Glasgow’s atelier economy: then and now

Glasgow bookbinders, Downie Allison Downie

Today I thought I’d share with you the introductory words I wrote for People MAKE Glasgow . For me – a former eighteenth-century specialist – the connections between Glasgow’s eighteenth-century past and its twenty-first century present have always been apparent, and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to write about those connections here. People MAKE Glasgow is a book that’s genuinely full of hope and positivity and – in this rather bleak year – it has brought me and everyone else at KDD considerable joy to be able to celebrate the brilliant examples of creative thinking and resourceful making that abound among Glasgow’s small businesses and community enterprises. This introduction gives you a wee flavour of the themes we explore in greater detail in the book, and a wee taster of Tom’s photography too. Enjoy!

Rachel E Millar

What makes a city? Is a city formed from its surrounding landscape, shaped by its environment, its position, its convenience by land or sea, by the dredged and widened river that flows through it? What defines a city’s sense of self? Its notoriously wet weather? Its cool summers and winters that, despite the latitude, remain relatively temperate? By the trade winds that speed each transatlantic crossing and secure its reputation as the “second city of the empire”? Or is the collective character of a place made from the welcoming and determined disposition of its inhabitants, its diverse communities, the nature of their occupations, how its people live and make their living? Is the idea of a city itself produced from work and industry? Is a city made from what human hands make there? Or, in the case of Glasgow, Glaschu, Glesga – the notoriously mutable, changeable “dear green place” that has made and remade itself so many times – is the essential substance of the city something different?

John Knox, Old Glasgow Cross (1826)

For many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visitors, the first thing to really strike them about Glasgow was its substantial nature – for, unlike other modern cities, Glasgow was made of stone. After a series of devastating fires, Glasgow’s structural development had been planned and managed by the city’s early-modern governing elite in quite a distinctive way. The streets were wide, and the timber-free stone buildings were supported by the sturdy columns and arcades which Dorothy Wordsworth felt were “very fine” and Daniel Defoe described as “strong and beautiful”. Yet, unlike Edinburgh, whose Georgian New Town marked an intentional separation of the city’s polite classes from the everyday business of making, selling and spending, Glasgow’s stately stone buildings brought urban life and work together in an eclectic mix of workshops, shops and homes. Behind the stone arcades which formed Glasgow’s practical and elegant outward face, there thrived a varied world of creative and commercial enterprise. “One thing must strike every stranger in a first walk through Glasgow,” Dorothy Wordsworth observed, “an appearance of business or bustle.” “Here is the face of trade,” Defoe remarked. “Glasgow is a city of business.”

Eighteenth-Century Glasgow

A glance at Glasgow’s eighteenth-century Post Office directories reveals the wide range of specialised crafts and skills the city’s streets supported: dry salter, brewer, cabinet maker, tallow chandler, comb maker, baker, stay and habit maker, wig maker, milliner, cooper, copper smith, engraver, printer, painter, bookseller, linen draper, bridle cutter, hosier, brush maker, iron monger, cork cutter, pantyle (tile) maker, umbrella maker, anchor maker, dyer, saddler, pastry cook, linen weaver, silver smith, tailor, hat manufacturer, boot maker, ham curer, jeweller, muslin and cambric dresser, chaise setter, watchmaker, tambourer and needle-work printer, draper, tanner, soap maker, cabinet maker, bleacher, mathematical instrument maker, upholsterer, glove maker, vintner, shuttle maker, shoe maker, breeches maker, lace, fringe and rope manufacturer, skinner, tape maker, leather cutter, reed maker.

Ali Reza Fakourpour of Reza Wood Designs

Alongside retailers (like grocers, haberdashers and toyshops) and tradespeople (like plasterers, plumbers or housebuilders), listed in the directories are countless small manufacturing concerns, from distilleries to sugar houses, from producers of yarn to those of paper. The same Glasgow craftspeople who processed raw materials were often also involved in adding value to these products by refining them for sale: so, for example, the same business might be listed as a leather tanner and a bridle maker; a single enterprise might describe itself as a twister (spinner) of flax and a weaver of finished linen cloth. The vibrant, busy eighteenth-century Glasgow streets were notable for being spaces of production, not just consumption. If you opened a door on Trongate or Gallowgate in search of a watch, a wig or a newly printed political pamphlet, you’d be likely to find not simply a retail outlet but a workshop, teaching space and “wareroom”; a place where things were developed, made and displayed; where skills were taught, shared and demonstrated; where commodities were created as well as being sold.

