Thread Mills, The History of Paisley's Thread Mills, Inter-war Developments

Inter-war Developments

At this time, other British businesses had been actively expanding their international investments, and Coats were no different. Before 1914, the business had a presence in 15 different countries, with a total of 53 separate investments. It would spend the period up to the start of the First World War consolidating its position. As well as the USA, the company also expanded into Europe at this time, buying up family businesses that were experiencing difficulties. Coats bought up companies in Italy and Spain, while after the First World War, it focused on gaining a foothold in Germany, taking over the huge German company Mez between 1922 and 1930. Coats completely restructured Mez, addressing its export business which had been ravaged by the war, and eventually opened up new premises in Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin.


Coats Mez Germany

Workers in a Coats mill in Mez, Germany


Closer to home, in Paisley both the Ferguslie and Anchor sites were continually being redeveloped. The great Victorian mills, such as the domestic finishing mill at Anchor and the number 1 mill at Ferguslie would be supplemented by smaller buildings that were reflective of changes in technology and thread production. For example, in Ferguslie a single storey building was completed in 1901 for the purpose of carrying out Turkey Red Dyeing, while new engine houses were added to both sites. In 1909 a large warehouse was built in Kinning Park, close to the docks in Glasgow, for export purposes. At Anchor, a new building specifically to be used specifically for the gassing process was built in 1923, and this can still be seen today on Seedhill Road.

In the period between the two world wars the company went through a process of changing some of its business structure, while all the time seeking out new markets overseas.  Coats would continue to reach out to customers across the globe through The Central Agency. The Central Agency represented a more ‘rationalised’ approach to business, and had itself been turned into a limited liability company. Its mode of operation was either directly via one of the company’s many depots, or by using commission agents who would sell the Coats brand overseas. The amalgamation had created a powerful business; however during the first half of the twentieth century J. & P. Coats Ltd would also have to recover from setbacks as well as face challenges in an ever-turbulent global market. Manufacturing overseas was not a new concept for the company. The creation of new mills in North America during the nineteenth century is a testament to this. However, this concept was expanded dramatically during the twentieth century. As well as its presence in the USA, Coats had manufacturing centres in many eastern European nations, including Czechoslovakia and Poland. It also boasted manufacturing capacity in western European countries such as Belgium, Italy, and Portugal. The truly global nature of the business in this period was exemplified by its operations in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Japan. Before the outbreak of war in 1939, Coats had a significant foothold in every continent on the planet except Africa.

The structure of the business was a complex one. Having so many operations worldwide brought with it a number of challenges, especially legal and financial ones. In order to overcome these, J. & P. Coats Ltd organised itself in such a way that, while it was the parent company, it contained many individually-named operations under its wings. All selling that the company did was under the direction of The Central Agency. However, manufacturing operations would depend on regional considerations. In 1931, production in the United Kingdom was placed under the direct ownership of a new company that was floated especially for this purpose, United Thread Mills Ltd. (U.T.M.). This was done to improve administrative as well as production issues, but did not affect the autonomy or characteristics of the individual mills themselves. Indeed, despite the amalgamation, and the retention of the Coats name, the other firms did not lose their identity. For example, the Clarks ‘Anchor’ brand had continued to exist, as had the legal identities of Brook and Chadwick in England. The reasoning behind this was that their ‘brand identity’ was already very strong, and worth maintaining as it helped to keep profit levels at a premium. The Clark trademarks would remain their own right up until 1951, when Clark & Co agreed a complete sale to J & P Coats, including trademarks and patents. This process was finally completed in 1954. 

The same identity approach was practiced in Coats’ overseas manufacturing centres, although the emphasis was more often upon reducing financial restrictions by using companies that were nominally local enterprises but really under the ownership of Coats. For example, the creation of the ‘Canadian Spool Cotton Company’ or the ‘Brazilian Company’ meant that Coats could overcome import duties on its finished goods, thus compete advantageously against local manufacturing operations. All selling was still carried out under the guidance of The Central Agency, but the business itself was comprised of numerous sub-companies dotted across the world. This practice was not unique to Coats at this time, but was reflective of broader developments in the world of business. By the end of the Second World War, Coats had extended its presence further in South America, India, and South Africa, but global events had also led to some territorial setbacks. This was reflected most significantly in changes in Europe between the wars. Political developments and growing instability meant that the gains that the company had made prior to 1914 were slowly reduced. This included the loss of key manufacturing operations in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Russia.

Closer to home, Coats were continually looking for new ways to expand their presence in the domestic thread market. This led to an initiative in the 1930s which, at the time, was highly innovative. Between 1934-1939 a scheme entitled ‘Needlework Development in Scotland’ was set up, which encompassed input from art and design education and manufacturing industry. Essentially, this was promoted as a means of encouraging needlework, while indirectly boosting the sale of thread produced by Coats. The scheme would run for almost sixty years, where embroidery collections, both modern and historic, would be gathered before being exhibited in local schools to encourage the craft. This scheme would run until 1961, when the company stopped funding it. By this point, over 3000 textile items had been amassed, and this collection was scattered among colleges, universities, and museums in the UK.


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Working with heritage professionals from the Scottish Oral History Centre, University of Strathclyde, the Paisley People’s Archive is creating an accessible and user-friendly oral history archive of Paisley's rich industrial past.
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