My embroidery and creative stitching experiences.


Stricktly speaking this is not a Distant Stitch Blog, but I thought some of it might be interesting to Distant Stitchers and any other crafters out there.

I have filled my summer holidays with courses as I was concerned I would be bored or spend all my ‘free’ time doing housework! I applied for these courses before I knew we were going to be able to take holidays too, so between Summer School, Stained glass week, creative stitch week, a trip to Orkney and another to Port Soy I have also been taking  evening classes (2/week) in  speaking Japanese and a one day course in Scottish textile history.

The history of Scottish textiles course was really interesting and I learned so much from it.

We covered the Industrial Revolution which in itself covered lots of different areas…Highland Clearances, cottage industries, inventions,  linen, cotton, jute and flax production and the impact they had on society at the time. We also looked at the Paisley Shawl, the myths behind tartan, knitting, the Victorian home’s decor and 19th – 21st century tapestry artists.

It was a very informative and interesting day which as you can see covered a lot of ground. Following the lectures we had a tour of the National Museum of Scotland where we could see real exhibits relating to the talks. I love visiting the museum and wandering around but it was great to be able to apply some knowledge to the objects we were looking at. Looking at the Tartan clothing was interesting. The suits worn by grown men looked tiny! There were a couple of very odd sporrans too! There were also purses sewn with intricate bead designs on them which were made by N A Indians and modelled on the Scottish sporran.

I was going to write in more detail about the day but it would take too long and may not be terribly interesting to everyone but I would recommend doing a one day course in the history of Scottish/ English (etc) Textiles to everyone interested in working with cloth.

Here are a few interesting facts I picked up on the day.

Industrial Revolution

The textile industry changed from being a cottage industry to a mechanised one with inventions like the spinning-jenny, flying shuttle and cloth gin. (not sure what the last one is!). These inventions meant that cloth could be made quickly and easily.

In 1733 the flying shuttle was invented by John Kay. This meant wider cloth could be produced. It needed two weavers to work this. This also meant 5 spinners were needed to cope with the output of the weavers.

The spinning Jenny was invented by James Hargreaves  in 1764. It meant that thread could be produced quickly. At first it had only 8 spindles but more were added later. This machine was hand cranked. It was followed by the spinning frame invented by Richard Arkwright  in 1775 which was water powered. It was also known as the Water Frame for obvious reasons!

The most amazing invention of the time, in my opinion, was the Jacquard Loom. It was basically  a prehistoric computer system! It was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801. It could make much more intricate designed cloths than had been previously possible. It worked on a punched card system. Each thread had to be tied into the correct hole in the correct card and there were a lot of holes on a lot of cards!


Everyone knows the workers in these factories were not well paid and had to work long hours so it is incredible to think they had to pay for the wear and tear on the machines they worked with. In the 18th C. wages were being cut which lead to a strike understandably!

In the 19th C cotton took up half of all imports to the UK. It was imported from India, amongst other countries. Gandhi used  the spinning wheel as a protest symbol as exporting to Europe meant a lack of work for Indians who could have spun and woven the cotton themselves. The Indian Flag has to be made of Indian cloth and the 24 spoke wheel derived from the spinning wheel.



We don’t truly know what most highland tartan looked like. Weavers noted patterns and colours* on wood. With the highland clearances and a ban on wearing tartan, the wood rotted and designs were lost. The colours would have varied according to the raw dying materials available.

It took 15 yards of material to make a Great Kilt. Smaller kilts took about 7 yards.

In 1782 the dress act was amended to allow women, Highland regiments and gentry to wear tartan.

George IV popularised tartan although he was not popular himself! He spent the equivalent of £100,000 on importing bright red tartan! If he threw a party guests had to wear tartan. This gave rise to ‘Original ‘ tartans being produced.


Today 14,000 tartans are associated with clans and family names.


It is said that the technique of knitting was imported to England with Queen Elizabeth’s  pair of knitted silk stockings  in the 16th C. It was a simple technique and caught on quickly with the more common people and by the 17 and 18 Centuries was wide-spread in Scotland.

Wool which still had the lanolin in it was used to knit jumpers for fishermen because it made their jumpers waterproof.

Fair Isle knitting was popular because the double layer of wool created by using two or more colours kept you warm.

fair isle pattern

Fair Isle was similar to Spanish designs at the time of the Spanish Armada. It is thought that shipwrecked sailors influenced this trend.

Edward VII popularised Fair isle jumpers in the 20’s.

Shetland yarn was finer than lace knitting yarn.

In 1952 a Shetland company created garments for the Everest Expedition because their yarns were very fine, lightweight and  had high heat retaining

qualities .

Rise and fall of Paisley Shawls

These shawls were first called Kashmir shawls because they were made from the under fleece of Himalayan Mountain goats which was very fine and silky.

One shawl needed the wool from 10 goats and took approx. 12 months to produce and were very expensive so only gentry could afford them. (£100)

In the 18th C silk and wool was used to make shawls. By the beginning of the 19th C Paisley was well established in the weaving industry and had well established and skilled weavers.

© The Kashmir Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The intro of the Jacquard loom meant production of a shawl took one day instead of two weeks! It also meant more intricate patterns were possible.

Shawls became much cheaper. £12 instead of £100 (in today’s money).

As fashion trends changed the popularity of the shawl declined, also as it became inexpensive no one wanted it anymore.


Victorian Homes.

This was a very interesting part of the lectures but it covered so much ground it would take forever to share it all but basically Victorian women used textile art to express themselves.

The ‘Glasgow Girls’ were taken seriously by their male peers and the design world. They radically changed home decor at the turn of the 20th Century which many Victorians found shocking!

Everyone knows about  Charles Rennie Macintosh and his designs. His wife, sister- in law and her husband were all designers who worked together. They introduced the idea that ‘Less is more”.

The last person we looked at was a lady called Phoebe Anna Traquair. She married a Scottish palaeontologist.  She did illustrations for her husband and worked with ‘socially acceptable’ watercolours but beyond this I don’t think she had any formal art training. She was a supremely, naturally artistic person . Bearing this in mind her work is incredible in its design and execution. We wandered down to the National Art Museum to see 4 panels of her work. She donated them to the museum before she died in 1936.


Each panel took 2 years to complete and is approx 180 x 75 cm in size.  The detail and craftsmanship is unbelievable. She used traditional stitches and modernised how to use them.

I must confess, I have walked past these pieces often and only gave them a passing attention. I actually thought they were paintings.

If you go to the gallery take the time to find them (not an easy task if you do not know the gallery!) as they are incredibly detailed and beautiful.

Ok end of dissertation on The History of Scottish Textiles. Hope you enjoyed some of it! Please remember I am not an expert and there may be points I have wrong! Please feel free to add a comment, question or correction!!







Comments on: "History of Scottish textiles course" (2)

  1. Thanks for sharing. This was very interesting, I wish we had a museum like this in Luxembourg

    • I am so pleased you found this information interesting Marie-Pascale, we are very lucky in Scotland to have wonderful galleries and museums. Perhaps one day you will visit them too.

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