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Saturday, 31 March 2012


My 5x great grandfather John Templeman was from Torryburn in Fife, just west of the ancient Scottish town of Dunfermline. He was a damask weaver, in an area which had been a centre for the trade since the fifteenth century. Linen weavers from the French town of Tournai first brought the skill to Dunfermline; and although Scottish damask (or “dornick”) never quite matched the continental fabric for quality, its weaving was for nearly 600 years a trade to be proud of.

Damask is any cloth with a woven pattern which can be viewed from both sides of the material. These days damask is usually linen and usually, although not always, single-coloured. It gets its name from Damascus, an important trading and manufacturing city in the early Middle Ages, standing on the Silk Route. It first appeared in Europe (in France) in the 14th century, so the Dunfermline industry, kick-started by those Tournai craftsmen, was quick off the mark.

Abbot House Museum in Dunfermline
tells the story of damask’s contribution to the town

Traditionally, women did the spinning and men did the weaving, although by John's grandchildren's generation things had changed - his granddaughter my 2x great grandmother Agnes Mitchell was a damask weaver too. For centuries before her time both operations were carried out by hand. Linen thread is spun from flax, which was grown in the fields around Dunfermline, but not in sufficient quantities. The local harvest was augmented with imports from Danzig – modern-day Gdansk in Poland – shipped to the nearby ports of coastal Fife.

Dunfermline damask was supplied to the Scottish Royal Household, and the industry suffered after the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603 when the Royal Household moved south to London. A fire which destroyed much of Dunfermline in 1624 also contributed to the decline. Damask production drifted south across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh and the surrounding area.

An industrial-scale damask hand loom (date unknown)
(picture from the Gazlay Family History site)

But a clever piece of industrial espionage brought the trade back to Dunfermline in 1718. A Dunfermline weaver called James Blake gained the confidence of the workers in a new Edinburgh damask mill at Drumsheugh, by passing himself off as a simpleton with whom they saw no harm in sharing their sophisticated weaving techniques. In a move reminiscent of a footballing injury, Blake promptly “regained” his senses and returned to Dunfermline with a complete plan of the Drumsheugh loom in his head, a design far more advanced than that of any traditional looms still working in the town. By 1766 there were 600 looms in the town, and by 1792 (when John Templeman was probably entering the industry as child labour) that figure had doubled. In the same year, mechanized spinning came to Dunfermline thanks to a water-powered spinning mill at Brucefield.

The earliest powered weaving loom mills began to appear in Dunfermline around 1835, when John was already in his 50s. So John was part of the last generation of weaving men to make damask by hand. The ancient guild, the Dunfermline Weavers Incorporation to which he and his fellow skilled craftsmen may have belonged, was wound up in 1863, just four years before John’s death. By then there were at least four spinning and weaving mills in the town, employing around 6000 workers.

Jacquard-style mechanised damask loom - an early example of computer programming, a Jacquard loom used punched cards to deliver a repeatable pattern
(picture from the Craigavon Historical Society)

The Dunfermline damask industry survived into the 1930s. But laundering, starching and ironing table linen was hard work and the decline after the First World War in the employment of domestic servants to do that work led to the eventual closure of the mills. The mechanised process lasted a little more than two hundred years in Dunfermline. But the handworked tradition, of whose final chapter my 5x great grandfather was part, had a Scottish history nearly 400 years long. Its roots in Damascus stretch back 500 more.

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