I’ve been telling a story for some years – since I started growing flax, processing it and doing the odd talk and workshop – about Dundee flax mill workers and the origin of the meaning of ‘to heckle’, so Dundee was a place that I was aware was important in the social, cultural and industrial history of linen. This weekend confirmed the story for me – and much more.
Dundee became important for flax processing both before and after the Acts of Union (1707) which joined England and Scotland’s parliaments as well as their monarchs. Before, linen production developed as the Scots (and Irish) were prohibited from competing with England’s hugely profitable wool industry. After the Act, Scotland had a new market for its flax and linen products and the industry prospered – especially in Dundee with its maritime links to the Baltic states which could supply the raw material. Huge mills were built in the early 19th century when the process was industrialised and the (mainly female) workforce – poorly paid and living in appalling conditions – nevertheless became politically important.
Dundee was known as a ‘woman’s town’ or ‘She Town’ as women outnumbered men by three to one in the mills. Like the cottage industry spinsters before them (women who were financially independent and so didn’t need to get married) Dundee’s mill workers were the main bread-winners and householders. According to the wonderful Verdant Works Museum, “In the face of such circumstances any fixed ideas of what constituted normal male and female behaviour were dismissed and Dundee women gained the freedom to act in a way which often ignored convention.” The local vicar called them “Over-dressed, loud, bold-eyed girls” and drunkenness amongst them was common. So these were the women, working on the heckling (hackling in England) machines who would be bold enough to question and confront their ‘betters’. And these women were the bedrock of the subsequent Suffragette movement in the city.
This social history was part of the magnificent display in the Verdant Works, a jute mill converted into a museum in the 90s.
As the flax supply became more unreliable with turbulence in the Baltic region, the barons looked to the Empire for an alternative and discovered jute from India (and what’s now Bangladesh). It was cheap, versatile and could be made (like flax) into a wide range of goods – sailcloth, rope, canvas for tents in the Crimean war, fire hoses, sacking (the equivalent of the blue carrier bag we get at every corner shop or market), carpet backing and for covered wagons. The city became known as Jutopolis.
The industry employed thousands of people.
The museum houses training versions of all the machinery that would have been used in the 19th century mills – used for batching, softening, carding, drawing, roving spinning, winding, beaming, weaving and finishing. Excellent volunteers demonstrate their use.
The last jute mill closed in 1999 but many of the buildings remain, converted to housing, offices or studios.
The flax and jute industries have just about disappeared in the UK but there is one local company, Nutscene which does a fantastic and mouth-watering job of (amongst other things) making jute and flax string and sacking. The love of string (I know, a bit odd) was the reason why I first started growing flax in our community garden in Hackney. I can’t wait for my next visit to Dundee and the stringopolis of Nutscene.