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Monday Memories – Into the Eighties #1

I hope this post is not too boringly technical as I provide some context to what follows in future posts about my life in the 1980s.

The Courtelle plant at Grimsby consisted of three separate factories. South Factory, originally commenced in the 1960s was the oldest. North Factory followed in the early ’70s. West Factory was completed not long before my arrival there in 1978.


General view of Courtaulds’ Grimsby plant. Image by Alan Hilditch on Flickr, found at https://hiveminer.com/Tags/courtaulds%2Clincolnshire/Timeline

South Factory contained six production lines in three pairs, each pair associated with a single chemical plant installation. These pairs were designated Units 1, 2 and 3 and the lines A to F. Typically the chemical plant consisted of a sequence of pumps, heat exchangers and vessels in which the chemical acrylamide was mixed with a solution of sodium thiocyanate. If that sounds like a potentially toxic mixture, it was. This solution was a clear semi-liquid with the consistency of treacle. Heat and pressure caused the acrylonitrile to “polymerise” – basically the molecules were realigned, changing the behaviour of the product. Small quantities of other chemicals were added also to give the finished fibre certain desirable properties.

Strange but True: The metal from which the jets are made is an alloy of Platinum and Rhodium. They are, therefore, extremely valuable and spares are kept in a secure store. Worn jets are sold back to the metal merchant to be recycled.

On the production floor, the mixture was forced through a “jet” – actually a curved metal sheet perforated by several hundred thousand tiny holes – into a bath containing a weak solution of sodium thiocyanate. The sodium thiocyanate from the treacle like liquid was immediately attracted to the weaker solution leaving the polymerised acrylamide, which instantly solidified into hundreds of thousands of fine fibres. These fibres were then stretched by passing between rollers to further reduce their thickness. The fibres were then washed to remove any residual sodium thiocyanate, passed through a bath containing a liquid wax which softened the fibre; if required, a dye bath of the desired colour, and thence to a dryer which consisted of a series of 24 perforated drums through which air was drawn by fans. Above and below the drums were a series of finned tubes containing steam to heat the in-drawn air.

From the dryer the fibres passed between hot plates which applied a crimp to them before dropping through a hole in the floor into a box. Each line held five jet and bath combinations, the fibres from each of which came together before the softener and dye baths to be separated again on exit from the dryer. The whole was usually referred to as a “spinning line”.

The solution of sodium thiocyanate from the baths was pumped back to the chemical plant where an evaporator recreated the strong solution required for the next batch. If this is a fair outline of the nature of South Factory, then North West Factory was a more or less exact replica, with units numbered 4, 5 and 6 and lines G to M. North East Factory contained several lines that operated on slightly different principles and was not much used during my time there. West Factory, referred to as Unit Ten, had 6 lines, designated AA to FF, each with 6 jets.

The plant operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for North West Factory which contained the lines that were shut down, in pairs, for the major overhaul I had been engaged to manage. Except, also, for one eight hour shift each week when one line was shut down for general maintenance and cleaning.

Once I became a permanent member of the Engineering team I began to become involved in further projects, each of which was undertaken with the co-operation of the Management team of the relevant factory. In each case this consisted of an Engineer, responsible for maintenance of all the equipment, a Production Manager for the chemical plant and another for the spinning lines in each of the three factories. There were also an Electrical Engineer and an Instrument Engineer.

The three Factory Engineers, the three Project Engineers (of which I was one) and the Electrical Engineer shared weekend and bank holiday duties on a rota for which we were paid an allowance. Thus I “worked” every seventh weekend and one bank holiday each year. The seven annual bank holidays were rotated so that, in theory and for example, we only had to do Christmas Day once every seven years.

I used quotation marks around “work” because it was only necessary to attend for 3-4 hours on Saturday and Sunday, or the designated bank holiday, to investigate any problems that might have developed over night and to sign work authorisations for such tasks as needed to be tackled by the Engineering craftsmen once you had satisfied yourself that the necessary safety precautions were in place and understood by the work team. Thereafter one would be “on-call” for the remainder of the day should any further problem arise – a rare occasion.

There were, in addition, a Works Engineer, with overall responsibility for all Engineering on the three factories, a Services Engineer who was responsible for the safe operation of the steam and power generating plant and all air and water services, and a Site Engineer whose responsibilities also included the rayon production factory which had been in operation at Grimsby since the 1950s and took wood pulp from SAICCOR, where I had worked six years earlier.