The Woman Shop Keeper (late eighteenth century; Glasgow People’s Palace)

Women are listed alongside men in the directories – as artisans, shopkeepers, business owners – and Glasgow’s emerging identity as a hub of immigrant enterprise is suggested by Irish, Italian and Jewish surnames. Regularly reprinted, and funded by subscribers to the city’s Tontine Coffee Rooms (where affluent businesspeople met and socialised), Glasgow’s trade directories paint a vivid picture of a close-knit community of vertically integrated small manufacturers, skilled artisans, specialised tradespeople, creative entrepreneurs and successful retailers. Glasgow’s atelier economy was lively, diverse and perhaps especially distinctive for the way that it was so clearly imbricated with the wider global commercial world – the world of empire.

For, as well as hosting a flourishing small-scale atelier economy, Glasgow was also a successful imperial entrepôt. After the 1707 union made global trading a much smoother and simpler prospect for Scottish merchants, Glasgow’s rising fortunes were increasingly underwritten by the labour of enslaved people in the Chesapeake and, later, the Caribbean. Recent scholarship has illustrated just how far, in a specifically Scottish context, the social and economic impact of plantation slavery extended from the obviously profitable commodities of tobacco, sugar and rum, to urban and rural built heritage, local agrarian development and, later, to the nineteenth-century textile industry boom. Plantation slavery was inexorably bound up with Glasgow’s modern cultural fabric, its profits paying for the very stones that formed the streets and buildings of the elegant, expanding merchant city. For example, the formation of Jamaica Street – named for the largest Caribbean slave plantation – was planned and supported by the Oswald family, whose huge fortune had been amassed from the transportation and sale of enslaved people from West Africa in addition to the usual profits from slave-grown sugar and tobacco. Opened in 1763, Jamaica Street efficiently connected plantation-produced goods landed at the Broomielaw with the local warehouses and manufacturers who stored, processed and sold them in Glasgow’s prosperous city streets.

Jamaica Street

The profits of slavery not only supported the infrastructure of Glasgow’s atelier economy but also helped open it to new custom. Ships emptied of colonial cargo at Greenock and Port Glasgow were quickly refilled with Glasgow wares, ready to export. Before the American revolutionary war, the thirteen colonies provided a ready market for finished goods like locally made gloves and stockings while, from the mid-1780s onwards, Glasgow’s linen spinning and weaving industry rapidly adapted to the production of the cheap “slave cloth” in which the African bodies working on Caribbean plantations were routinely dressed. The city’s burgeoning atelier economy benefited hugely from the transfer of slavery’s capital to local concerns. The tobacco and sugar barons happily invested in a wide range of small commercial enterprises: not merely supporting industries directly related to their own financial interests such as sugar refining, brewing, glass making and bottling, but also bankrolling creative activities like papermaking, calico printing, and the famous School for the Art of Designing established by Glasgow printer-engravers Robert and Andrew Foulis.

Tobacco Warehouse

The full story of the making of modern Glasgow – an eighteenth-century tale in which a burgeoning bourgeois public sphere of making and creating, producing and consuming, was underwritten by an imperial economic system in which human bodies were bought, sold and exploited – is still far less well known than it should be. In countless general local histories, plantation slavery is weirdly reduced to a single sentence or a footnote, as the brutal realities of a city built on the transatlantic profits of sugar and tobacco are brushed away beneath the abolitionist sentiments of Glasgow University professor Adam Smith, who foresaw the nineteenth-century future of an advanced division of (waged) labour and capitalism without slavery.


