Turkey Red and the Vale of Leven

A main focus of ‘Colouring the Nation’ is the use of Turkey red dyeing by cotton dyers and printers in the west of Scotland.  ‘Turkey red’ was a method of dyeing which came from the east – hence the name – and was brought to Scotland in 1785 by a Frenchman named Pierre Jacques Papillon.  Papillon was hired by David Dale and George Macintosh who were both prominent businessmen of Glasgow and experienced in the textile trade.  Dale, Macintosh and Papillon were soon joined by many other manufacturers who saw the potential profitability of Turkey red, most of whom had mills and factories in the Vale of Leven where the clean and plentiful water supply was a vital asset to the textile dyeing industry.

Turkey red was based on the madder root and it needed a long and complicated process to produce the dye.  As well as the madder root which provided the all important colour, the ingredients for the process included urine, sheep dung, olive oil, soda ash and large quantities of bullocks’ blood.  This odd and smelly mix of ingredients produced a vibrant red colour which did not fade when exposed to sunlight or washing.  It was this ability to withstand sunlight and water exposure which boosted Turkey red’s popularity.

The dye produced was used to make plain, bright red cloths as well as elaborately decorated printed textiles.  These designs were produced in a number of ways and sometimes more than one method was used on a single piece of fabric.  Block printing is one of the oldest known methods of printing cloth and was a popular practice among the Turkey red manufacturers (see ‘Block Printing in the Vale of Leven’ by Archibald Aitken in the ‘Essays’ section).  Wooden blocks were used alongside engraved copper plates and cylinders which could produce a continuous pattern and an increasing number of colour combinations.  Another method used the ‘flat press’ where the cloth was tightly pressed between two metal plates.  Parts of the plates were raised so they would touch each other, clamping the cloth between them.  When the dye was fed between the plates, the bits of cloth which were clamped down would remain white.  These areas could then stay white or could be dyed or printed with another colour.

The printed fabrics were made for clothing and furnishings and, unlike tartan which was popular among Scots, many of the Turkey red fabrics were intended for foreign markets such as India, the Far East, the West Indies and North America.  Each market required a style of design which was different to European tastes.  The Scottish firms went to great lengths to ensure their designs would be acceptable to these foreign markets.  They wrote regularly to agents in different countries and stuck to designs they knew were popular.  The peacock, for example, was a pattern or motif which was popular throughout the nineteenth century and was often produced for saris and shawls for the Indian market.  Many of the designs were elaborate with many different colours, but some were also quite simple in design.  The firm of Henry Monteith and Co., for example, was noted for its production of bandanas or handkerchiefs, which often had a red background with a simple white pattern such as white dots.  Monteith was so successful in this line in the 1820s that it was claimed his firm could produce over 200 handkerchiefs in 10 minutes.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the growth of the Indian textile industry threatened the Scottish manufacturers’ business.  In 1898 three of the major firms in the Vale of Leven (William Stirling and Sons, John Orr Ewing and Co. and Archibald Orr Ewing and Co.) amalgamated to form the United Turkey Red Company Ltd.  By this point synthetic dyes were replacing the natural madder-based Turkey red and despite efforts by the UTR to develop these dyes, foreign competition and various other factors meant that the UTR closed in 1961.  This closure meant the end of an industry which had been in Scotland for nearly 200 years.

One by one the factories were demolished and the land was redeveloped and there is not much left to indicate that this huge industry was once there.  There are a few signs, however, along the River Leven which hint at the industrial past of the area.  See the photos below…



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