Norman G Clark Centenary Bulletin 5 – The Reed Manufacturing Plant

July 30, 2018

Weaving textiles on a loom requires a reed to separate the threads during the weaving process. The reed got its name from the reeds or rushes that were used in its construction. In the days of the Pharaohs, the ancient Egyptians were able to weave beautiful fabrics from these rather crude reeds, and although the result had to be somewhat inaccurate, they were at least able to produce the means of weaving a fabric.

The basic structure of a woven fabric is built up from threads running the length of the fabric which is known as the warp. The threads across the width of the fabric are known as the weft.

The reed’s vital function in almost any loom – even the most primitive power loom – is firstly, to maintain the warp threads in a parallel situation, secondly to guide the shuttle carrying the weft threads across the width of the warp, and thirdly, to beat the weft thread up firmly into the structure of the cloth. An inaccurate reed produces poor quality fabric.

Although we had progressed beyond rushes to weave our fabrics, the standard of reeds produced in Australia, immediately after World War II, were nothing special and were mainly of ‘coarse construction’.

The looms were also primitively designed to work with what were known as ‘Pitch Bound Reeds’. This type of reed was made from flat metal wire which was separated with a coil of jute or cotton string. The basic assembly was formed in a machine which cut wire dents from a continuous coil. At the same time, it wrapped the jute string around two wooden battens at the top and bottom, forming a frame of metal strips. Straight off the machine the frame was unstable, so the whole structure was immersed in molten pitch which penetrated the assembly. When it was allowed to cool down, the assembly was reasonably firm, and capable of use in looms of the period.

The local manufacture of a better ‘breed’ of reed was about to start. It was a soldered all metal reed and was a much more accurate because it used varying gauges of wire which was machine bound with more accurate separation material. The wire gauge varied according to the requirements of the fabric manufacturer. The reed was assembled between flat metal strips top and bottom, and then dipped in molten solder to bind the major components together.
It was a substantially better product, however the use of considerable heat during the soldering process meant there were considerable thermal stresses in the finished product, and it was not accurate.

At this point there was nothing better available, and Norman G Clark were not interested in reproducing a bad system. However, there was an article in a 1958 edition of “Textile World” magazine, which described a new type of weaving reed that had been developed in USA by Schmidt Manufacturing Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

NGC corresponded for a period, and subsequently took out a licence to manufacture the Duraflex Reed in Australia.

Norman G Clark Reed

Walter Fierz, a Swiss reed maker living in Australia, was a perfectionist who was not happy with the quality he was producing in his present business. He agreed to join Norman G Clark and assumed charge of its new venture producing high quality weaving reeds – using the Duraflex process.

Walter ordered brand new reed machinery, a comprehensive stock of the best reed wire available in the world, and binding wire for a variety of fine quality reeds. We were setting ourselves to manufacture 60 dents per inch, which was something never heard of before in Australia.

The Reed plant was up and running by December 1960, in a new building. We immediately produced very high quality reeds, which were absolutely accurate in spacing. We were not cheap but were not trying to be competitive against low grade reeds. We were immediately of interest to any Australian textile weavers trying to lift their product quality.

Norman G Clark Reed in production

The Duraflex system used a special adhesive which when cured had fantastic bonding and flexibility properties. It did not have any deteriorating heat input, as it cured cold in about 12 hours. If the reed assembly was accurate when it was applied that is how it was finished.

We enjoyed a wonderful run for some years, and produced the finest reeds ever made in Australia. Apart from the local market, we had a few brief flutters with export to the UK and the Far East, but what was starting to concern us was the volume of sales which was producing a long lead time for our product.

We also started to get a lot of complaints from customers who said they couldn’t repair a Duraflex Reed in the loom. This was right – but they couldn’t repair a soldered reed either – and the reply always was “no, but we can patch them up”. Our answer to them was always that “if you can accept that sort of standard why do you want to buy reeds of our quality anyway?”

Our biggest problem, however, was that Walter Fierz was being over-worked. He was a perfectionist who had his hand in everything we made. His assistants were of very little help. He was on his own and we were worried.

Norman G Clark Reed with traditional Egyptian Reed

Norman G Clark Reed with traditional Egyptian Reed

Norman G Clark eventually imported an English reed maker who arrived with great credentials, but he was useless. Despite many efforts, we were unable to find anyone who had any skills in the reed making business – and decided the time had come to get out of the business before it blew up in our face.

Walter Fierz had been a respected and responsible employee. We told him ‘what and why’ we were planning to get out – and offered him the reed making business and plant as a going concern on very favourable terms. He accepted the offer and we were out of the reed business.