Paisley’s Ferguslie Mills faithfully recreated in stunning VR experience

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Main image: The Bridge Lane Gatehouse in 2023. Photo by Tareq Selim

Paisley’s demolished cotton mills have long only been immortalised in still flat photos. However, the Ferguslie Mills were resurrected in awe-inspiring computer generated 3D, taking viewers back in time to the factories’ glory days.

The Ferguslie Mills were first built in 1826 by the thread manufacturer J&P Coats. It flourished and continued to operate for almost 160 years, with the company becoming one of the world’s biggest names in textiles. Sadly, it spun its last threads in 1984 after decades of industrial decline.

Left to deteriorate and become derelict, no alternative use was found for the site and most of it was demolished in the early 90s to make way for a housing estate.

Few buildings survived, among them the Bridge Lane Gatehouse that housed the personnel office and has since been converted to flats.

Another building that stayed standing after the demolition works was the half-time school, yet it was left to decay for another two decades before it was gradually destroyed by fires and storms. Recently, the bulldozers and wrecking balls finally came for what was left and all that remains of the school today are mounds of rubble.

What remains today of the half-time school after the ruins were finally demolished. Video by Tareq Selim.
The Bridge Lane Gatehouse as it is today. The building was converted to flats. Running underneath it is the old canal. Video by Tareq Selim.

It seemed that the experience of being around the mills as they once were only lived on in memory.

Luckily, Cameron Swanson and Richard Vassie had other plans.

Richard, 52, a former local councillor for the Glenburn ward of Paisley, has spent almost his entire life preserving the history of Paisley’s mills. He founded the Paisley People’s Archive in 2013 to formalise his preservation work and contains countless photos, videos and sound recordings from the town’s past.

When Richard met Cameron, a young tech-savvy engineer with similar interests in Paisley’s history, they collaborated on a very special project. With the help of Richard’s vast photographic archives of the Ferguslie Mills, both original photos taken by him and older photos collected and saved by him, Cameron digitally recreated the industrial complex almost brick for brick and beautifully faithful to the original buildings in a virtual reality 3D model.

Beginnings

Cameron, 26, a product designer engineer originally, has been doing 3D modelling for years and says it’s something he has always enjoyed doing. His first ventures into it were creating 3D models for Google’s 3D maps, mostly focusing on buildings in Paisley.

Bird’s eye view of the Ferguslie Mills when they still stood. Photo courtesy of Richard Vassie.
The site as it is today. Rendering by Tareq Selim

“I really liked the way that you could…visualise a lot of these buildings in 3D,” he says. “And I was thinking it would be nice to try and visualise what the town used to look like.”

Wanting to do a project that would have an impact and generate interest for a lot of people in the town, Cameron thought the Ferguslie Mills would be ideal. “A lot of people today still have a lot of family that have either worked there or [are] descendants of ancestors that worked there decades ago.”

Also having an interest in architectural heritage, Cameron founded his own Facebook page Paisley Buildings as an educational platform to showcase the town’s architectural history. The project was a perfect opportunity for him to combine his hobbies.

“I really enjoy 3D modelling and I really enjoy the history of it, so it’s a combination of two things I’m very much interested in.”

Richard was one of the page’s followers and an avid commenter, especially on any posts related to Paisley’s mills. “I thought I’d just reach out to him,” Cameron says. “We got talking about this project and he was very excited by it and really wanted to support it … That was when we started discussing potential funding opportunities to make this project possible.”

Cameron noticed a video on Youtube Richard shot back in 1991 of the Ferguslie Mills just before they were demolished and approached him for more visual material of the site.

Video of the Ferguslie Mills in derelict condition shot by Richard Vassie in 1991, just before they were about to be demolished.

Richard offered Cameron to have a look through his photographic archives (which number in the thousands). “I told him to use as many pictures as he wanted,” he says. “I started sending him all these pictures that helped him with … the work he was doing.”

“He was very helpful” in providing a lot of information about the mills, Cameron says. “He was very encouraging as well as he was keen to see this project go through.”

A postcard of the mills in their heyday. One of the images Richard sent to Cameron to help him create the 3D model. Courtesy of Paisley People’s Archive.

“I said to Cameron ‘look, you’re doing this though you’re not getting any … recognition for it,” Richard says. “‘Why don’t I contact the [Heritage Lottery Fund] and see if we could do a joint project?’” Their funding request was approved and granted to help Cameron soldier on with his 3D model.

Breaking ground

By the time the project started, the pandemic had struck, which came as a blessing in disguise. Cameron was working four days a week so had spare time to work on it.

The Ferguelie Mills in a derelict state after closing down in 1984. Another image used for Cameron’s project. Photo courtesy of Paisley People’s Archive.

