Although India was the biggest market for the Scottish Turkey red manufacturers, this did not stop the Vale of Leven firms from seeking out new customers. By the end of the nineteenth century they had established trade links with the Far East, Africa, Australia and the South Pacific.

The Far East

Far Eastern markets, along with markets in Africa and Australia, were developed from Bombay or Calcutta, with many of the commission agents who dealt with firms like William Stirling and Sons in the 1850s and ‘60s also chartering ships, including some of the famous tea clippers, for trade to Shanghai and Singapore. But the Far East was a difficult market to penetrate, involving the British state in wars and gunboat diplomacy for decades, with only limited access before the 1860s. Indeed, some of the countries concerned, such as Java, were part of the empire possessions of other European nations, in this case the Dutch, who had settled there in large numbers since the seventeenth century. Much British trade in the east was of commodities produced in India, such as salt and, infamously, opium, which made vast profits for transport firms like Scottish-owned Jardine Matheson. China was particularly hard to penetrate and also operated punitive local taxes on foreign traders, whilst Japan was largely closed to westerners until the 1870s.

Turkey red exports to China and Japan were mainly of plain dyed cottons and yarns. Patterned goods were, however, made for the Indonesian market where they were used for making sarongs, which were worn by both men and women, by natives and by certain European settlers also. Sarong patterns can be seen throughout the National Museums Scotland Turkey Red Collection, including imitations of traditional batik designs, which were often highly symbolic in character. Since the Indonesian population was largely Islamic by the nineteenth century, designs for this market tended toward the abstract or geometric, with floral motifs commonly seen but not animal or human figures. Indonesian patterns were much larger than those typically designed for the Indian market, and involve fewer colours. Large patterns historically had been associated with the royal family and important court officials, and some patterns were also traditionally exclusive to the elite. Although strict dress regulation had waned by the nineteenth century, these conventions still influenced local fashions.  

North and East Africa

British trade with north Africa and Egypt was greatly enhanced by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and Scottish Turkey red producers made commemorative handkerchiefs to celebrate some of the key events associated with growing British links with this region. A number of designs in the National Museums Scotland pattern books, which can be dated to the later nineteenth century, show Middle Eastern scenes, with camels and the common use of the Islamic crescent moon and star device. Whether these were for sale in Britain or in Turkey and the Middle East is unclear, but certainly by the 1870s Britain had a robust trade in many commodities with the eastern Mediterranean Turkish area that was known as the Levant.  

British commerce with sub-Saharan Africa was slow to develop, and much of the trade, particularly in eastern and southern Africa, was supplied from India through networks of Indian businessmen who migrated in large numbers to countries like Kenya. The town-based Indian populations in Africa were probably big purchasers of such cottons, but as a relatively expensive commodity, the native African market for Turkey red prints was always going to be limited. African-styled garments can be seen in some of the early twentieth century National Museums Scotland pattern books and are described as ‘khangas’, which were a type of sarong worn in East Africa. But the most famous Turkey red artefact associated with Africa is the iconic plain red shirt that was owned and worn by Scottish missionary, explorer and anti-slavery campaigner Dr David Livingstone, which has survived among his personal possessions in the Livingstone birthplace museum in Blantyre.

Australia and the South Pacific

Both South Africa and Australia, with their large British emigrant populations, consumed similar styles and patterns to those sold in Britain. The Australian market was particularly connected with the activities of the firm of John Orr Ewing, who invested heavily in the 1850s and ‘60s in the European and Australian Royal Mail Company, which ran a postal, passenger and goods service via Suez and Celon to Melbourne and Sydney. Turkey red goods were advertised in the press from the early nineteenth century, when convict transportation and penal settlement still operated, including Monteith’s Turkey red bandannas and shawls with chintz borders. Turkey red fabric also entered the New Zealand and South Sea trade from Australia, for barter exchange, alongside tobacco and beads, with the local aboriginal populations. Turkey red textiles had great status value among the native peoples, as described by a visitor to the South Sea island of Aoba, when the local pilot who helped to navigate a difficult river was described as dressed in nothing but a primitive loin cloth and a European ‘stove pipe’ hat embellished with yards of Turkey red wrapped around the crown and cascading down behind.

Australia was still an important market for the Vale of Leven firms in the late nineteenth century, but that country, like so many others with British connections, also imported cotton goods from other producers such as India and later Japan. Moreover, much as in North America, there were moves to establish a domestic cotton dyeing and printing industry in Australia by the end of the century.  

  • Black flowers and birds on red, Indonesia

    Black flowers and birds on red, Indonesia
  • Dragons, butterflies and pheasants

    Dragons, butterflies and pheasants
  • Large white flower, sarong pattern

    Large white flower, sarong pattern
  • Military man in uniform, possibly Egypt

    Military man in uniform, possibly Egypt
  • Samurai

    Samurai
  • White stencil design with fan motifs

    White stencil design with fan motifs


Next: Home markets >

Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Turkey red in Scotland.’

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