The Paisley Thread Mills

Paisley has had a textile industry dating back to medieval times. The origins of the thread industry really begin to appear after 1722 when Christian Shaw of Bargarran in Erskine (best known as the instigator of the Bargarran Witch Hunt of 1696 at the age of 11) began spinning a fine linen thread at Bargarran House, and creating the Bargarran Thread Company. Her technology was acquired from Dutch spinners, and her company grew quickly, enough so that she had to move to the Brig of Johnstone. Her company disappears from the records, but it was important enough that the other thread manufacturers in the area copied her techniques and established lots of small thread works around Renfrewshire and within Paisley. By the 1730’s Christian could be found in Edinburgh advising the Board of Trade and Manufacturing on how to improve thread manufacturing. Within 2 years she was appointed as the first Edinburgh Spinning School Mistress on a salary of £50 per year – the Spinning Schools would appear to have been Christian’s idea.

The earliest thread factory in Paisley is acknowledged to be that of William Carlile – The Bankhead Mill at Carlile Quay just of New Sneddon Street. Part of the wall of the Mill still survives. This business started c.1735 and survived until it was sold to Clarks in the late 19th Century.

In 1753 when William Clark a farmer from Dykebar died his widow Agnes and six young children being unable to work the farm moved into Paisley. William’s son, James Clark (1747-1829) started a business of Weaver’s Furnisher and Heddle Twine Manufacturer. Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) the famous poet, ornithologist, naturalist and illustrator was employed by James at this time.

As a result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Berlin Decree in 1806 the importation of silk into Britain was curtailed. James and his brother Patrick developed a smooth cotton yarn which was used in place of silk. James’s sons, James and John, joined the family business and in 1819 started trading under the name J & J Clark & Co.

James Coats (1774-1857) was descended from many generations of Paisley weavers. In 1802 he married Katherine Mitchell who employed a number of girls embroidering (tambouring) cloth. When ill health forced James to give up weaving he joined his wife in tambouring. Along with his friend James Whyte he started producing Canton Crepe Shawls. He became a partner in the firm Ross and Duncan, producers of the thread necessary to make these shawls and eventually went on to establish his own factory at Ferguslie.

James’s son, also James, born in 1803 started his working life as a shawl manufacturer but gave it up when he entered the Ferguslie Thread Factory. When his father retired in 1830 he and his brother Peter took over the business and formed the firm J & P Coats.

By the 1880s competition between J & P Coats and Clark & Co. had become fierce because of the limited market but it was resolved amicably and the Central Agency was formed to represent their interests. In 1896 the two companies amalgamated. Jonas Brook of Meltham and James Chadwick and Brothers of Bolton then joined the combine to make it the largest thread manufacturer in the world.

The Paisley thread industry was thriving and by the 20th Century over 10,000 people were employed in the huge mill complexes in Ferguslie and Seedhill.

By 1986 the mills were starting to close and those that were still open had reduced their workforce drastically, mills were being demolished and housing estates sprang up in their place.

The Old Paisley Society then began to collect artefacts, mill photographs and other memorabilia with the view to commemorating the thread industry in a Paisley Thread Museum.