A History of Mather & Platt Ltd.
CHAPTER 5 - Technical Invention and Business EnterpriseLink to full frames site if you have arrived on this single page.
Textile Finishing Machinery.

The textile finishing machinery side of the business of Mather & Platt is the oldest part of the firm. Rapid expansion of the Lancashire cotton industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century led to an extension of’ the cloth bleaching and colouring trades which had grown up in the river valleys near to plentiful supplies of water. Yarn and fabrics coming from the spinner and weaver were in a rough unfinished condition- full of impurities, harsh to handle, grey in colour and unattractive to the eye. It was the business of the after—loom trades to eliminate these drawbacks and improve the fabrics by bleaching or dyeing and by printing and finishing (laundering) them. Salford Ironworks, a foundry and general engineering work’s already in 1795 "of considerable capacity and noted for improved steam engines", was centrally placed to serve the scattered bleaching and finishing firms. Probably its foundry bias accounts for its emphasis on finishing and the relative lack of interest in the design of’ the lighter mechanisms demanded by spinners and weavers.

In studying the industrial revolution, historians have perhaps paid too much attention to the primary processes of the cotton industry, spinning and weaving, and neglected the many chances in the finishing side of the industry in the nineteenth century. Salford Iron Works played an important part in this second line of development.

Bleaching had become a chemical proposition after Tennents exploitation of the use of chlorine as hypochlorite (bleaching powder) about 1799. Lancashire soon followed Scotland and by mid-century Mather & Platt at Salford were largely occupied in providing machinery for all bleaching processes and doing much to develop the technology of the central process of “kiering” or scouring.

The bleaching kier is a large cylindrical vessel in which grey cotton —loose yarn or cloth — is boiled with alkaline liquor. The two main technical problems involved in kiering were those of heating and of securing an efficient circulation of scouring liquor inside the kier, In the early years of the industrial revolution, kiers were heated. by direct furnaces; later on steam from a central boiler installation was substituted; and in 1853 Colin Mather patented a device which employed the injector principle in the heating and circulation of the liquor by steam. Finally in 1885 the Mather kier was invented, and patented by William Mather. It treated the yarn or fabric in waggons, within a horizontal cylindrical vessel, and utilised a sluice valve door, which allowed for the change of the contents of the kier in a few minutes instead of several hours.

By means of a centrifugal pump the circulation was maintained more efficiently than before and the heating in the later models was provided by a multi-tubular heater, which prevented the weakening of the liquor by the condensation of steam and made for economy in the use of chemicals.

These improvements marked a big advance on the previous system, and Mather kiers have been supplied to more than 300 of the principle bleaching, printing and dyeing works in various parts of the world, and are still in steady demand.

Kiering was the central process of bleaching but improvements were also made in other techniques, such as “singeing” and printing. Cotton fabrics are “singed” before scouring in order to burn off fibre ends projecting from the surface of the fabric. Mather & Platt produced both plate-singeing and gas-singeing machines. In singeing techniques the firm was a pioneer, manufacturing internally heated revolving roller machines, plate machines with oil firing and traversing motion for the cloth, and gas singeing machines with exhaust suction chambers drawing the flame round the threads of the cloth.

In the case of textile printing, the basic invention had been made by a Scotsman, Thomas Bell, who in 1783 patented a continuously running engraved roller printing machine for calicoes, which could take the place of the earlier and extremely laborious method of printing by hand with engraved wooden blocks. This machine made possible the production of the most accurate work at relatively great speed, and at a labour cost with which handwork could never have competed.

This important machine was introduced into Lancashire in 1785 and although displacement of hand block printing was slow, and not nearly complete a century after Boll’s patent, the demand for the new machine increased rapidly. The invention was aptly timed, for the rollers were easily driven first by water and then by steam. The advantages of its use were obvious, for one roller machine could produce as much as a hundred block printers.(1) England led the Continent in the development of the printing machine and Bell’ s wooden framed prototype gave way to a more durable roller printing machine with cast iron sides, central ‘bowl” and radially placed printing rollers - which has altered little in its main characteristics to this day.

