Head into Verdant Works at the right time and you’re bound to get the tour of your life from Lily Thomson.
The 79-year-old first started working in the jute mills at 15 and has been involved in them ever since, including as a volunteer and guide at the museum since 1996 – “22 years come August” she announced.
While she spent most of the time working as a weaver she’s learned how to run all the machines in the museum over the years, which were miniaturised by Abertay University to fit them all into the building.
“Every machine here goes and I’m the only one who can work them all,” she proudly said.
“I’ve learned most of the machines in here because all of the machines in here were in the jute. mills.”
Kiwis and Australians, American and Canadians, Lily has seen people from all over the world come through the museum and has enjoyed sharing her life and experiences with them all.
“You get a lot of them looking back at their ancestors, the Irish people because during the Irish potato famine, a lot of people came to Dundee for the mills, and a lot of them come to see what their ancestors did,” she said.
A lot has changed in the world since Lily started working in the mills, including health and safety regulations, and she points out the machines were boys as young as nine or 10 would come in to clean under.
“We had no health and safety, only one rule: women with long hair had to watch their hair,” she said.
“Half past seven in the morning to half past five at night, with an hour for dinner – see it wasn’t a lunch in my day, it was a dinner.”
She may have worked with them all her life, but Lily is still enthusiastic and amazed by the machines, and her enthusiasm is infectious as she explains the process of moving the jute from one machine to the next.
“This is some clever man who thought this up, who built them on to the next process,” she said.
“My mum was 12-years-old when she got in the mills, she left school in 1914 and went into the mills – they got their knuckles hurt.”
Many of the skills she learned have become second-nature, such as the way she held a small pair of scissors in the palm of her hand, with her pinky finger firmly gripping the handle.
“Losing that was worse than breaking a pencil at school,” she said.
While the loss of the jute mills forced many to change jobs, Lily is happy to have found a place she can continue using the skills and knowledge she built up over the decades.
“50,000 people in Dundee connected to jute, through docks and warehouses and different industries and making different stuff – and it all went,” she said.
The Verdant Works was now almost a second home for her.
“I love it, I just love it. I don’t think about the world out there, I love it in here, peace and quiet.
“I love meeting the people and I just love working the machines.
“I come in twice or three times a week, depending on what’s happening. I only live up the road.
“I’m just a volunteer, I just do this for the love of doing it.”