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Much of the cotton used by the Scottish Turkey red manufacturers in the early years of the industry came from North America. This cotton was dyed and printed in Scotland and much of it was sent back to America in the form of bandannas, scarves and even flags.

From bandannas to flags

‘Scotch handkerchiefs’ in checks and spots with borders, along with Scotch coloured threads, were a staple export from Glasgow to Virginia and North Carolina from the 1750s. The handkerchiefs, often also called ‘bandannas’, which became a mainstay of the Scottish Turkey red industry in the nineteenth century, were hemmed pieces of red cloth, larger than a handkerchief and smaller than a shawl and usually about 23” or 25” squared. Their most iconic association was with the North American cowboy, but they were worn by working men and women of all occupations in a variety of ways. Similar items were shipped to the West Indies, for use as headscarves and neckerchiefs by slaves on the sugar plantations, many owned by Scots. Turkey red printed shawls, sometimes embellished with fringes, were also advertised in America, often in imitation of more expensive hand-woven Paisley shawls.

A common use of Turkey red dyed and printed cottons was for children’s clothing, since the fabric was hard wearing and did not show dirt. Turkey red was also used for home furnishings such as curtains and tablecloths. Surviving examples of nineteenth-century quilts in private and museum collections show that small print patterns with simplified, repeated flowers and paisley shapes were a popular choice for block style and sampler quilts from the 1840s onwards. These quilts, the product of many hours of work, often undertaken communally as gifts to celebrate a marriage, are probably the largest group of surviving artefacts which demonstrate how Turkey red fabrics were used in the nineteenth century.

Before the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861, much of the cotton employed by the Vale of Leven firms, though spun or woven in Britain, had originated in the southern states of America. The war effectively halted this trade, which meant the Vale firms had to rely on their Indian suppliers, but this did not stop one firm from cashing in on the American situation. In 1864 John Orr Ewing and Co. sent a design to the Board of Trade in London for copyright protection that was essentially the Confederate flag of a diagonal blue and white cross on a red ground, the only difference being that the stars within the cross were yellow rather than white. Whether it was actually intended for the American market or for purchase by Confederate supporters in Britain is not known. Other flags produced for North America included the ‘stars and stripes’ in its various forms and also the ‘informal’ Canadian flag – a Union Jack and Provinces Shield on a red ensign – which appears prominently in one of the National Museums Scotland patterns books and was exported in large numbers for patriotic display during the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897.

American competition

From mid-century, American printed cotton manufacture was on the increase along with advice on the local production of the raw materials needed for the dyeing industry. The long-running and popular magazine Scientific American carried numerous reports on inventions and patents in Europe, including those relating to the textile industry, and the edition for September 1881 gave a detailed recipe for dyeing Turkey red using the natural madder process. By the 1890s there were five major Turkey red firms in America, one of the largest, famous in its day, was the Clyde Print Works and Bleachery of Rhode Island. Founded in the eighteenth century, this business had long established connections with Scotland and in 1876 the owners ‘headhunted’ a new works manager from Glasgow, a man called Robert Reoch, the son and grandson of calico printers who began his career with an apprenticeship in the Ferenze Print Works at Barrhead in Renfrewshire and later managed the Turkey red print works for Brown, Muir and Co. In the USA, Reoch pioneered the introduction of the Turkey red process at the Clyde Print Works with a line of celebrated flags and commemorative handkerchiefs.

The North American export market had died by the later decades of the nineteenth century, but the influence of American culture was still evident in some distinctive Turkey red designs for the British market, including popular ‘wild west’ themes on handkerchiefs and bandannas.

  • Bandanna

  • Six samples on one page, different bandanna or handkerchief styles

    Six samples on one page, different bandanna or handkerchief styles
  • Small print patterns, 6 on one page

    Small print patterns, 6 on one page
  • Turkeys


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Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: International markets.’

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