It may not look like a fashion house, but the headquarters of Glasgow University Archives is a sartorial treasure trove for anyone interested in the history of style. Enter this nondescript building, which is tucked away in a west end side street, and you'll gain access to beautiful illustrations of Victorian evening gowns, swatches of fabrics that dressed Edwardian dandies, catalogues full of designs fit for a 1920s flapper girl and photographs of mini-skirted models from the swinging 1960s.

For among the racks full of university ledgers dating back to 1451, there are shelves containing the annals of more than 130 Scottish textile businesses such as thread mills, dye-works and dress shops: companies which designed, manufactured and traded the fabrics that for 200 years, clothed a substantial part of the world's population.

I'm here today with Claire McDade, the historian behind a new exhibition showcasing some of the collection's highlights. Follow The Threads, which opens at Glasgow's Lighthouse museum on Friday, includes artefacts from the Vale of Leven-based United Turkey Red Company, Templeton & Stoddard Carpets and and Paisley thread manufacturers J&P Coats and Clark & Co.

It will also focus on House of Fraser: the venerable UK retail chain which began in 1849, when James Arthur and Hugh Fraser opened a small drapery shop on the corner of Argyle Street and Buchanan Street, Glasgow. That company's records are voluminous. "The House of Fraser archive extends to 135 metres," says McDade, indicating long rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with cardboard boxes and antiquarian leather-bound volumes. And what a tale these fusty old log books tell, recording, as they do, the way tastes and aspirations have evolved over generations.

Despite its humble origins, House of Fraser went on to become a retailing giant, buying up companies such as Army & Navy, Binns and Harrods until it owned 200 stores at its peak. McDade pulls out a large folder bulging with yellowing envelope files, each containing a dress catalogue, fabric sample or advertisement stamped with the branding of John Falconer & Co Ltd. Founded as a drapers' in 1788, this Aberdeen-based company would eventually own four department stores before being acquired by the Scottish Drapery Corporation Ltd, which in turn was bought by House of Fraser in 1952.

The folder we are looking at dates from the company's early 1930s heyday. One beautifully illustrated catalogue displays pages of "graceful afternoon gowns", "boudoir suits" and "tailored coats for matrons". What are "matrons", I wonder? "Women like you or me," suggests McDade – meaning, I suspect, "past the first flush of youth" though presumably, given the price tags, fairly well off. One elegant coat retails at four pounds, 19 shillings and sixpence – almost a fiver, but equivalent to around £325 in today's money. Ten shillings and sixpence (52.5p, or around £32 today) would buy you a set of pure wool long johns and vest, fetchingly modelled by a jaunty gent with a military-looking moustache.

As McDade points out, however, in the 1930s, "you generally didn't get ready-made clothes, you bought fabric, went home and made garments". Twelve shillings (around £40) would buy two yards of "Morocaine", an "uncrushable" synthetic silk available in "dove, salmon, rustic plum" and a shade called "zulu". What might that be, wonders McDade, hinting that the colour terminology used by empire-era textile companies could be appallingly racist.

As the 20th century advanced, department stores began to offer off-the-peg clothing. "Think about Are You Being Served," says McDade. "You'd have someone on the furs department and someone else on the ladies' unmentionables section. Different people would be trained up to these specialisms and they'd take great pride in it."

Speaking of furs, one 1932 catalogue advertises an expensive range of winter coats in musquash, mink marmot, pony and squirrel. What all this tells us, says McDade, is "what women of a certain class were wearing. Obviously, your tweenaged servant wouldn't be rushing out to buy a fur coat but they would all aspire, just like we do today. We've got the Kardashians; they'd be looking at the movies and saying, 'Oh, did you see Greta Garbo in her big fur coat?' That was the style of the time".

Before we leave the House of Fraser archive, McDade picks up an expensively produced 1957 brochure. "Hurrah! He's 21 today," declares the cover blurb above a photograph of a handsome young man. A peek inside reveals the menu of "a Christmas luncheon given by the directors and executive staff of the House of Fraser in honour of Mr Hugh Fraser junior on the occasion of his 21st birthday ... a milestone in the company's history".