William and. Colin Mather were very early makers of these printing machines. An ancient three-colour machine was sold by auction in 1950 for demolition with a proviso against further use in production! It bore the name “W. & C. Mather, Manchester” and so must have been made before the Mather and. Platt partnership was formed in 1852.

A study of the surviving early order books of the partnership, which go back to 1866, shows the importance and wide range of finishing machinery amongst the firm’s products in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

In 1866 no less than 13 printing machines, 18 shearing machines used for providing a cloth surface free from thread and fibre ends measuring and lapping machines, and 13 drying machines were sold. In addition there were sales of calenders for smoothing and flattening the surface of fabrics; raising machines for changing the smooth surface of fabrics to a degree of “nap” or hairiness, which made them soft to handle and. warm to use; dyeing, damping, folding, padding, rolling, piece—end sewing (2), stretching, drying, and. wool—burring machines; squeezers, steaming cottages and mangles. In that year, 1866, only two kiers were sold, but in 1886, after the introduction of the Mather Kier, 25 were entered in the order book.

(1) J. Wheeler, Manchester; its Political, Commercial and Social History, Ancient and Modern (1836), p.169.

(2) Sewing machines were not of course domestic sewing machines but factory machines for joining fabrics end to end.

In the 1840’s competition in the textile finishing machinery industry was extremely keen, and this led the firm to follow three lines of action — first, to try to reduce processing costs by inventions such as the Mather Kier; second, to seek markets overseas; and third to take up new lines of manufacture.

There was much inventiveness in the firm in those days, particularly on the part of Colin Mather, one of the liveliest engineering minds of his age. He was versatile, practical and imaginative, and his schemes provided the technical basis for the success of the Mather & Platt partnership. Just as William Mather, his nephew, later looked to Germany for ideas on technical education, so Colin searched Europe for ideas concerning new methods in the finishing trade. In 1852 we find him sharing a patent for ”certain improvements in -printing, damping, softening, opening and. spreading woven fabrics” with Ernest Rolffs, “of Cologne, in the kingdom of Prussia, gentleman”(1). Later on he sent one of his sons John Harry Mather to Mulhouse in Alsace, which was then the great centre of learning for the chemistry of dyestuffs, to study and qualify in the use of textile processing machinery. In order to expand an engineering business in the so-called golden age of Victorian industry, it was necessary to have a shrewd eye for openings, particularly when home competition was acute.

The discovery of overseas markets was the obvious way to meet the keen competition, which resulted from a fluctuating home demand. Down to 1843 the export of many types of textile machines was prohibited by law, but during the 1850’s and 1860’s Great Britain was able to act as a central source of supplies for foreign manufacturers. Representatives of Mather & Platt, particularly “Cast Iron Colin” and the young William Mather, paid prolonged visits to countries far and near, to study the requirements of prospective customers, to give them the benefit of technical knowledge and to undertake the equipment of complete works designed to suit the particular country and the tastes of its business men. Careful use was made of a detailed knowledge of local conditions, fuel and power supplies, and transport methods. Hence we find that Mather & Platt helped to carry the industrial revolution to overseas countries; in some countries, like Russia, blazing the industrial trail.

The story of the quest for Russian trade is an interesting one and is best told at this point. Colin Mather had visited Russia as early as 1850 — his passport of that date still exists — and he was sufficiently familiar with that country to take with him on one of several subsequent journeys his oldest daughter Martha. In 1859, when the English textile machinery industry was in a comparatively depressed condition the long life of the equipment already supplied meaning that there was no replacement demand, and the lack of important new inventions meaning that there was little technical obsolescence — William Mather met William Thornton, founder of the greatest woollen and cloth mills in Russia. Thornton stressed the possibilities of industrial expansion there, and a year later Mather set out for Russia. In the meantime he had entered into correspondence with the firm of Knoops in Moscow, which later became agent for Mather & Platt in the chief manufacturing districts of Russia.

