Alexander Morton

Alexander Morton is the person who brought machine lace to the Irvine Valley in the late 19th century. The 'Valley' towns of Darvel, Newmilns and Galston sit on the banks of the River Irvine which flows westward and through lowland Ayrshire leading into the larger town of Kilmarnock.

Alexander Morton was born into a weaving family. His father died when he was only seven years old. He became a herd boy at the age of nine. By twelve he was being encouraged by his mother in the trade of weaving, working beside her, his brother and sisters, learning everything about the business. By nineteen he was a skilled weaver and was married to Jeanie Wiseman, who was also a weaver. Due to hard work and some inheritance, they saved and built a weaver's cottage to house their growing family of five children and to accommodate their handlooms. Nicknamed 'Pansy', Alexander won awards for his skill in his lifetime's hobby of growing this delicate little flower. 

Madras was the main product of the 'Valley' towns of Galston, Newmilns and Darvel. As its name suggests it was derived from an Indian fabric, a form of gauze. It was produced by a modified weaving process in which the warp threads moved laterally as well as vertically and thereby interlocked with each other as well as with the weft. This resulted in an open, transparent material that could hold a pattern. 

While still in his early twenties, an incident occurred which was to change his life and that of the many people of the 'Valley' villages. His elder sister, Jean was widowed. Jean's husband William Bowie was employed as an agent by two Glasgow merchant houses, delivering materials to weavers and collecting finished fabric. As one of the trustees of the will, it fell to Alexander to wind up his brother-in-laws affairs. He discovered that there were a few webs of fabric for which there were no orders. These turned out to be William's own work. The family decided that Alexander should take them to Glasgow and try and sell them himself directly to the manufacturers. The manufacturers did not actually manufacture anything. A better description of them would be as agents and distributors. 

He succeeded with this venture and a request was made for him to provide more material of the same pattern. He and his sister set about this task but while this was in process, Jean died. Alexander found himself in control of the business. Nevertheless he continued with the order, delivering the goods on time and to a high standard. This gave him confidence. He was a shy but determined person who had an instinctive awareness of his own ability. 

This venture made him realise that he could find a better way of working to provide a better standard of living for his family. No matter how good his work, income was low and something needed to be done. He realised that there was a need to bypass the middleman and reach directly to the retailer. This approach was innovative and would not have been appreciated by the manufacturers. However he pushed ahead with his plans. He headed for Glasgow with samples and began the process of making contact with retailers. He made direct contact and left samples of his work in left-luggage lockers at the railway station. Once he had an appointment, he collected his samples and took them to be viewed by the prospective customer. This would have been no easy task. Firstly he had to induce the sellers to look at his work, convince them that he could produce orders to standard, in quantity and on time. After a while he was successful. One of his ideas was to produce the finished goods to an even higher standard than his samples. In this way customers were never dissatisfied with his goods. He built up personal relationships with retailers who preferred dealing directly with the real manufacturer. In this way they got exactly what they wanted. A better deal for both parties. 

His next move was over the border into England. He worked his way down the country, ending in London building personal relationships and developing his business until he was selling to major retailers like 'Liberty's of London'. He sent the ever-growing orders back to Darvel to his brother and cousin who were by now working with him in the family business. They were by this time employing many weavers from the village. By the early 1870s there were around 630 handlooms working in Darvel with the prosperity being shared in Newmilns and Galston. 

Around 1875 in Nottingham lacemaking machines were introduced and Alexander Morton realised that this would be the future of the industry. On presenting this idea to the Darvel handloom weavers, he met with resistance. Convinced that he was right, he went ahead and invested in a machine. These machines produced patterned fabric that simulated the "Valley' product of Madras. The handloom weavers were concerned that they would find themselves unemployed and were not inclined to work in a factory system. They were used to being their own masters. He tried to persuade them that change was the only option since handlooms would soon be obsolete. 

His prediction became reality when there was a serious downturn in the handloom industry. Fortunately by this time there were several factories producing machine-made lace curtains. The depression was temporary and for a time handlooms were installed in the factories working alongside the water powered machines. Workers had to be recruited from Newmilns, Galston and Hurlford. 

'Morton Fabrics' expanded to such an extent that they were able to produce new materials. They could no longer survive simply by producing Madras curtain material. Although different techniques were involved, skills were transferable and they began experimenting with woven tapestry for curtaining, upholstery and table coverings. A little later they branched out into producing figured chenille. All of these products were innovations and adaptations of ideas collected whilst travelling. Alexander never missed an opportunity to visit a museum, a cathedral, an historic building or a textile exhibition especially when abroad. Carpets were another one of Alexander Morton's ventures starting in Darvel, then moving to Carlisle and Northern Ireland, where there were ready workforces. 

This industry has had its ups and many downs but many families from the 'Valley' area have been employed for generations in this exciting industry. It still survives in the way that it always has with diversification. New materials are being developed and new markets explored. Madras is still made on a small scale at Morton, Young and Borland's factory in Newmilns. Today popstars, museum developers and the famous are taking an interest in the fabrics that can be produced on these wonderful machines, survivors of the industrial revolution. 

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