Down on the banks of the Tay in Dundee a steady trail of curious tourists wend their way between RRS Discovery, the magnificent vessel that took Scott and Shackleton to the Antarctic, and the Kengo Kuma-designed V&A Dundee, which looms nearby. Between the two, visitors are inducted into the rich history of Scotland’s intrepid and inventive past. We might be familiar with Scottish innovations such as the steam engine, the telephone and penicillin; lesser known discoveries include disposable contact lenses, ATMs and the toaster. The latter, ingeniously, was invented before sliced bread.
Dundee itself has been a hotbed of Scottish design and industry for centuries. From textiles to marmalade and comics to computer games, the small city has repeatedly gifted ideas and goods of global renown. Not far from the Tay in a beautiful Victorian mill called Baltic Works, Halley Stevensons is continuing Dundee’s ingenious and industrious tradition, developing and manufacturing waxed cotton.
Halley Stevensons built a name and reputation on the quality of its textiles and has maintained its position as a world leader in waxed cotton thanks to its commitment to innovation. “Our team have backgrounds in both chemistry and design, therefore our waxed cotton is truly a process where science meets art,” explains Dorothy Arnott, Halley Stevensons’ Sales and Marketing Manager. “We are proud of the fact that all dyeing and finishing takes place under one roof here in Dundee.”
The Baltic Works Mill certainly attests to Dorothy’s description of two worlds colliding; it is part-factory, part-laboratory. Stepping from the bustle of the factory floor into the R&D lab is like entering an alternate dimension. Factory overalls are swapped for chemist coats. Hulking machinery constantly in motion is replaced by static equipment for studying things invisible to the naked eye. Vast spools of cotton in various states of waxiness are replaced by orderly rows of jars with chemical names on white labels. The mind boggles at the sensory contrast just metres apart.
“We specify Aegean organic cotton fibre, which is spun and woven at mills in Turkey before arriving here,” Dorothy explains. “We work with excellent quality cotton to minimise the need for processing, keeping our energy impact as low as possible. We singe the material to burn off hairy fibres and then bathe it to remove starches used in the weaving process. This is all the prepping required for dyeing.”
The waxing happens next, with a few different finishes. Washwax is an emulsified wax blend that, unlike the traditional paraffin wax of our grandparents’ coats, does not leave a waxy residue on your fingers. As the name suggests, it is also washable. For the Hybrid Aero finish, the finished material is placed in a large tumble dryer to soften the fabric.
Baltic Works Mill was built in 1864. Like many local factories from this era, it was originally a jute mill, contributing to one of Dundee’s former lives as the epicentre of the global jute industry (the city was once known as Juteopolis). The history of waxed cotton is closely linked here, too. As far back as the 15th century, North Sea herring fishermen had been treating their sailcloth with fish oils as a method of both waterproofing them, and keeping the textile light and agile. When the sails were retired, the fishermen would turn the oily cloth into capes to protect them from the elements.
It must have been a relief to the noses of all involved that during the 18th century fish oil gave way to linseed oil as the preferred treatment for waterproofing. To this day, it is thanks to the yellowing effect of cotton treated with linseed oil that fishermen’s waterproof clothing has this distinct colour. By the late 19th century, linseed had been replaced with paraffin as a lighter and slicker sealant. And not long after, in 1910, Halley Stevensons received its first patent in waterproofing. Today, the company makes over a million metres of fabric a year, which it exports worldwide.
Beyond its waterproofing function, the Halley Stevensons material has a powerful evocative quality that brings to mind wild walks with squashed pocket sandwiches and reviving flasks of warm tea. Some of life’s simpler pleasures, without a doubt.
Words by Hugo Macdonald.
Photography by Martin Safro.