(1) 11 March 1852, Patent No. 14,022, see The Manchester Courier, 13 March 1852. Rolffs’ family owned a printworks.

William Mather’s first visit was so successful that regular visits were made in the following six years. From letters and diaries we glean an interesting picture of Mather’s travels through the wastes and how he takes in the beauties of the country without turning his eye from glimpses of business openings. For instance, in a letter to his wife in 1867, he described how “last night we met an immense wolf right in our path, as large as a donkey". He goes on “I am staying with an English manager here at a large cotton mill and print works. It is most probable we shall have the contract to build a complete new works here”. (1)

Scattered about the diaries, between long descriptions of natural scenery, are desultory jottings of the dimensions of mill machinery. Occasionally other industrial projects, such as coal mining and railway building are described. At times he helped those responsible for the schemes to obtain financial backing. One of the biggest enterprises with which he was associated was the construction of a calico printing works at Schlusselburg in 1866. “England is so full of competition, so overdone in everything”, Mather wrote, “that all the energy one spends upon it brings no adequate return, while here it will bring great results.”(2)

The opening up of intimate connections with Russia endowed Mather & Platt with a distinct personality among English firms; it also guaranteed useful markets during the period of depressed foreign trade after 1873. Routine orders continued to come in, such as a typical one for a pair of kiers in 1876: — “Same as last sent to 34 mill — Welded Rings and double riveted to Belts — To be sent via Reval, thro’ freight to Moscow. Consigned. to Geo. Malmras — Reval & invoiced direct to A.W.R. in Moscow.”(3) The perusal of such cryptic entries opens a window on to a world in which Russia was still dependent on the west for its basic industrialisation.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there was a quest for even more distant markets. Largely as a result of the efforts of Colin Mather, son of “Cast Iron Colin” considerable quantities of machinery were shipped to the U.S.A. until the heavy McKinley tariff of 1890, succeeded in keeping out British finishing machines.

It was then that one of Mather & Platt's technical experts, who had been working in the U.S.A. for some time decided to settle down there and in due course became the head of the United States Finishing Machinery Company. Other North American markets were not neglected. In 1883/4, for instance, the first Canadian calico printworks was built in Magog and equipped with machinery supplied by Mather & Platt. Mexican trade was developed during the same period when the only transport for travellers and for machinery alike was on muleback over the mountains. To meet these conditions machinery had to be designed specially and despatched in sections small enough to be carried by this primitive means. After Mexico had been explored, successful efforts were made to develop textile-finishing works throughout Brazil and India, both of which eventually became large importers of Mather & Platt machinery. In India a resident staff of experienced textile engineers gave technical service to machinery users and so established for the firm an enviable position in that market. Later still orders were secured from Japan and China and by l914 the firm had provided equipment for bleaching, dyeing, printing and finishing in every country in the world where cotton fabrics were produced.

(1) William Mather to Mrs. Mather, 2 March 1867.

(2) William Mather to Mrs. Mather, 24 March 1869

(3)1876 Order book

The expansion of markets was merely one side of the extension of the activities of the concern during the nineteenth century. The development of new lines of manufacture was of equal importance. From the eighteenth century onwards one of the central problems of technical progress was the harnessing of power, and when the Sherratts (Mathers predecessors) were at Salford Iron Works they produced steam engines for many industries. W.& C.Mather and later Mather & Platt continued this line of manufacture, producing not only large engines for driving whole factories and subsequently for generating electric power (one of their early orders in this field being the installation of a row of nine engines, each of 1,000 horsepower, with generators for the electrolytic alkali industry) but also engines of smaller types suitable for driving individual machines, Condensers and air pumps were also made and patented pistons and piston rings of an improved design were introduced at an early date. Steam engine manufacture continued, with a notable reputation for reliability until — largely as a result of the firm’s own pioneer work in the electrical field — engines for direct driving of machines were superseded by electric motors.