Research was the first phase, looking through photos, plans and Ordnance Survey (OS) maps to make the buildings as “faithful as possible”. Cameron also used online archives such as Historic Scotland’s Canmore collection, which contains thousands of records of Scotland’s building and industrial heritage. The database contains a collection of aerial, outdoor and indoor photos of the Ferguslie Mills.  He also found photos posted by locals on Facebook groups.

The second stage was to create a digital base map for the whole site. He used an OS map from the 1960s as a footprint and imported it into the 3D modelling software he used called SketchUp.

The model started off blocky and basic and then it was a process of refining the details as he went along. At this stage, the photographs were applied to the sides of the models. “You can then model around features of the building to detail it.”

Finalising

Around eight months was spent working on the model before he began to finalise it and then shared it publicly through Paisley Buildings and on Youtube.

Once the model was detailed to a level that Cameron was happy with, he brought it into the rendering software. This is the stage which added the photorealistic elements such as lighting, trees and changing weather. The process of a software generating a 3D render is very time consuming. He says it took seven days for his laptop to complete the rendering and flythroughs.

The software he used was Twinmotion, which is powered by Unreal Engine, a ground-breaking and multi-award winning 3D computer graphics game engine. It has been previously used to create virtual sets for film and television such as the critically acclaimed Disney+ series The Mandalorian and the 2019 CGI remake of The Lion King.

Cameron’s completed 3D model.

Social media reaction

When he finally shared his work through his Facebook page, it went viral and garnered an overwhelmingly positive reaction. At the time of writing, the video has been shared hundreds of times with 15,000 views and countless positive reactions. Hundreds also left emotional comments.

One commenter said: “This is a wonderful representation of the mill. Thank you so much. At 14 years old, my mother got a job in the mill. She was the Youngest of a large family. No one had a job. It was the great depression. Her mother told her she had broken the bad luck of the family. The first to get a job. We forget how hard Paisley workers had it.”

Another commenter with a relative who worked there said: “What an amazing film. it is so realistic my father Thomas Peacock worked at Ferguslie Mill after leaving school in 1928 then went off to WW2 on return from the war he returned to the mill as did his two brothers and worked there till he died I remember as a child being in awe of the mills they were so big well done Cameron the film is fantastic.”

Even a former mill worker was in awe of the representation: “awesome brings bk great memories worked no 3 spinning till 71 when i left for canada beautiful video you don,t see buildings like that anymore.”

Reaction was so widespread and positive that Paul Sweeney, a Labour MSP for Glasgow, tweeted about it:

“What a stunning yet heartbreaking virtual reconstruction by @PaisleyBuilt of Paisley’s Ferguslie Mills. Coats Group should be still a Scottish headquartered global firm but it left the country in the 1980s. Its No.1 Mill was demolished as recently as 1992.”

Future

One of the aims of the project is educational and providing a virtual reality (VR) experience where people can virtually fly through the site using VR headsets. With the funding they received, Cameron and Richard acquired two headsets. Their initial plan for once the model was completed was to go around care homes to meet former mill workers to experience the flythrough with the headsets.

Cameron posted an additional video showing a before and after. The 3D model is strikingly faithful to the original building.

However, by the time Cameron completed the flythrough, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus had struck, delaying those plans.

“We’re going to look afresh this year,” Richard says.

The 3D model only features the east side of the factory, with the west side still currently in progress. Since posting the video almost a year ago, however, Cameron hasn’t been able to commit as much time to the project as he did during lockdown. “It’s something I’m keen to still develop just when I get a bit of time.”

On his future plans, he says: “Nothing concrete at the moment … I’d like to do the Anchor Mill site at some point.”

Many of that site’s buildings still stand today in the centre of Paisley. It was converted to flats in the 2000s. There is also the Mile End mill in Seedhill which hosts office spaces, a museum and a coffee roastery.

“Everything that’s gone from there as well is quite significant and telling the story of that would be a really nice follow-on project.”

“I have been in touch with a few other community members who are quite keen to do more work like this…but again what it’s going to come down to at the end of the day is probably funding.”

Research for the 21st century

Recreating historical sites digitally provides a novel and innovative way of studying lost history. Where previously people only had access to texts, photos, sound recordings and film, 3D modelling can allow people to travel back in time and immerse themselves in the place as if they were there.

“There’s a great historical significance in trying to recreate and sort of capture an essence of a place like the mills. It’s very hard to gauge that from photographs alone,” Cameron says. “Fly-throughs like this and 3D modelling is such a powerful tool to do that.”

Richard believes it’s especially important regarding the mills because of how little video footage there is of the buildings. Most of the films that J&P Coats shot were of the workers doing their job inside.

The immersive experience of the flythrough using a VR headset provides an opportunity for “people to actually feel as if they’re there. What a better way to experience the scale, size [of the site] with this sort of thing,” Richard says. “It’s research for the 21st century.”

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