As gut becomes increasingly popular among players, Jenny Nex uncovers documents revealing the pioneers of the string making trade of 18th-century London, and the secrets behind the messy job of processing intestines. From February 2011
Animal gut has been used in a number of ways through history, including for tennis racket strings, sausage skins, archery bow strings, condoms, surgical sutures and musical instrument strings. The material itself is ideal when strength and flexibility are needed, since it is formed from muscle tissue that is designed to stretch and contract as food passes through the animal. Modern practitioners have rediscovered the art of making gut strings in order to supply musicians involved in historical performance.
A number of people have undertaken important research into the techniques and technologies of string making in the 17th and 18th centuries, including Ephraim Segerman, Daniel Larson, George Stoppani, Oliver Webber and Mimmo Peruffo.
Michael Fleming has researched string makers active in London in the 17th century, and has uncovered information concerning Orlando Gibbons and a group of four other musicians who applied unsuccessfully in 1622 for a monopoly on making strings for musical instruments. Similarly, another unsuccessful bid was made in 1637 to form a corporation of string makers to maintain the quality and workmanship in the trade.
Unfortunately, it has proved difficult to identify who was actually making the strings in question, both in the 17th century and later. Fortunately, however, contemporaneous archive material offers us the names of string makers who were working in London during the latter part of the 18th century. In 1759 Henrietta Laroach wrote a series of letters to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, now known more succinctly as the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), concerning her method for making violin strings.
Mr Hood, first violin of Covent Garden Theatre, said that the strings ‘stood very well and had an exceeding good Tone’
Formed in 1754, the RSA was established to support all aspects of innovation, a mission it still has today. Laroach’s first letter, held in the RSA archives, outlines her proposal:
To the Honourable Society of arts Manufactureys and Commerce Gentlemen I most Humbly Begg pardon in Laying a Curiosity Before you never performed in this Kingdom Before which I hope youl please to order for trial and approbation it Being a Specimen of Sheeps Gutt Both weet and dry Clensd and preserved By a most Curious Art which makes them Dry a most Beautiful Amber and perfect Transparency and Being well Bound occations
A Solid hardness which Renders them fitt for the Violin and all other String Musick which makes them Equal with the Best Roman String Ever Imported from Italie which takes at least forty Thousand pounds a year out of this Kingdom It being a princable Branch of trade which if Encourged might Establish A factory in this Kingdom Capable of Suplying all our forign Allies and friends to Great Britan I Being Very Certain many attempts have Been made By the Gutt Spiners In England But wear lost for want of the Curios art of Clensing and preserving
So Rests in Hopes of Encouragement Gentlemen your most Humble Servent to Command
a native of this Kingdom
This is interesting in a number of ways. Firstly it reinforces the desire of musical string makers to make their strings of a suitable hardness for their specific purpose, as well as the importance of colour for aesthetic reasons. It also underlines the fact that at this time most violin strings were imported from Italy, and interestingly quantifies the value of this trade. The figure of £40,000 a year, however, seems rather inflated, since the total value of all items imported into Great Britain between Christmas 1758 and Christmas 1759 was £8,922,976 1s 4d.
This would mean that gut instrument strings constituted 0.5 per cent of national imports, which is rather high for a commodity of such a specialised nature. According to the more detailed figures available at the National Archives, the figures for ‘Lute Strings or Catlings’ being brought in from Flanders, Germany, Holland, Italy and the ‘Streights’ (a term used for the southern end of Spain and Portugal and areas around the Mediterranean Sea) totalled £673 5s 6d in 1758, of which the majority, £553 13s 5d, was from Italy. As a proportion of the annual figure for all imports, 0.008 per cent seems to be more realistic in national terms.
THE WORST JOB IN HISTORY?
How to make gut strings the 18th-century way
Although the term ‘catgut’ is commonly seen in connection with gut strings, guts from sheep and cows have most often been used, usually depending on the length and strength required in the finished product. Information about the making processes has been found in sources such as the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, and the business of gut string making was featured in the UK television series Worst Jobs in History.
Obtaining the gut from the animal was one of the most unpleasant aspects, but the lengthy intestines then had to be cleaned and treated with salt for preservation, which could also prove messy and smelly. The string maker would then soak the guts in water and in an alkaline solution, usually made from potash.