The six-course French-themed meal at Glasgow's Central Hotel looks delicious but although at 21, "Mr Hugh" became a director with responsibility for all the family firm's Scottish stores, the management's "loyal greetings" and wishes for his "health, happiness and success" were only partially realised. While he did take over the House of Fraser empire on his father's death in 1966, 10 years later he was fined under the Companies Act for the misclassification of a loan and improper share dealings. He'd been selling House of Fraser shares to finance his gambling. (Reputedly, he once joked about his addiction, saying: “When I lost one pile of chips, I thought, ‘there goes ladies’ lingerie’.The next heap went, ‘That’s furniture!'” He would later tell a journalist: “My father left me a crown. It never fitted.”) He died in 1987 aged just 49.

That birthday menu won't feature in Follow The Threads, but it offers a tantalising taste of the treasures waiting to be discovered in the university's extensive business archives and McDade hopes the show will encourage people to explore for themselves some of the "vast range of stories" to be found among the racks and ledgers.

She also hopes it will highlight the textile industry's pivotal role in Scotland's industrial history – a legacy that's often overshadowed by heavy industries like shipbuilding and engineering. "In the mid-19th century, one in 10 of the Scottish population was employed in the textile industry,” says McDade. “It was really important. Why did we need the ships and the railway? It was to get products to market, to export and import – and textiles really were the driving force behind the industrial revolution, if you think of inventions such as the spinning mule."

The show doesn't gloss over the industry's dark side: there are photographs of child mill workers, references to industrial accidents and a list of factory "rules and regulations" including stern warnings about the wage-docking consequences of being late for work.

There's also a Glasgow Herald press cutting from 1908, reporting on the day the River Leven turned "blood red" following a leak from the United Turkey Red factory which poisoned all the fish. Established in 1898, that dying company was famous for producing a vibrant and durable shade of red that was extremely fashionable – not least, among India's well-to-do Hindu population. "It was a technique that had come from the Middle East," explains McDade, "but it had been perfected in Britain and was then exported back to India." Follow The Threads will feature sumptuous fabric produced by the company, which was, according to the exhibition blurb, “largely responsible for creating the communities in the Vale of Leven”.

The company's closure, in 1960, was a huge blow to the area and today, says McDade, there's little physical sign that it ever existed.

Glasgow's Templeton Carpet Factory is perhaps better remembered, partly because the famous Glasgow Green building remains as an abiding monument to a business which once employed thousands. In its prime, Templeton and Stoddard produced carpets for three royal coronations as well as for luxury ocean liners such as the Titanic. (Some £45,000 Axminsters went down with that ship.)

The show includes photographs of the mainly female workforce and even some of their voices. Last year, Strathclyde University research student Rory Stride interviewed seven women who'd worked in the Templeton Carpet Factory during the 1960s and 1970s, and their stories are illuminating.

They told Stride that the weaving machines were so noisy, workers invented a kind of sign language in order to communicate above the din. They said the air was often dirty and foggy with carpet fibres. But they also told him they'd enjoyed the workplace "banter"; that they used to "bang their bobbins" along to the rhythm of the Dave Clark Five's Glad All Over, during the single hour's radio listening they were allocated each morning.

They talked of the lasting friendships they'd made in the factory and of the "downbeat mood" that descended in December 1980, when the entire workforce were issued with redundancy notices following the company's merger with Stoddard's of Elderslie. And tellingly, many said that no-one before had ever asked them about the work they'd done in that famous factory.

As Claire McDade points out, the vast majority of textile workers were female. Could that explain the relative obscurity of the industry's history? Perhaps. Finally, however, those carpet workers' stories are being told, with extracts from their testimony expected to feature in Follow The Threads.

Right now, McDade and her colleagues are putting the finishing touches to the show – spinning yarns that deserve to be told about the people who produced and sold the fabrics that clothed the world.

Follow The Threads is in Gallery One of the Lighthouse, Mitchell Lane, Glasgow April 19-May 27

For more information on the Glasgow University Archives visit

Browse the House of Fraser archive on