The story of electrical engineering must be told in detail later, for it led the firm to branch out into many new lines of development, but the use of electrical power had important repercussions on the development of textile machinery and the firm became specialists in the provision of electric drives for all classes of textile machinery. Apart from developing new uses for electric power, Mather & Platt contributed to other improvements in the textile industries. There was a general tendency in the closing years of the nineteenth century to shift the firms production from single machines and small items like mandrels, pulleys, spur and bevel wheels, (the “universal provider” services of a textile town) to complete ranges and whole installations suitable for world markets. Since 1880 some of the large textile machines have been greatly developed and improved in design to fit the needs of an electrified and increasingly standardised age. Improvements in machine tools, many introduced by Manchester men like Roberts and Whitworth, led to a greater accuracy and reliability in the performance of machines which were no longer made entirely by hand, and thus encouraged a radical transformation of industrial methods in general.

Mather & Platt contributed to this process, before and after 1914. For instance, in addition to improving the design and technique of finishing machinery the firm patented in 1907 an automatic warp—stop motion, a device that, as the name implies — automatically stopped a loom upon the breaking of a warp thread. In days of depression in the cotton industry, it was important that operatives should be enabled to attend a greater number of looms, and such devices contributed to the “more looms per weaver” arrangements. As well as saving labour, they improved the quality of the cloth by minimising the risk of broken threads and by making good work less dependent on the attention of the individual weaver (1). The Mather & Platt motion was simple, cheap, easy to attach to existing looms and in an improved form is still in operation.

(1)     Proceedings at the Thirty Fifth Annual General Meeting 28 February 1933.

Another auxiliary for textile manufacture of which Mather & Platt were early producers was the “humidifier”; a device for producing in dry weather, and in hot countries, the moist atmospheric conditions which had rendered the Lancashire climate particularly suitable for cotton spinning and weaving. The Mather & Platt “Vortex” humidifier is still a valuable accessory in many weaving sheds. In the finishing trades there were important new developments, particularly as a result of changes in the chemical industry, and Mather & Platt not only continued to improve processing machinery, but also became general contracting engineers during the first World War for the erection and equipment of the great chemical factory for colours and war materials of British Dyestuffs Corporation (now I.C.I.) at Huddersfield. After the War, one of the early plants for manufacture of rayon, that of Nuera at St. Helens, was largely equipped with plant manufactured by Mather & Platt Ltd.

In processing machinery itself there have been important developments in recent years. Processes which have stood out as being of special interest are electrolytic production of hypochlorite; stentering and mercerising; improvements in printing machinery; steaming after printing.

In warm climates bleaching- powder (calcium hypochlorite, since Tennent, essential in cotton bleaching is not stable, and when exported to the tropics often loses a large part of its strength in transit. Mather & Platt met this difficulty by introducing their electrolyser and perfected a process based on the production of sodium hypochlorite (an equally effective and in some ways preferable bleaching agent) by electrolysis of a solution of common salt (sodium chloride). Mather & Platt Electrolysers make available in any part of the world from readily obtainable material (common salt) and at moderate cost, the excellent bleaching agent sodium hypochlorite.

These Electrolysers have also other uses outside the textile industry. In the worst days of the first World War medical officers in the Near East demanded large supplies of a powerful disinfectant, and it was suggested by Dr. Dakin that hypochlorite might be obtainable from seawater. This project was presented to Mather & Platt Ltd and with the utmost urgency Electrolysers adapted for this purpose were produced and installed in the hospital ship “Aquitania”. “Dakin's solution”, as it was known, proved of immense value and greatly reduced the loss of’ life in the Near-East campaigns. Similar Electrolysers now form part of the equipment of many liners.