Part of the problem is quite obviously discomfort: Scotland in general, and Glasgow in particular, has long had a problem acknowledging the truth of its own imperial past, let alone beginning to interrogate the complex questions that this past raises in terms of a local or national sense of self. And part of the problem, too, is that Glasgow’s later nineteenth-century narrative has, both figuratively and literally, appeared much closer to home, and therefore seems easier to grasp. That narrative involves the city’s exponential growth on the back of textiles and, a little later, heavy industry. It’s a narrative of huge bales of cotton, big locomotives and bigger ships. It’s an important narrative of the inequalities of wealth, health and resources that Adam Smith’s capitalism engendered; of the great things that many industrial hands might make together; of social connection, collective affinity and the power of co-operation to make change. It’s a story of a rising population, declining skills and fewer jobs. It’s a narrative of diverse local and immigrant communities struggling and thriving together against the odds.

Ingram Street

If a city is a made place – somewhere that’s formed by the work of human hands – then it is also somewhere that’s made up, that is, imagined. Perhaps precisely because of the immense and rapid social, economic and cultural changes Glasgow has witnessed over the past 300 years, the city has often been prompted to reimagine and redefine itself. Yet, in repeatedly making itself up, Glasgow has often actively obscured, rather than illuminated, its own past. When, for example, at the turn of the 1990s, Glasgow recast itself as a “city of culture” founded on the “merchant city”, it effectively performed a double act of narrative erasure: ignoring what critics of the civic rebrand referred to as the “worker’s city” as well as singularly failing to acknowledge what the imperial “merchant city” really meant. As James Kelman memorably put it: “those legendary heroes [Glasgow] children are taught to honour … were men who trafficked in degradation, causing untold misery, death and suffering to scores of thousands of men, women and children”. If the partial, biased way in which Glasgow repeatedly made-up itself was noted as a problem thirty years ago, then perhaps now more than ever it is important to create some space in which to look at, reflect upon, acknowledge and to try to tell a different range of stories about this city’s creative fabrication.

Repair night at ReJean Denim

This is a book about the making of Glasgow, as it is being made right now, through the creative work of many hands, as well as countless acts of imaginative labour. In these pages, you’ll discover that the people who make – and make up – Glasgow are individuals and groups both practical and visionary. Like the numerous small creative enterprises listed in the city’s early trade directories, they form a community that’s highly skilled, and their range of activities is just as highly various as that of their eighteenth-century forebears. They too are designers, distillers, watchmakers, spectacle frame producers and leather workers. Like their historic creative predecessors, they are carvers of wood, cutters of glass, throwers of pots and weavers of cloth.

Scottish-Pakistani weaver, Mariam Syed

And just like earlier makers, those of contemporary Glasgow are curious, inventive, innovatory, interdisciplinary. Continually learning as they make, they often have their feet in the past – respecting local manufacturing traditions, and heritage skills – but their faces are turned outward towards the future. These are people who understand their place in their local creative economy but are also able to envisage what they do in terms of a much bigger global picture. They are women as well as men, immigrants as much as native Scots, people of colour, not just white people.

Gloria Onyekwere braiding at Glow n Shine

In their small scale, and focus on specialised in-house processing, Glasgow’s contemporary makers undoubtedly share much more with the eighteenth-century atelier economy than with the city’s more recent heritage of heavy industry and manufacturing. Discovering that outsourcing might provide only inadequate solutions to the manufacturing conundrums that they face, companies like fresh-fruit soda producers, Rapscallion, have discovered innovative ways of carrying out a range of different processes in-house, developing their products around systems of completely vertical manufacturing. For many Glasgow making businesses, the craft processes involved in what they do are highly specialised, but rapid prototyping, and the ability to produce things efficiently at small scale, makes the work of making creatively rewarding, as well as resulting in individual hand-made objects that are beautifully bespoke.

Banton Frameworks

Spectacle frame producers, Banton Frameworks, and watchmakers, AnOrdain, are rightly proud to be craft businesses that celebrate “old crafts” alongside their own “new hands”, breathing vital contemporary life into specialised areas of Scottish manufacturing that had virtually expired.


