‘Jute Journey’ of discovery for Mearns Ladies Probus

Mearns Ladies Probus Club met at Mearns Community Centre to hear a talk by Sandra Thomson of McGregor Balfour Textiles of West Ferry, Dundee, about her “Jute Journey”.

Sandra has a family tradition rooted in the jute industry and is now the third generation to make this remarkable plant the focus of their lives.

She was born in Calcutta and speaks Hindi fluently – a great asset now for negotiations with Indian and Bangladeshi jute suppliers and manufacturers. Her role is to develop demand for, and market, new ranges of jute products.

Along with jam and journalism, jute is synonymous with Dundee. Sandra outlined the three factors that made the city an ideal location for the jute industry. Firstly, shipbuilders built appropriate vessels for the trade; secondly, whaling provided whale oil, a necessity for the jute-processing machinery and thirdly, there was a supply of skilled textile workers.

In its 1920 heydey, the jute industry in Dundee employed 55,000 weavers and spinners. Most of the workforce were women: men often offered support roles, often staying at home. These “househusbands” were nicknamed “kettle bilers.”

In the late 1980s the jute industry had just about died out. When Sandra’s father passed away she felt such a loyalty to the industry that she put every effort into ensuring its survival, even if only minimal. Today, the “industry” employs a total of six people in Dundee and remains just about alive: innovation is essential however.

McGregor Balfour is a highly innovative company that has spearheaded the search for new uses of jute, which has the advantage of being bio-degradable so is ideal for bags, flower pots and, for the “green” funeral, the material of choice for a coffin and accompanying shroud.

Jute is easily laminated and a new fibrous material, “jute board,” has been developed. There have been other successes in niche markets: a production of Oklahoma needed folksy hats and, of course, jute was ideal. Old fashioned garden twine has gone upmarket and is now produced in a range of fashionable colours.

Jute, always versatile, has been combined with silk, velvet and other materials to create unique, high quality “designer” handbags. The list is endless... why not use the absorbent properties of jute for nappies or its strength and light weight for the British Legion’s Poppies?

Mrs Anne Black gave a heartfelt vote of thanks for an entertaining and extremely interesting talk and wished Sandra and McGregor-Balfour Textiles every success.