THE BALTIC WORKS
The concept of waxed cotton was originally developed in the early 15th century by sailors. Scottish North Sea herring fleets operating from east coast ports began treating flax sailcloth with fish oils and grease in an attempt to water proof their sails, keeping them light and efficient. Remnants of these sails were used as capes to withstand the high winds and sea spray, keeping the sailors warm and dry. These capes were the forerunner to the fisherman's slicker.
The east coast Scottish textile manufacturers, many of who had their own fleets of sailing ships, would bring in linen and flax from the Baltics, hence our "Baltic Works".
Sailcloth evolved and by the mid 1850's, to be made from lighter weight double fold cotton yarns, treated with linseed oil.
Early Royal Navy sailing ships and tea clippers were amongst the first to use these light weight cotton sails, famously "The Discovery", that still sits in Dundee's port today. Linseed oils yellow and stiffen through weathering. Through this oxidation process, the oil would eventually lose its water proofing qualities, hence the development of alternative water proofing compounds.
In the years that followed, various treatments were applied to cottons in an attempt to find the most effective, and the combination of densely woven cotton, impregnated with a paraffin waxed coating proved most successful. These fabric constructions are still used to this day and the wax treatments have been developed to give longer lasting, waterproofing finishes. Halley Stevenson's have been manufacturing at the Baltic Works in Dundee since 1864, and have pioneered the development of waxed cotton to this day. With hundreds of years of experience, we create many thousands of meters of waxed cotton every year, with each roll produced to custom specifications. The beauty of waxed cotton is its durability and longevity, it is built to last. The fabrics are breathable, the wax adjusting to ambient temperature to be softer/more breathable in warm weather and stiffer/more wind proof in cold conditions. Its proofing can be maintained by the end user, by applying wax into the surface, keeping it soft, supple and weather-resistant. The densely woven cotton is strong and reliable, while the finish ensures that the fabric looks better with age. The wax naturally picks up marks and creases through use, which adds to the character of the fabric itself. Garments continually adapt to the wearers personality, creating unique, one-of-a-kind products.
TRADING IN THE BALTICS
In the eighteenth century, David Johnston, a local cloth merchant and master weaver, gathered the local craftsmen together and put them on the footing of a business venture. He had confidence in local skill and his own ability to market the produce of these weavers.
With foresight and a certain risk he sent his own fleet of trading ships to the Baltics to bring back raw materials for the small factory he had established on the shore of Wemyss harbour.
Today in the offices of our sister company, Wemyss Weavecraft Ltd, are some of the old journals of the early journeys made by the three of Johnston's brigs (Scottish sailing vessels). Ledgers record the Baltic crossings of the Perceval, Rose and Hero, the three brigs that sailed across the North Sea to bring back cargoes of flax from Latvia and Lithuania. The journeys were rough and sometimes perilous; they were taken by local seamen who, in the spirit of pioneers, knew that the livelihood of the small communities of Fife depended on them.
Damask for a Queen
In her period, Mary Queen of Scots was a graceful liver, with fine and fastidious taste in both clothes and furnishings. It was she who set the fashion of the times and it was natural that when she visited Wemyss Castle in Fife in the year 1586, she commanded the local parish weavers to produce samples of their local handicraft for her inspection.
They proudly brought the Queen specimens which every family in the village had made in their own homes.
This was made in Wemyss where by this time the local weavers were making fine fabrics as well as the coarser flax industrial fabrics and sail cloths.
Sanctions against good weavers
It was in the twelfth century that King David of Scotland brought English weaving instructors to Wemyss in Fife to teach the local crofters the art of cloth making. The Scots learned the trade well and by the sixteenth century the weavers had captured a number of overseas markets and invaded the English home markets.
Cloth battles broke out.
Cloth was confiscated and burned: weavers were thrown in gaol until they agreed to sign bonds that they would not continue sales. This period of violence and persecution lasted for over thirty years until the law was rescinded.
The astute Wemyss weavers however knew how they had won this battle. It had been by the quality of their workmanship!
They had accepted strict safeguards on the quality of fabrics which were to be sent abroad. There were heavy penalties for the master, who through lack of skill or care and attention, passed fabric for sale which was below the standards set by the Incorporation of Weavers.
This protection for the purchaser of Scottish fabrics was far in advance of any trade organisation of its time. It was imposed by law and high quality was the only legal grade accepted.
Today, we have many modern developments in machinery and raw materials available to help us produce quality fabrics. The high tradition of skill and fabric development imposed by the sixteenth-century guildsmen is still our benchmark standards of honest workmanship.