Early on, and into the Middle Ages, weaving was done in the home, along with the spinning and all the other processes of cloth making. An upright loom is the simplest type. Something like the example below would have been used in the Early Medieval (Saxon) period, developed further as time went on.
Notice the weights in each case. These held the vertical threads (the warp) straight while the weaver threaded the weft through those threads with a shuttle, or, in this case, a ‘weaving sword’. For archaeologists it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between loom weights and spindle whorls (see earlier blog) but here is a probable example:
By the sixteenth century the country’s (and Wiltshire’s) textile industry was well established and cloth was being exported into Europe. The industry was, then, what is now described as ‘domestic’ – carried out in the home. Some tasks, such as ‘fulling’ (a process of cleaning, thickening and pre-shrinking the completed cloth) could, however, be achieved by using water mills, but might also be done in the home. The whole family could be involved in ‘treading’ the cloth in vats, much like traditional methods of making wine. Fuller’s Earth, a traditional natural additive to this process was found locally in Wiltshire. The Romans used urine…. Both helped whiten the cloth.
Because it was such a profitable industry, ‘middle men’ had become involved. No doubt this was partly of necessity, as locals in the Wylye Valley, for example, would have found it difficult, costly and inefficient to try and organise export of their surplus abroad on their own. However, ‘middle men’ should have come with a health warning.
The system usually worked like this: a ‘clothier’ would set up supply routes in response to demand from elsewhere, organise transport and pay a wage to spinsters, taking their excess yarn to local weavers, and in turn paying them to produce cloth. The clothier wanted his share of the profits of course, and this often led to low wages for the workers, especially if demand fell away. There were also attempts to create monopolies by thwarting independent producers. All of this led to unrest. Legislation was continually being brought in to protect everyone but it was difficult to enforce. in 1593 there were riots in Warminster over low wages and yet more legislation was introduced.
Families had come to specialise rather than necessarily carrying out all the processes themselves as once might have been the case. As early as 1379 tax records show that between Heytesbury and Codford there were nine householders recorded as ‘fullers’. A water fulling mill at Upton Lovell was probably one already operating at that time in the Wylye Valley. By the end of the nineteenth century OS maps of Upton Lovell indicate a ‘cloth factory’, possibly on the same site as the original mill. It was one of the last to survive in the valley, the owners having introduced steam power , and at one point in the early 19th century it employed 400 workers, most coming from outside the valley.
The Wylye was well known for its ‘white cloth’, a heavy material for outer wear. Useful at home, but also exported to north west Europe. It was undyed because the water was too hard to allow dyers to achieve an even colour. Dyers were not common therefore, except perhaps in Salisbury, although there is a Dyers’ Lane in Wylye village itself and Dyer was not an uncommon surname in the county.
In the seventeenth century, European wars, and, in Britain, the Civil War of the 1640s, affected trade and there was depression in the textile industry, leading to hard times for Wiltshire and the Wylye valley.
There had, anyway, been complaints from the London markets about the quality of the Wiltshire wool. The quality of the finished cloth varied widely and in addition there were theories that the wool from the Wiltshire horned sheep was becoming coarser. The Sussex Downs variety was introduced to try and solve this problem and eventually took over the Downs here. This, together with the use of finer, imported Spanish wool to mix with the local fleece improved quality and allowed colours to be introduced.
Meanwhile, in the early 1600s, Christopher Potticary, a clothier from Stockton in the Wylye Valley, introduced what was called ‘say-dyed’ cloth. This was cloth dyed before fulling which worked well, and this technique spread throughout the county. It was an excellent solution to the dying problems but encouraged further experimentation. Wiltshire then became famous for ‘medleys’, where the finer Spanish thread was dyed before weaving. It gave a pleasing textured, flecked look to the cloth. Druggets were also produced – cloth which was printed on one side. Full marks all round for finding ways… Out of this latter technique grew the later carpet industry, famously centred on Wilton.
As explained earlier, fulling was a process which had long since been ‘mechanised’ through the use of water power. The flowing river would turn a water wheel which, via cogs, would convert the turning motion to an up and down action to power heavy wooden hammers. It was particularly important in Wiltshire where the cloth was thick and heavy and the Wylye river was suited to this.
Meanwhile, in 1733, a ‘flying shuttle’ was invented in Lancashire which allowed the weaver to weave one set of threads through the other simply by pulling a chord which made the process quicker and allowed wide cloth to be made by only one operator. Spinsters in their homes were hard put to keep up but by the second half of that century spinning frames had also been developed which spun more several threads at once and then a spinning machine that could be powered by water wheels, and a little later, steam engines. The Industrial Revolution, the factory age, had begun and Wiltshire would change.
It was in the 1770s that machinery was first introduced to the valley at Warminster, provoking riots amongst local producers. In Heytesbury, the Everetts, a successful mill owning family with a chain of mills in the valley, built a mill at Greenlands to the west of the village and another in Mill Lane to the east. One made broadcloth (a dense cloth, almost felt) and the other twilled cloth (woven to give a raised diagonal texture). These water mills, some also now using steam engines, were built to drive the new machinery introduced into the cloth industry. In 1822 there were further riots, in Crockerton and Heytesbury.
Factories (if producing cloth they continued to be known as ‘mills’) in Crockerton and Upton Lovell survived into the last decades of the 1800s. But these, and others all over south west Wiltshire were long since struggling and gone by 1900. Issues around moving coal and accessing the new raw material, cotton, contributed to the end. There was some attempt to establish a silk weaving industry in the area but this too faded away. The textile industry in Wiltshire was at an end. Many Wiltshire people would emigrate at this time.
That is another story…
- KH Rogers 1976 ‘Wiltshire and Somerset Woollen Mills’
- Anthony Houghton-Brown 1978 ‘Water Mills of the Wylye Valley’
- Eric Kerridge 1985 ‘Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England’
- Danny Howell website at dannyhowell.net
- Wiltshire and Swindon Archives accessed on-line at history.wiltshire.gov.uk