23 November 2012

Where There is Wool, There's a Way

Something about 'historic woolmill' conjured up images of women in bonnets behind big, pedaled looms, metal brushes, spinning wheels, wooden equipment tucked into the corner of a bedroom. Perhaps I've visited one too many folk museums. The smell of machine oil, the nuts and bolts and auto mechanic feel surprised me. The Knockando Wool Mill is the last one of its kind, the oldest working wool mill in Britain. The Victorian machinery and make-do architecture are relics of not one bygone era, but many. A whole period of time, spanning generations, during which communities had a central place, a District Mill, where they could go to process their fleece.
These district mills were really no different than a local gristmill or dairy cooperative where farmers could come with their wheat, corn or milk and leave with flour, butter and cheese.  The shepherds would come with fleece and leave with knitting yarn, blankets and tweeds.  The link between agriculture and food production is obvious and well-traced.  In Scotland, the link with textiles was just as important and widespread.  In fact, the well known clan tartans, the different plaids to represent different families, began simply as the pattern of each community's mill.  Everyone in town wore the same tartan because all their fleece was processed at the same place.  "Knockando tweed [was]...rather coarse and scratchy but lasted forever."  
The very first district mills provided shepherds' wives with the two things they didn't have at home.  Enough water to waulk and wash the wool and enough space to dry it out.  Town records from the late 1700s list Knockando Wool Mill as "Waulk Mill," making its purpose obvious. 
Everything else was done at home - which is where my visions of looms in the bedrooms come from.  However, when machinery was designed that took care of the carding process - the combing of wool to open it up, essentially the same thing as teasing your hair - women welcomed it into their lives.  This task had traditionally fallen to the children and was a tedious and thankless job.
So Waulk Mill got a carding machine.  The same one that's still there today.  Knockando mill grew to fit whatever need the community had.  At different points in the early and mid 1800s,  documents list the mill as a wool dyeing place, a spinning operation.  More machines followed, all second hand, and attachments to the mill were built, ramshackle, to shelter them.   There was the Platt Mule, which could spin 250 threads at a time.  Built in 1872 and still going strong it's the oldest machine of its kind still in use in the United Kingdom.  Each generational owner put their mark on the place and once a machine was purchased, it was never replaced.  Only repaired.
The two behemoth Dobcross looms, dated 1896 and 1899, are also the oldest working ones of their kind.  We peaked at them through a doorway, this sculptural mass of everything that is masculine and feminine jumbled together to symbolize "work."  Visiting the mill was great because we were allowed to just poke around, go into different buildings, keep a safe difference delineated by ropes and read about what we were looking at on a provided laminated info sheet.  They were just two of the additions made by Duncan Smith, who took charge of the mill in 1863 and made advancements and changes for a good 40 years.  He extended buildings or sometimes just erected a roof in order to make space for a new machine, resulting in the meandering factory layout that's there today.
Between the two world wars, all the other district mills in Scotland vanished.  Somehow, Knockando survived and local farmers were bringing fleece here all the way until the 1960s.  Duncan Stewart was in charge by this point.  He switched over from water power to electricity and welcomed three young men from England who were interested in the old ways of doing things.  One of them was Hugh Jones, who wound up taking over for a retiring Stewart.  With no previous experience at all, he became a master and is still the head weaver at Knockando today.  The problem was that he had no customers and, as only one man with not even familial support, he struggled to maintain it all.  That's where the historic societies stepped in, the private donors and a BBC television show called "Restoration," which gave the cause an audience.
The mill's machines are undergoing some repairs right now, so we didn't see them in action.  Instead, we the got the nuts and bolts at rest, in repose. For the moment.  The smell of oil, bolts on the floor, tools, gloves.  Cardboard boxes filled with odds and ends, scribbled notes peppered the rooms.  Places like this are rare, survivors that are recognized as such at exactly the right time.  Like endangered species, the world comes to their rescue (hopefully).  Prince Charles (with Camilla, of course) came to the re-opening of Knockando Woolen Mill just over a month ago.  His Royal Highness restarted the water wheel, now fit with plaques naming some of the biggest donors.   It signaled that this mill, which has been processing wool since 1784, was back in business. 

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