Like the workshops of eighteenth-century Glasgow, today’s creative ateliers are spaces where learning takes place alongside making. Spin Pottery’s Leah Blackburn shares her skills with local professionals who like to throw pots to relax, while Downie Allison Downie hosts popular classes exploring the heritage craft of bookbinding while continuing the bindery’s day-to-day commercial work. There’s a strong sense of the joining-up of creative education with useful skills: so many of the makers featured in these pages were able to find their feet as small businesspeople after studying product design, weaving or carpentry at local institutions.

Harmony Row

The inspiring women who make up the Harmony Row collective met at City of Glasgow College, for example; Glasgow Distillery’s young workforce is drawn from graduates of Heriot-Watt University’s Institute of Brewing and Distilling; while several employees of innovative wax-canvas bag makers, Trakke, studied garment production at Clyde College.


The work of an eighteenth-century tailor was often as much about recycling the fabric of old garments as it was the cutting of new cloth. Similarly, the repair and reuse of existing materials form the focus of many of Glasgow’s contemporary ateliers who champion the values of the circular economy. Reza Wood’s Ali Reza Fakourpoor produces hand-made furniture from up-cycled whisky barrels, while Siobhan McKenna (ReJean Denim) creates collections for her contemporary fashion brand from discarded denim that might otherwise end up in landfill.

Rejean Denim
ReJean Denim

Mending and finding a use for what’s already here are activities that feature centrally in the work of several Glasgow organisations whose business is, in a much wider sense, the re-making and repair of the city’s local communities.

Jangling Space

While the members of the Jangling Space co-operative creatively transform the city’s built heritage into beautiful pieces of contemporary stained glass, volunteers at Repair Café Glasgow fix, darn and mend the city’s torn and broken objects. Rather than producing new things from scratch, the creative work of these Glasgow hands offers a powerful rejoinder to an unsustainable consumer culture based on built-in obsolescence.

Jangling Space

Glasgow’s makers are interested in processes as well as products, in ideas as much as things. The innovative work of Deirdre Nelson uses stitch and textiles to lend communities a public voice, while Mariam Syed’s extraordinarily beautiful woven pieces mingle memories of the colourful streets of Karachi with her contemporary Glasgow landscape.

Julie Arbuckle

In a city that has, in so many different contexts, tended to over-emphasise the masculine, we find the thoughtful, intentional work of women like Deirdre, Mariam and Julie Arbuckle highly refreshing. Indeed, we’ve found it very inspiring to discover, through the process of making this book, the important work of enterprising young Glasgow women like Jen Stewart of design-led brand Nmarra, signpainter Rachel Millar, and the women of the Harmony Row Collective, who today have found their own places as skilled makers in trades long dominated by men.

Jen Stewart / Nmarra

Glasgow makers are certainly as diverse as their practices. As members of this city’s community of makers ourselves, we feel proud to celebrate the extraordinary creative skills of contemporary hairdresser, Gloria Onyekwere, alongside heritage craft practitioners like McCrostie.

Colin Campbell of McRostie

This is a city where not-for-profit community enterprises sit alongside, and are often imbricated with, more commercial creative endeavours. Ethical coffee makers, Dear Green, supply the Barras’ brilliant Soul Food Sisters; Deirdre Nelson volunteers at the Repair Café: time and again while working on this project, we discovered that individual makers and businesses were not only personally known to one other as suppliers or co-collaborators, but were together part of an extraordinarily lively and completely informal creative network, which itself suggests something about how this city values social connection and interdependence.

Soul Food Sisters

The welcoming, supportive and enabling characteristics of Glasgow as a creative place were repeatedly remarked upon by the people we met and interviewed for People Make Glasgow. They were also the characteristics of Jim Bamford – the inspiring teacher, brilliant photographer and quintessentially Glaswegian maker – to whose memory this book is dedicated.

Jim Bamford

People MAKE Glasgow: Portrait of a Creative City
Photography by Tom Barr
Words by Kate Davies
Interviews by Sam Kilday

Available now!