The chemical contents of these solutions would have an impact on the stiffness of the resulting strings, so this part of the process was crucial in determining how the violin would later sound. It would also have an impact on the colour of the final string. Following the winding and drying processes, strings were coloured, polished and finished before being fitted on to instruments for use.
Also questionable is the remark that the art had not been ‘performed in this Kingdom Before’. If one reads this to mean string making in general, then it is incorrect, although admittedly no maker has so far been found in the first half of the 18th century. But Laroach may simply be meaning her own particular process which she goes on to outline. It appears that even though she was trying to make her case as strongly as possible, she was at least correct in her assertion that this was nevertheless a domestic industry that was not large. Indeed, newspaper adverts attest to the fact that most violin strings were imported from the Italian peninsula, particularly from Rome.
The committee that was assigned the task of evaluating Laroach’s application met on 19 November 1759, chaired by a Dr Watson. At the committee’s request, Laroach had supplied samples of gut that had been soaked in the ‘menstruum’ of her making for a week and which ‘in that time had contracted no putrid smell’. She then demonstrated how the soaked guts were made into ‘Cat Gut’, and so impressed the committee that it recommended the Society award her a ‘Bounty’ of five guineas, together with a further five for the purchase of a machine for twisting the gut.
When Dr Watson reported the results of this meeting back to the Society, it took his advice, but requested that ‘Mrs Laroach do procure from some Eminent Dealers and Musicians Proof of the Goodness of the Cat Gut made by her, against the next Meeting’. Mr Pinchbeck, a member of the committee, took samples to Mr Oswald and Mr Rauch, who, together with Mr Farnando, a musician who was at Mr Oswald’s at the time, attested to their having seen nothing better made in England.
‘Rauch’ presumably refers to Michael Rauche, who made a variety of stringed instruments including theorbos at his shop in Chandos Street. Oswald owned a music shop in London that is mentioned in The Public Advertiser in 1763, and could be James Oswald, who set up as a music seller and publisher at St Martin’s Churchyard in 1747 and remained there until his death in 1769. The musician Farnando has yet to be identified. As a result of the testimony of these three men, the Society approved the committee’s recommendation and Laroach was granted her bounty and the additional cost of a twisting machine.
Interestingly, another member of the committee, Mr Crisp, then acquainted the Society with the name of another gut string maker, Robert Williams of Chelsea. He was called to come before the Society to present his work, which was in this case examined by ‘Mr Hood first violin of Covent Garden Theatre’. Hood reported that the strings ‘stood very well and had an exceeding good Tone’ and when trying a string made the same evening, Hood said it ‘stood the proper pitch and had a very good Tone, but was a little rough on Account of its newness’.
He added, ‘That Mr Williams’s making Strings to be so soon fi t for use is very extraordinary,’ and informed the Committee that ‘Foreign Strings for Musical Instruments had increased to double the Price within a very few Years’. On the basis of this, Williams was granted the same award as Laroach. The main frustration resulting from all of this documentation is that nowhere are we given the details of what Laroach and Williams actually used to make the solutions in which they soaked their strings during the manufacturing process, although Laroach does indicate that she used lambs’ guts rather than the more favoured ‘kid’ used abroad.
Another innovator, whose processes are a little clearer, is William Lovelace. In 1771 he took out patent 1001, in which he is described as being involved in ‘The sole making & vending of strings for violins and other musical instruments’. The details of his patent are reported as follows:
Sheep or lambs’ guts are worked and scraped, after which they are soaked in brine to give them strength and preserve their whiteness. The brine is made ‘of any fixed salt except the alimentary’ dissolved in water, to which is added a little lime and oil well mixed. After remaining in this mixture for some days, and being again scraped, ‘they may be twisted more or less together, according to the size the string is to be, & fumed with brimstone; when dry, if any little roughness remains upon them, it must be rubbed off with a nett made with small meshes of the coarsest wool, or rather of camel’s hair well oiled, & the string is finished.
He goes on to describe how to add wire to the outside of gut strings without damaging the gut, by using a series of pulleys and weights. He also indicates that ‘Oil used in the manufacture of strings & preserving them when made should be edulcorated [cleansed or improved] by putting into it lime and lead till it is as limpid and white as water.’
