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Bleaching Greens

 "Crofting," or exposure to the air and sun on grass, is also very largely resorted to in the bleaching of linens, especially for plain shirting and sheeting, which necessitates the possession of very extensive grass parks in connection with works, and renders the process both tedious and subject to the influences of the weather. A large proportion of linen cloth is half-bleached or improved in the yarn before being woven, and it consequently requires less bleaching than that which comes in its original' "green" condition. The following is an outline of the two chief methods, with and without crofting, as pursued in the principal Scotch linen bleachfields at the present day.  Large tracts of land were utilised for Bleaching Greens around Aberdeen Loch and the Corbie Haugh or where there was ample supply of water.

On 22 February 1872, the Improvements Committee of the Town Council resolved to ask the architect, James Matthews, to prepare a report on the laying out of the Denburn as a public park. -
“I beg to submit a Plan and two elevations showing generally the improvements I have to suggest .... I propose to erect a light iron bridge for foot passengers across the valley from Woolmanhill to Union Terrace .....I propose to remove the present long iron railing at the foot of the Wooded bank and to throw the whole ground between Union Terrace and the Railway wall as far up as the iron Bridge into a recreation ground .......The flat portion of the ground at the North end may be laid out for Bowling or Croquet Greens while the Wooded bank may be intersected by walks planted with evergreens and properly sloped and sown with grass .....In carrying out these improvement, it would be necessary to remove the Bleach green, but as it is a great convenience to many persons, I propose to form a new bleach green, north of the new bridge ......

This involved boiling the linen in urine in order to improve the bleaching qualities. Also, using wood ash lye in which you need to boil it as well. To make wood ash lye, make several bushels of hickory ash. Make a large (3 foot deep) inverted cone shaped hopper of wood. Line it with tough butcher paper as a filter. Fill it with ash and pour several gallons of water over the ashes. Place a bucket beneath your filter to collect the lye.

Early in the 18th century weavers bleached their own ‘pieces’ or ‘webs’, each a yard wide and 25 yards long. The linen had to be boiled and rinsed between seven and 12 times, and then laid out on the grass to be whitened by the sun and the rain. Each weaver had his own secret recipe for aiding the bleaching process, usually incorporating sour milk, urine and manure. Even then linen was not ready for sale until the weave had been closed and given a sheen by being hammered on a flat stone with a wooden club known as a ‘beetle’.

Bleaching Development

The bleaching process is necessary. About a 150 years ago the Dutch were esteemed the best bleachers in Europe. Their method was to steep the cloth for about 8 days in ley made from vegetable ashes. It was then washed out with black soap, and placed to steep for about a week in a vessel filled with butter milk After another washing with black soap, the cloth was spread on the grass for 2 or 3 weeks, during which time it was sprinkled at regular intervals with clear water.  All these operations had to be repeated several times before the cloth was brought to the required degree of purity, so that the material was for 6 or 7 months in the hands of the bleachers. All the fine linen made in Scotland was at one time sent to Holland to be bleached. The Board of Manufactures paid great attention to this department of the linen trade, and, as already stated, granted liberal rewards to persons who established bleach-fields. The Board paid the following sums for experiments in bleaching:- To James Spalding, £180; to Dr Wm. Cullen, Glasgow, £21; and to Dr Francis Home, £100. The first important improvement in bleaching in this country was made by Dr Home, who for butter milk substituted water acidulated by sulphuric acid.  This greatly facilitated operations, as it enabled the bleachers to do in 12 hours what formerly required nearly as many days. In 1785 chlorine was discovered and successfully applied to bleaching by Berthollet, a French chemist. An establishment for bleaching by chlorine was erected at Aberdeen in 1787, and was the 1st of the kind in this country. Chloride of lime, a substance of more convenient application, was discovered in 1798 by Mr Tennant of Glasgow, and is now the principal chemical stuff used in bleaching. Mr Alexander Drimmie, in 1820, substituted soda ash for potash ley in bleaching, thereby reducing the cost of the operation, while linen cloth might be bleached in a few days by the use of the soda ash alone, almost without exposure on the grass. In 1825 Mr Drimmie effected a further and important improvement by inventing a machine for washing the cloth. The substances which require to be got rid of by bleaching are -
1st, the organic colouring matter naturally pre-sent in the fibre;
2nd, resinous and fatty bodies, also inherent in the fibre;
3rd, weavers' dressing and perspiration taken up during the process of weaving;
4rth, certain saline or earthy substances.

