The Paisley Thread Industry
Paisley’s rich textile history has long been established as part of the area’s identity, and the industry is still visible throughout the town today. Less well known, however, is the fact that Christian Shaw played a vital role in the early origins of this industry, helping to put Paisley’s textile industry on the world map. Today Shaw’s name may not be as famous in the industry’s history as the likes of the Coats or Clark families, but her role was once reported across the world. In 1890 a New Zealand newspaper retold the story of the 1697 witch hunt. When describing Shaw, the article spoke of her role in the origins of the area’s thread manufacture “which has since made the place famous the world over.” One year later Shaw was referenced in a newspaper article from Pennsylvania in the USA discussing the beginning of “one of the most important industries of today.” Christian Shaw’s role was clearly significant enough to be recounted world over, but how was it she actually came to have such a prominent place in the textile industry?
After the death of Shaw’s first husband in 1721 she returned to Bargarran and eventually settled in Johnstone. Shaw, now known as Christian Miller, had previous experience in the production of linen yarn but until this point had been unable to twist the thread into a form suitable for the sewing or embroidering needle. Christian Shaw and her mother had recently recently returned from Holland where they had seen the Dutch techniques used to produce a fine thread, where the textile industry was more advanced. Shaw consequently had a twisting mill brought over from Holland and began implementing these new techniques in the production of fine thread. Shaw carried out much of the process herself, including the bleaching of the thread and the manual operating of the machinery.
In 1722 Lady Blantyre, a neighbour and close friend of the Shaw family, took some of the thread to Bath and then to a resort often visited by the aristocracy. It was here that the thread gained the interest of some lace manufacturers, who adapted the thread for this purpose and subsequently set up a trade for more of the fine material. What followed was the creation of company called Bargarran Thread. This involved teaching Shaw’s sisters and several local women the skills involved in thread production, as well as the construction of a twining mill. This proved to be the beginning of a prosperous business; one that would spawn several other similar companies in the region. Although many of these competitors were inspired by the techniques used at Bargarran Thread, there were those who created inferior imitations and threatened the company’s increasingly successful reputation. This led to the wide circulation of the following article:
‘The Lady Bargarran and her daughters having attained to a great perfection in making, whitening, and twisting of SEWING THREED, which is as cheap and white,and known by experience to be sold under the name of Bargarran Threed, the Papers in which the Lady Bargarran, and her daughters at Bargarran, or Mrs Miller, her eldest daughter, at Johnston, do put up their Threed, shall, for direction, have thereupon the above coat of arms. Those who want the said Threed, which is to be sold from fivepence to six shillings per ounce, may write to the Lady Bargarran at Bargarran, or Mrs Miller at Johnston, near Paisley, to the care of the Postmaster of Glasgow; and may call for the same in Edinburgh, at John Seton, merchant, his shop in the Parliament Close, where they will be served either in wholesale or retail: and will be served in the same manner at Glasgow, by William Selkirk, merchant in Tron gate.’
This advertisement can be found in Matthew Blair’s The Paisley Thread Industry and the Men Who Created and Developed It.
Despite the popularity of Baragarran Thread, competition in the area became too fierce and the company could not keep up with the numerous emerging firms, in particular the larger manufactures that were beginning to arise in Paisley. Although the company had home to a close by the turn of the eighteenth century, Shaw’s influence undoubtedly helped contribute towards Paisley’s growth as a highly profitable industrial centre. By 1783 alone there were 23 textile manufactures in Paisley, and in 1784 the area had at least 120 machines twining thread in the area, producing around 280,000 spindles and amounting profits of £64,000.
Text by Sean Kelly, edited by Stephen Clancy 11 March 2013