Turning from bleaching to the processes of drying and finishing we find that Mather & Platt were responsible for great improvements. As early as 1875 Colin Mather patented the spiral bucket for removing condensed water from drying- cylinders while in the last quarter of the nineteenth century striking improvements were made in stentering and mercerising. Wet processing of textile fabrics necessitates a drying operation and in order to effect this with evenness, regularity of width and control of shrinkage, it was an early custom to fix the cloth by its selvedges on rows of pins projecting from adjustable rails in a warm drying room.

The procedure was called “tentening”. For quicker production these rails were replaced by moving chains carrying pins on their links, which constituted a tentening machine or stenter. Spring clips instead of pins were next used, but both required skilled hand labour and limited the speed of the machine, and real progress remained slow until 1888 when Mather & Platt patented their “automatic self-feeding clip stenter” on to which the cloth could be fed without hand labour. The clip automatically gripped the edge of the fabric and tightened its hold as tension increased. This device saved much labour and allowed a greater running speed. The clip stenter was generally adopted throughout the cotton trade, but pin stenters continue in use in the silk and wool industries.

For rayons, some of which are fragile when wet, and liable to permanent marking by clips, and for fabrics which must be permitted to shrink during drying, the pin stenter has again become the favoured machine. Mather and Platt resumed manufacture of the pin stenter in 1937 adopting a Continental patent for “overfeeding”, i.e. feeding to the chain somewhat more than its own length of fabric, so as to permit shrinkage during drying with full development of the crepe or other characteristic figure of the fabric. Both types of stenter — clip and pin, are of the greatest importance in the textile finishing trades, and both are manufactured in quantity by Mather & Platt.

An important special application of the automatic clip stenter is in the process known as mercerising. It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that John Mercer, a calico printer of Accrington, investigated the action of strong caustic soda on cotton and obtained a permanent alteration of the cotton fibre, with the resultant shrinking of the yarn or cloth producing a distinctive type of finished fabric. Mercer took out a patent in 1850 and showed some crimped material produced by caustic shrinkage at the Great Exhibition of 1851. It provoked little interest, however, and the process had no commercial success even after Lowe in 1889 took out a patent for mercerising under tension, by which cotton could be given a permanent lustre.

Characteristically, it was the Germans who re-discovered and exploited the process in 1895, when Thomas and Prevost of Krefeld secured new German patents for the manufacture of the lustrous and richly dyeable product originated by Lowe. Great interest in “mercerising”, as this cotton lustering process came to be called, arose in the late nineties and many proposals were made and patents registered for mechanisms to effect the necessary stretching of the caustic saturated cloth and its washing whilst stretched.

Mather & Platt Ltd as leading makers of clip stenters, immediately adapted this machine for use with caustic soda and acquired Warr’s patent for counter-current washing during passage over the chain. The “chain merceriser”, first produced by the firm in 1898, proved most successful and has outlived all other types.

The roller-printing machine continues to be a key item in the equipment of the textile processing trades. Although still embodying the fundamental principles of Bell’s invention and the general design so happily evolved by the early pioneer makers, the printing machine and its auxiliaries have been ceaselessly improved and adapted for particular purposes. In these modifications a prominent part has been taken throughout by Mather & Platt who have manufactured more machines for printing textiles than any other firm in the world.

Machines have been supplied to print anything from one-colour up to as many as twenty-four colours and to print materials of all widths and of every texture from gauze to linoleum. Specialities have included high-speed single colour machines for the fastest production, duplex machines for the simultaneous printing of the same pattern on both sides of the cloth, and intermittent printing machines for the production of saris and other unit garments such as sarongs and kang’as whose patterns terminate in cross borders, so that printing must ‘be done alternately by different sets of rollers.

Auxiliaries of the printing machines include machines for drying after printing, and blanket washing machines to enable the travelling blanket which passes with the fabric through the printing machine to be washed, dried, cooled and returned continuously. The latter type of machine was produced as early as 1865 but has since been greatly improved. It was first used in England and was adopted only much later ‘by Continental and American printworks.

