Spinning and Weaving
As you entered Bell’s House, you’ll have seen a loom opposite the door. Making cloth was one way that people could contribute to the township, but weaving by hand on a small ‘home’ loom like this was time-consuming work.
Before weaving, the wool was spun into yarn using a homemade drop spindle. These are sticks of about 20 cm in length with a hook or groove at one end to guide the yarn. A disk called a whorl is set at the bottom of the spindle to weight it and help it spin.
The raw wool was cleaned and brushed. Then, while the spindle was spun, the edge of the wool fibres were held against the end of the ‘leader’ yarn – a length of already spun yarn which acted as a base. The fibres would start to wrap around each other, forming yarn. As the yarn was spun, it was wrapped around the shaft of the spindle to make a ‘skein’. When enough yarn had been made, it was taken off the spindle. It may have been counter-spun or ‘plyed’ together with another yarn, making it twice as strong.
The yarn may have been dyed before being woven or knitted. At Auchindrain only natural dyes were available before the mid-20th century. A dark red dye could be made by soaking lichen in urine for three months, drying it, and making it into a powder. Green could be made from unflowered heather or privet berries, magenta from dandelions, orange from barberry root or ragweed, purple from blueberry, violet from wild cress, and yellow from ash root or rhubarb.
At Auchindrain there was a professional weaver. His name was Duncan McNicol and he lived across the burn in what is now called McGugan’s Croft. His loom would have filled a whole room (we think that he added an extension to the western end of his home in the 1850s for this purpose), meaning he could make wider lengths of fabric. By using foot pedals he could make different patterns of weave. The people of Auchindrain would have brought Duncan wool and spun yarn ready for weaving.
With industrialisation this small scale spinning and weaving became unprofitable – people like Duncan couldn’t compete with the spinning jenny or stream driven loom. The people of the township would have begun to buy cheaper fabric from the market.
There was also a tailor at Auchindrain, Duncan McKellar. Like Duncan McNicol, he would have been a cottar, not one of the joint tenants who were farmers. As a skilled craftsman, he would have been a valuable asset to the community.
A small place like Auchindrain couldn’t have kept a tailor busy. The township’s largest population was around 70 people in the early 1850s but through history it was generally home for only 35 to 45 people. Like Duncan McNicol did with fabric, Duncan McKellar would have made clothes for people from the surrounding area.