Camel hair was already widely used in making various products, the finer hair being used for warm clothing and the coarser for carpets and furnishings. Twenty years after this patent, the name of William Spencer appears in The Universal British Directory of 1791, where he is listed as a ‘Fiddle string maker’ of Sharp’s Alley, Cow Cross. Although Spencer’s paternity is not certain, it is likely that he was the nephew of another William Spencer, also of Sharp’s Alley, Cow Cross, who in his will written in 1807 is described as a ‘Bow String Maker’ but in July 1778 was described as a butcher when he stood bail for one Thomas Roylance.
It makes sense for a fiddle string maker to be associated with a butcher and bow string maker since they would have many raw materials and processes in common and so could share a workshop and some costs, but since they would be targeting different markets would not create competition for one another.
Another firm active near the close of the 18th century was that of William Warner Harley, Dan Warner Harley and Samuel George Lewis. On 9 January 1799 they announced in The London Gazette that their partnership, previously based at Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth, and Wych Street, St Clement Danes, making strings and musical instruments, had been ‘mutually dissolved’ on 15 December 1798. William lived at the Vauxhall Walk premises and at the time of his death in 1800 worked as a string maker from this address. The ledgers of the Erard harp firm give us the name of Samuel Weisbart, who was making strings for harps between 1806 and 1809 but was probably already in business towards the close of the 18th century.
In his will, which was probated in 1818, Weisbart calls himself a violin and harp string maker of St Mary, Whitechapel. The main beneficiaries of his will were his three daughters who had married in 1799, 1801 and 1803, suggesting that Weisbart was already active in London at this time. It was through his daughters, who married men who were either string makers themselves or in related businesses such as pork butcher and sausage maker, that the business grew and was still flourishing in the 1860s. Thus we now have the names of firms who were making strings in Britain in the 18th century in competition with the imported strings from Rome and elsewhere on the Italian peninsula.
It makes sense for a string maker to be associated with a butcher since they would have materials and processes in common
However, as a developing domestic industry it remained a minority occupation, since the imported Italian strings were of high quality and were easily available through dealers in London. Henrietta Laroach’s appearance as a solitary female is unusual but adds another individual to the growing list of women we know to have been contributing to the musical instrument industry in the 18th century. Indeed, following the trade through the 19th century, it becomes clear that women were of great importance to the production of instrument strings.
From the evidence presented here and by other researchers such as Michael Fleming, it seems that a limited quantity of musical gut strings was being produced in Britain at least as far back as the 17th century. But even with the efforts of Orlando Gibbons, Henrietta Laroach and her contemporaries, no one ultimately proved to be of real competition to the Romans.
GUT STRING MAKING TODAY
STRING MAKER DANIEL LARSON EXPLAINS A PROCESS THAT HAS CHANGED LITTLE SINCE THE 18TH CENTURY
Step 1 – The gut comes into the workshop in barrels of bundles. Each bundle, or hank, of gut contains about 100 yards of casings in lengths of 10 to 25 feet. Processing gut has been characterised as a controlled petrification: it is important to activate the natural enzyme on the gut to dissolve the fat and oil in order to purify the muscle fi bres. This can get quite unpleasant and smelly.
Step 2 – The first job is to split the gut lengthwise into two ribbons.
Step 3 – The gut is carefully pulled over a rotating blade by hand to cut the casing. The finer ribbon on the right-hand side consists of smooth muscle fi bre and is used to make thin, treble strings. The coarser ribbon on the left contains thicker fibre and the villi – tiny threads – and is used to make thicker strings.
Step 4 – Once it has been split, the gut is soaked in various solutions to remove the fat and oils, and to whiten the ribbons. These are then sorted into bundles on the twisting bench, where they are twisted into strings. The desired thickness of string infl uences how many ribbons are used.
Step 5 – Each bundle is tied to a string loop on one end of the spindle in preparation for being spun into a single string.
Step 6 – The other end of the bundle is tied to the spindle with just enough slack in the gut length to allow for the required degree of twist. Thicker strings are twisted more than thinner ones.
Step 7 – The twist starts at one end of the string and is guided down the length by hand to make sure that the fibres twist together in the proper orientation.
Step 8 – Once the strings have been twisted they are transferred to drying racks where they are kept moist with water and pulled tight, with additional twisting, for several days. They are dried on the rack for two weeks, after which they are cut down and allowed to season for at least another two weeks.
Step 9 – The strings are polished in a grinder to make them round and uniform in diameter along their lengths.
Historically informed performance: Baroque revolution
- Currently reading
Gut strings: A strong stomach for strings