Home-made Clothes

Another item from the endlessly entertaining Lewsiana, by W Anderson Smith (1874/1886).

From the fact that every crofter owns a few sheep, wool is naturally the first and most important article in use [in clothing]. This is often torn from the animal, Shetland fashion, in place of being clipped. More wretched looking creatures than these poor little sheep, hanging in rags, cannot be conceived; and one wonders if it is a source of satisfaction to the cotter children to see something more hopelessly ragged than themselves sharing the bleak moor with them. The natural grey wool from the grey sheep is much sought after, as it makes the best stockings without requiring to be dyed. It is also considered to be much softer and warmer than the coloured wools. The wool thus torn or shorn from the sheep gives employment to the family in the winter time, in preparing it for use, and making it up into various garments.

Enter a dwelling about this time and you are sure to see it undergoing some manipulation. Here an old woman is carding, there a more vigorous damsel is singing at the wheel. Perhaps a whole side of the room is occupied by an extensive framework of so many ells, about which the yarn is coiled into hanks from the reels; or a smaller framework, like a double triangle, is held in the left hand, and the yarn twined thereon with peculiar and great celebrity. The wool is manipulated with the black oil from fish livers, so as to work more readily, and when spun into thread is ready for the further process of dyeing.

At the present day, when the thrifty indigo blue is in great demand, both for the jacket and trousers of the fishermen and the strong outer petticoat of the women, other dyes are not so much employed. The extensive knowledge of native colours formerly possessed is thus by no means so common, while at the same time the people are showing and inclination to purchase a few pounds of colour from the shops in town, to save the little trouble necessary to procure the, in general, much better and more lasting native article.

Amongst the dyes still in use is the grey moss called crotal which covers the surface of the outcropping rocks throughout the country. It yields a fine, rich brown dye, much used for stockings and other such articles, seeing it is so easily obtained and always at hand. Soot, more especially that scraped from the iron pot suspender, gives a capital maroon colour, and the wives of those farmers who still indulge in home-made clothes often make a good lasting mixture of these two colours. A first-rate black is extracted from the root of the water lily, with which plant many of the small lochs are overgrown; heather, that rare plant becoming in the Lews, yields a good yellow; goatsbeard, a green; the rool of a small yellow plant growing in the machair, a fawn colour. It is called rue, and is said to be a species of madder. The root of the small yellow species of cinquefoil or potentilla, abundant all over the country, was formerly generally employed in barking nets and lines, and is also in use as a yellow dye. It is said to be superior to cutch, but the latter has almost entirely superseded it.

Thus any crofter is really independent of civilisation for his clothes, the wool coming from his own sheep, spun by the women of his house; dyes are good, and easily procured; and the yarn is woven into cloth by his neighbour or himself. Besides the common mordant, they used ‘sooriks’ (wood sorrel) with blue and black; alum with yellow; while common salt and sea water are sufficient for others. Dulse is also used to give a fine purple colour to blue, and otherwise improve it and make it clearer. You often see newly made clothes of capital quality held together by wooden skewers or nails in place of buttons; and as nearly all are independent of boots or shoes, and many men as well as women never wear them except on Sundays, there are families that scarcely require to enter a shop from year’s end to year’s end.