Progress in the use of synthetic dyes, started by William Perkin’s discovery in the mid-nineteenth century, of the first “Aniline” dyes, produced a new applied chemistry for the dyeing and printing trades. It inaugurated “the glorious era of a formerly unknown union of science and industry”(1), and demanded a continual adaptation of textile machinery, particularly that designed for the processes subsequent to printing. There were, in particular, great improvements in the most interesting and important of these processes, that known as “steaming”, carried out for fixing the printed colour upon the textile fabric.

From the earliest days of calico printing, fixation of many colours depended upon “ageing” - long exposure to moist air — for which large hanging rooms and much time and labour were required. In 1879 Mather & Platt introduced their “Rapid Ager”, an enclosed metal steaming chamber with rollers for continuous running. It revolutionised the processing of prints and long outlived the types of colour (mordents and vegetable colourings) for which it was first devised. Indeed it has been of the greatest importance throughout the synthetic dyestuffs period. In the literature of printing in all languages it is referred too familiarly as the ‘Matherplatt”, and several languages have verb forms derived from it such as ‘Matherplattieren” (German) and “Plattning” (Swedish) which meant “Steaming in a Matherplatt”. In English the older expression of “ageing” has survived. The “ager” has been closely associated with all processes, employing short period steaming, from aniline black onwards. It was the obvious and for many years the only machine readily adaptable for steaming the important 'vat' dyestuffs and for discharge prints employing hydrosulphite reducing agents.

During the later nineteenth century some then very important classes of printing colours - the alizarines, chrome mordant and ‘basic types required a much longer steaming time than the “Matherplatt” afforded. For those the “Festoon” continuous steamer was invented. In this machine the prints, hung over poles, travelled slowly along a very large steam filled chamber.

(1) see J. G.. Crowther, British Scientists of the Nineteenth Century

This replaced the inconvenient “Cottage” batch steamer and became standard equipment of large printworks in many countries. In the early twentieth century it was re-designed to suit the conditions required for the very important “vat” colours and it is today the most advanced form of print steaming equipment and still chiefly a Mather & Platt production.

Dyeing, washing and soaping machinery in endless variety for all wet processes; mangles, drying machines, calendars of all types and bowls for calenders in iron, steel, brass, paper, cotton and jute, have all been the subjects of scientific study and technical improvements

An early calico printer, making or losing his fortune in Manchester in the pioneer days of the eighteenth century industrial revolution, would be amazed to see how complicated and scientific the modern textile industry has become. Many different sciences have become the handmaids of’ the industry, and many major advances of recent years have been the result not of individual invention but of deliberate scientific research.

Yet, however much technical conditions change, business initiative still remains the lever of’ the economic system, and during the difficult years of the depression which followed 1929, Mather & Platt profited from the fact that they were producing many different types of general machinery and were not tied to the textiles industry alone.

The early 1930’s were years, which required perseverance and enterprise among textile machinery manufacturers, and there was a stimulus to improve once the corner had been turned. New departures were made in the production of machinery for the processing of rayon and for carpet—making. Wider markets were found. overseas in face of keen foreign competition. Permanent representation was maintained in India by engineering staffs at offices in Calcutta and Bombay, as well as in Brazil, Egypt and several countries on the continent of Europe.

There is little doubt that both from a technical and a business point of view the expansion of Mather & Platt as a firm concerned with the production of machinery for many industries has been a wise and farsighted development. Board of Trade statistics indicate that in 1938, out of 512 firms wholly engaged in the production of textile machinery 450—470 were “small firms, chiefly engaged in making accessories or in general jobbing work”, (1) in other words they had advanced little from the economic structure of the mid-Victorian world.

Mather & Platt had been able to improve its textile machinery business by increasing the scope of its production in other lines as well. By watching the broad horizons of technical change, it had seized its opportunities to grow into a well-balanced engineering enterprise. To realise the nature of its achievement the other branches of its activities will now be examined in turn.

(1)See P.E.R.., The Textile Machinery Industry Planning, No. 12 July 1946.