton, R G Neill, Robert Noble, Reid & Taylor, J C Rennie, Strathmore Woollens, and Todd & Duncan. If I have missed anyone out, many apologies – please tell me and I’ll add them to the list.
Another lovely feature of Scottish Woollens is the 11 charming illustration plates by one W R Lawson that appear at the end of the volume. This one is a particular favourite of mine. When one considers just how long weaving has been part of the fabric of Scotland, and indeed of all the British Isles, it is worth remembering Ned Harrison’s wise words: “There is …almost nothing (in weaving) that we can do that could not be done in the Middle Ages – we are quicker, that is about all.” The modern practitioners of those centuries of tradition are worth cherishing and protecting.
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