To separate these from the cloth, it is subjected to a series of operations such as washing, boiling in lime-water, steeping in a solution of sulphuric acid, and so forth. The cloth is then sent to the calender and finished. Cotton loses about 1/20th of its weight by bleaching, and linen about 1/3rd. There are a number of extensive bleach-fields in Forfarshire, Perthshire, Fifeshire, &c., some having a direct connection with linen factories, and others being carried on as separate undertakings.

The Dutch mode of bleaching, which was mostly conducted in the neighbourhood of Haarlem, was to steep the linen first in a waste Lye, and then for about a week in a potash lye poured over it boiling hot. The cloth being taken out of this lye and washed, was next put into wooden vessels containing buttermilk, in which it lay under a pressure for 5 or 6 days. After this it was spread upon the grass and kept wet for several months, exposed to the sunshine of summer.  The combination of the direct sun and the natural chlorophyll in the blades of grass brighten linens and make them sparkling white.

"grassy corner well open to the sun,...sheltered from high winds...the attentions of wandering poultry... and the incursions of pigs, puppies and calves...they not only soil the clothes, but will tear and even eat them"

Chemical Bleaching

In 1785 chlorine was discovered and successfully applied to bleaching by Berthollet, a French chemist. An establishment for bleaching by chlorine was erected at Aberdeen in 1787, and was the first of the kind in this country.

The use of chlorine, an element which had been discovered by Scheele in Sweden about 13 years before. Berthollet repeated the experiments of Scheele in 1785, and by the prosecution of further investigations he added considerably to the facts already known. He showed that this substance (called by Scheele dephlogisti-cated muriatic acid) is a gas soluble in water, to which it gives a yellowish green colour, an astringent taste, and the peculiar smell by which the body is distinguished.  The property which this gas possesses of destroying vegetable colours, led Berthollet to suspect that it might be introduced with advantage into the art of bleaching, and that it would enable practical bleachers greatly to shorten their processes. In a paper on dephlogisticated muriatic acid, read before the Academy of Sciences at Paris in April 1785, and published in the Journal de Physique for May of the same year (vol. xxvi. p. 325), he mentions that he had tried the effect of the gas in bleaching cloth, and found that it answered perfectly.

This idea is still further developed in a paper on the same substance, published in the Journal de Physique for 1786. In 1786 he exhibited the experiment to Mr James Watt, who, immediately upon his return to England, commenced a practical examination of the subject, and was accordingly the person who first introduced the new method of bleaching into Great Britain. We find from Mr Watt's own testimony that chlorine was practically employed in the bleachfield of his father-in-law, Mr Macgregor, in the neighbourhood of Glasgow in March 1787. Shortly thereafter the method was introduced at Wooside Cotton Mill, driven by water from by the River Don  (Inset - Later Piries)  Aberdeen by Messrs Gordon, Barron, and Co., on information received from M. de Saussure through Professor Patrick Copland of Aberdeen. Mr Thomas Henry of Manchester was the first to bleach with chlorine in the Lancashire district, and to his independent investigations several of the early improvements in the application of the material were due.  No very great amount of success, however, attended the efforts to utilize chlorine in bleaching operations till the subject was taken up by Mr Tennant of Glasgow. He, after a great deal of most laborious and acute investigation, hit upon a method of making a saturated liquid of chloride of lime, which was found to answer perfectly all the purposes of the bleacher. This was certainly a most important improvement, without which, the prodigious extent of business carried on by some bleachers could not possibly have been transacted.

1500 to 3000 Handloom Weavers were employed at Woodside Works wiping out the small crofter weaver producers living.

Such was the acceleration of Bleaching processes effected by the new method that, it is stated, a bleacher in Lancashire received 1400 pieces of gray muslin on a Tuesday, which on the Thursday immediately following were returned bleached to the manufacturers, at the distance of 16 miles, and were packed up and sent off on that very day to a foreign market.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013