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The other day Brenda, my lovely neighbour, appeared with a piece of paper in her hand, a gift for me. When I unfolded it, the piece of paper turned out to be a rather interesting and very beautiful hand-painted floral design, which I could immediately tell was some sort of pattern repeat.

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But what sort of pattern repeat? I have a limited knowledge of weaving, but in many respects this pattern didn’t really resemble the weaving directions I’d seen. Upon further examination, I felt the motifs had a sort of open quality about them that suggested lace. There was an identifying number on the reverse of the paper.

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This suggested the pattern was intended for use in an industrial, commercial context. But what kind of machines produced charted lace? I examined the patterning and instruction marks, all of which were carefully hand-painted. . . as was the lettering.

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Then I noticed this word – Madras. I had a vague recollection of some kind of openwork fabric of that name being produced at the turn of the twentieth century. Poking around my books, I found a reference to “Scottish Madras” in Lesley Jackson’s Twentieth Century Pattern Design. Semi-sheer muslins with openwork patterns were traded from, and associated with the Indian port, and, in much the same culturally appropriative way that Paisley became a byword for textiles originating in Kashmir, so an Ayrshire iteration of Madras’s gauzy, lacey muslins began to be produced in the mills of the Irvine valley from the 1870s onwards.

Further poking around revealed more information: that Scottish Madras was introduced to Ayrshire by Alexander Morton, a Scottish textile innovator and entrepreneur who admired and emulated the technology of the Nottingham Leavers Lace machine. The semi-transparent nature of the fabric meant that it was ideal for curtains, and, by the turn of the twentieth century, design houses such as Voysey and Morris & Co were using Morton’s machinery to create lightweight curtain and furnishing fabrics for sale at outlets such as Libertys, in London. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, several mills in Irvine valley were hard at work creating fine lace fabrics like “Scottish Madras”.

MYB textiles
(image courtesy of MYB textiles)

Scottish Madras was, then, quite a specialised textile, involving precise design techniques and innovative technologies. The resulting fabric was pretty ubiquitous in the 1910s, and decorated countless early twentieth century domestic interiors. But what had happened to these technologies? Had they died out, as did so many other important innovations, when the Scottish textile industry declined later in the century? Well, imagine how delighted and excited I was to discover that that a company still exists in Ayrshire, using essentially the same specialised technologies to create contemporary interpretations of this important and distinctive local fabric! That company is MYB textiles and I suggest you pop over to their site immediately to read about their history producing Scottish Madras and laces. Even more excitingly, Kashka Lennon, one of the designers at MYB textiles, was able to tell me more about the pattern Brenda had given to me.

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According to Kashka: “This is a Nottingham Lace draft, you can tell from the colour used to paint it, the red symbolises the most opaque areas, the green semi-sheer, the white represent the sheer of the lace and the blue symbolises the tags used to pull the yarns together to create very open areas of the design. I can also tell that the design you have would’ve have been for a small 16” café net style fabric by the orientation of the pattern on the graph paper.”

Kashka also mentioned that while she has been taught to recreate these patterns digitally (perhaps in much the same way as we knitwear designers do using Illustrator and other charting software) her design director was trained to make drafts using a similar hand painted technique to that of my chart.

There are beautiful and intriguing things about so many charts and patterns. I find this chart especially beautiful and particularly intriguing because it was a gift that has taught me something about a distinctive Scottish textile I never really knew existed. I now intend to visit MYB textiles to find out a little more about the techniques and traditions of machine-made lace in Scotland! I am very excited about this and promise to report back here after my trip!

Thankyou, Brenda, for sending me on this journey!

43 thoughts on “in which I discover Scottish Madras

  1. I spent an entire lovely evening launched by your blog post – to meet the Flemish refugees who brought their handloom weaving skills to Irvine Valley in the 15th C, I visited St Andrews University’s “Scotland and the Flemish people” http://flemish.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/2015/03/ – they were welcomed for their textile skills, gave us the words “crag”, “scone” and “loy” – and from the MYB blog to the Parisian plisseur Gérard Longnon http://tinyurl.com/pf5uo5e – another antique artisanal fabric practice with few practitioners left – and my devotion to your site is solidified! Thank you Kate.