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Monday Memories – Back to Coventry

Continuing my series of memoir snippets as we return from our year and a half living in South Africa.

Our visas lasted only 3 months and were, accordingly, renewed every 3 months. When my 6th was due to expire, at the end of January 1975, the portion of the project for which I was responsible was almost completed so we began planning our return to the UK. I contacted the co-ownership housing association to enquire if there was a current vacancy. When I was informed that there was, I asked them to reserve it for us. The MD invited me to his office for a farewell discussion, making it clear that there was a permanent position for me if I wanted it. He referred me to the availability of building plots for staff members. “Go home, think about it, discuss it with family, but let me know within 3 months if you decide to take up the offer.”

Image found at https://libcom.org/history/1974-1975-the-portuguese-revolution. Not clear when or where this demonstration took place. Presumably Lisbon some time in 1974 or 1975.

Our return journey was somewhat different from our original journey south. That had incorporated brief stops at Frankfurt and at Nairobi. There in the grey light of predawn my colleagues and I were allowed to leave the aircraft but not to leave the tarmac. The contrast between the air conditioned cabin and the heat, even at that early hour, of an equatorial summer was stunning. The route was jointly operated by British Airways and South African Airways, the latter company responsible for the return leg. Many African countries were engaged in a boycott of South Africa because of its apartheid policies, therefore her aircraft were not permitted to overfly any of the newly independent African nations. We were, therefore, routed via a refueling stop in Angola, a Portugese colony. Portugal at this time had just undergone a coup, replacing its dictator with a military junta, and as a result the future status of Angola was in question. We were not allowed to remain on the aircraft during refueling and were escorted by armed military personnel to a small bar where we waited under their supervision/protection.

The number of passengers was considerably below the capacity of the aircraft which had two consequences, one good, one not so good. The air conditioning, presumably designed to cope with a full cabin of warm bodies, lowered the temperature to something much lower than we were used to. On the other hand, we had 3 or 4 seats each so were able to stretch out beneath airline provided blankets and attempt to sleep; this after watching Goldie Horn in the movie “The Sugarland Express”. If the air conditioning had made us shiver on board the aircraft, the drizzle and sleet that greeted us early in the morning at Heathrow froze us.

We quickly settled back into our boring lives in Coventry. Freda obtained a job as a saleswoman on a stall selling women’s wear in Coventry market; her brother sold me a second hand Mini. I worked throughout most of the year on the layout of machines and service pipework for a huge textile processing factory being constructed in Derry. Basically it was an enormous shed which received bales of fibre at one end and delivered fully finished work wear and household textiles at the other. In between were carding, weaving, bleaching, dying, making up, packaging and storage areas, each of which needed one or several of steam, water, air, gas, chemicals and, of course, electrical wiring to the different machines.

I discussed the possibility of leaving to take up SAICCOR’s offer with the Technical Director whose attempt to dissuade me included the remark that a project in our Cornwall, Ontario, plant could be about to break. Nothing came of that possibility. Going to live permanently in South Africa, so far from relatives and everything we knew, became less attractive as time went on and I never did take up SAICCOR’s offer.

Smoking

Over the years since I turned 18 I had smoked cigarettes and even, for a while, a pipe. Like most people I occasionally thought about giving up. Whilst in South Africa there was very little incentive to do so because cigarettes were so cheap. We were able to buy premium brands in packs of 200 and did so as part of our weekly shop.They were manufactured using Rhodesian tobacco which tasted quite different from the Virginia tobacco we were used to but we quickly became accustomed to it. Back in the UK price was a significant deterrent to the habit.

On the morning of the Monday before Easter I purchased a pack containing 18 cigarettes as this was the pack size available from vending machines at that time. I had a cold which meant that I couldn’t taste anything and smoking aggravated the accompanying cough. By the evening of Good Friday, when we traveled to Hereford to spend the long weekend with Freda’s family, I still had two remaining in the pack. 16 smokes in 5 days surely meant I could manage without. I have not smoked since, one factor that means I am a good deal wealthier and healthier at 77 than would otherwise have been the case.

With Ian approaching 10 we decided that, as we clearly were not going to add to our small family, I may as well have a vasectomy, so, one evening in the summer of 1975, I drove the Mini to a private clinic in Leamington Spa, returning a couple of hours later a little sore down below. I’ve heard some men express dread at the idea of such an operation. Take it from me it’s no more painful than a visit to the dentist – indeed, I’ve had far worse experiences in the dentist’s chair.