The Cotswolds and the Wool Trade

As I have mentioned before we have moved, at the weekends, to live in the Cotswolds. And although I come from a Cotton Town I now find myself in the heart of the ancient wool country.

The Romans introduced sheep with exceptionally long fleeces into the Cotswolds, now a rare breed the Cotswold Lion. And these sheep defined the way of life of this area for 2,000 years. Even the name Cotswolds is thought come from “Cots” means sheep enclosure and “wolds” are the hillocks of the area. By the end of the 12th century the “golden fleece” was being exported to Flanders to be woven into some of the finest fabric. It would be no exaggeration to say that the rich churches, manor houses, beautiful architecture and important public buildings were all brought about by the productivity and quality of the local wool.The wool, from a million medieval sheep on the Cotswolds, was extremely high-quality and a profitable European export. Italian merchants in particular clamored to buy wool from the Cotswolds. By early medieval times, it was said “half the wealth of England rides on the back of a sheep.”

Cotswold Lion

On our walk last week, with the Cirencester Ramblers, we saw 17th century weavers cottages (now owned and rented out by the National Trust) in Bibury. William Morris called Bibury “the most beautiful village in England”. In fact if you have a British passport have a look at the inside front cover – this “typical” row of English cottages is printed there, in three colours. Such is the symbolic representation of the wool manufacturing trade in the wealth and success of our country. If you walk around the small, medieval villages with market places and narrow lanes you can easily imagine how 20,000 sheep would be driven to market. And lots of sheep, lamb, wool and weavers references can be seen in place names. The wool churches are magnificent and were built by wealthy wool traders throughout the area. Look for sheep in the stained glass windows, or brasses set into the floor featuring the different wool marks.

Weavers cottages

Our local church, St. John the Baptist, Cirencester is one of the biggest and most beautiful wool churches in the area. It celebrates its 900th anniversary this year.

Cirencester Cathedral

For the wool trade the Cotswolds have a number of natural advantages – a fairly damp climate that helps to create a fine textured wool, rivers and streams of clear water to transport, clean and process the cloth, teasels (to card to wool) grow abundantly nearby (including in our new garden), woad and black walnut (used as a dyestuff) are common, and Fullers earth (used to clean, whiten and shrink the cloth) is found locally too.

Cotswold Teasles
Cotswold Teasles

In fact the woven Cotswold cloth became even more in demand than the raw wool material.  In the middle ages the wool crafts moved from individual cottage industries – where it was spun and woven in the home – to being based in towns. The monasteries were involved as well  producing fulled cloth (thickened and felted by being walked on in troughs while being doused with Fullers Earth). I recently read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth which provides an interesting story about female wool traders. Until the Industrial revolution the processes of making wool and weaving it into cloth were separate activities, with individual weavers working from home. By the early part of the industrial revolution (1750-1820) there were nearly 200 Cotswold mills producing woolen fabrics. The fulling process was now mechanised and the faster flowing rivers were used to drive the mills.

During the Tudor period broadcloth from Gloucester was exported in its natural, undressed, state. In addition teazles were used in factories to raise the nap of the woolen fabric. By the end of the 18th century a factory in Gloucestershire would include fulling stocks, a gig mill and, perhaps, a dye house and shear shop. At this point in history every gentleman in Europe wore a coat made of West of England cavalry twill. The remains of some of these factories in our new area provide a tempting opportunity to learn more and I will visit and report back when the weather improves.

To make a piece of broadcloth the following four processes were used:

Preparation

Wool would be sorted into different types and grades; this was one of the most skilled jobs and would be the best paid. The wool from the sheep would include lots of leaves and dirt as well as the natural oils from the sheep. It had to be washed. Usually this would be done with soap and alkalis such as potash or ammonia. Originally this alkali would be human or animal urine. The alkali helped to clean and soften the wool and made it easier to dye. After washing the wool would be rolled and then dried using steam heat. Next the wool was ‘opened’. This meant that the woollen fleece was broken down into workable fibres. The machinery used to do this depended on the type of wool. A machine called the Fan ‘Willey’ with sharp metal teeth was used for good quality wool which did not need much opening. Next the fleece is combed (or ‘carded’) to make the wool fibres in the wool run in the same direction. This is important prior to spinning. Carding used to be done by hand, but from about 1790 machines were introduced.

Spinning

The process here is to take the prepared fleece and to turn it into yarn that could be woven. At first spinning was done by hand – gradually different types of machines were invented to make the process faster and standardised. The early spinning jenny was hand operated, but during the 1820s they became commonplace and in factories in Gloucestershire some spinning jennys had 80 spindles allowing significant amounts of production to be achieved by very few operatives.

Weaving

The first process is to warp the weaving machine – winding out the warp thread to create a ‘chain’ for the weaver to work on. The warp is then sized – a glue is applied to stabilise the cloth while it is being manufactured. Weaving would be carried out originally by hand but the flying shuttle was introduced in the 1760s in Yorkshire, but did not become common in Gloucester until the 1790s. This is because the quality and size of the Cotswold product was superior and required boarder looms, and this meant that hand loom weaving lasted longer in this part of the country.

Finishing

Again the product would be scoured using urine or similar products. Fulling and milling – basically soaking the fabric in water to allow it to felt to a greater or lesser extent, was originally done by hand, or by feet, to thicken, clean and soften the cloth. Milling machines came in, in about 1840s. The fabric would be air dried on long, flat, stoves.

 

12 Responses

  1. Very interesting information about the history of the wool and weaving industry. We travelled through the region last year and the villages truly are picturesque. Sadly most of the industry has moved overseas but a few companies still survive. Thank you for explaining the old world process.

    • It is an exceptionally pretty area Mary, isn’t it? The density of lovely buildings is quite incredible. There are some surviving industries but as you say few are financially viable today.

  2. Anne Frances

    If you did not read Cynthia Harnett’s children’s novel The Wool Pack when you were child perhaps it is not too late to discover it now. It’s about the Cotswold wool trade and was my eldest daughter’s favourite book when she was about 11. I still enjoy it. It’s set a bit East of where you are, in Burford, which of course also has a wonderful wool church.

  3. How every interesting. Thanks for such interesting pics.

  4. Another wonderfully informative post. I stayed not far from Bibury recently and the whole area was wonderful. It’s very sad that British farmers are not able to make a respectable amount from their fleeced now – but very good to see the speciality breed yarns becoming more available for home knitters.

    • Yes, that’s a good point Kim. Knitters and weavers as well as contemporary spinners and dyers do create a demand for specialist products. I am really keen to learn more about yarns and fibres now and want to learn to weave.

  5. Fascinating and what a beautiful village! I have a goodsize container of cotswald wool dyed in various colors that I purchased and used in a few felting projects. I love its curliness and enjoy just looking at it all in the big clear jar that I have it all stuffed in. Now I know so much more about this wool and can appreciate it even more. Thanks, Kate.

  6. Thank you for *another* interesting post! I wonder if there’s any local fabric production still happening. Please let us know if you find a source. 🙂

  7. Joyce Latham

    Beautiful !

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