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  2. What a great article! Your visit to MYB Textiles will provide lots of inspiration… hopefully to be translated into one of your beautiful patterns soon!
    Thank you for this wonderful discovery… I am off to check out the website now!
    :)

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  3. Thanks Kate for exploring the dusty corners of textile history and sharing what you find. The stories of peoples’ lives that worked in textiles help us understand where we are now. Last year I found my own piece of dusty his/herstory after I visited the Bayeux Tapestry. Apparently the ladies of Leek in Staffordshire embroidered their own version and toured it around Europe and America as a kind of social enterprise. Some of the story is here http://wardleheritage.org.uk/

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  4. I read a magazine article about madras fabric/lace a little while ago, and infuriatingly I can’t find where it was (and it’s not the Scottish Herald one you can read online) – but I know it must be about the place somewhere! I love the modern designs that MYB are producing – they are nearly enough to make me overcome my aversion to net curtains.

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  5. This is fascinating! The history of knitting and textiles you have brought to light has enriched us across the globe! Thank you for your research and inspiration!

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  6. Fantastic find and I love how weaving and knitting can look so similar at times when it comes down to the pattern paper. Also interesting to hear about the Morton family of weavers as I did some research on Alastair Morton, who is a descendent from the Ayrshire Mortons, at college and he went on to create Edinburgh Weavers who were influential in textile design in the thirties, fifties and early sixties. Off to look at MYB as they must be just down the road from me.

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  7. Isn’t it intriguing how textile mysteries can be found near your doorstep? The lure of the hidden knowledge… magic! I can’t wait for the follow up post. How I wish I could visit too! :)

    What do you plan on doing with your Madras pattern repeat? I think it is so pretty, I’d frame it for display.

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  8. I’ve just gone to the MYB site & it’s just amazing that someone made a machine that can produce such a delicate thing as lace. I was very happy to see that they have USA stockists. Now I just need a grand home to put their curtains and blinds in.

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  9. Oh for goodness sake……..another journey with you as sleuth! Thank you so much and YES I will go to MYB Textiles and see the ‘show’. Just wonderful.

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  10. What a joy to read your detective work, and anticipate further adventures. Your gifted chart would be marvelous as framed art in one’s knitting studio.

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  11. My father was a Nottingham lace designer and draughtsman. He had his own company which is still in operation. I have many memories of watching him at work on his draughtsboard – using draught-paper like what you have and lots of different colour pens. There was a cupboard in the office just full of lots of coloured pens (I was always allowed a selection to play with whenever I was in the office). I still have a large stack of his draught-paper.

    I remember seeing very similar designs to your Scottish Madras. From what I remember, they had a different arm of the company that computerised the patterns.

    He interestingly invented the technique of creating scallop edges by machine using dissolving thread. The could do straight edges by machine and scallops were done by hand. I believe the patent was sold to Courtaulds.

    Anyway, I must say I found your blog post very nostalgic.

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  12. What an absolutely amazing gift and fantastic story behind it! I’m so glad you researched and found out what it is and were able to have the explanation of what the colours represent and so on. I find textiles absolutely fascinating and they often overlap into another interest of mine which is social history – this blog post (and many of your posts actually) is right up my street! Thanks so much!

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  13. It struck me reading this, that you have had so many fascinating posts related to historical information about all kinds of fiber that maybe these could become a book! I know you have a lot on your plate, but the details you discover are valuable information that deserve gathering, and disseminaton.

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      1. Wouldn’t it be interesting, too, to make knitted items using some of these designs in that future book? We always want another “Kate” book, no matter the subject.

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  14. I think in House of Dun in Angus there is something similar – saw it when I went for a visit with my folks – may be worth adding to the list?

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  15. What a lovely artefact, even if the colours are code for density of weave rather than the finished design. It’s lively the way the object found its way to someone who would value it :0)

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