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England Occupations Wool Industry (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Animal Products[edit | edit source]

Wool Industry (cont.)[edit | edit source]

From this point the procedures for woollen and worsted cloths differ. For woollen cloths they will undergo:

  • ŸBlending whereby wools of different qualities and colours are mixed together.
  • ŸCarding to tease the wool out into a fine web of intermingled fibres was originally done by working the wool between two hand-held boards closely set with very short wires in the manner of a wire brush. Carding machines consist of a series of large and small cylinders covered with closely set wire teeth which tease out the fibres from an entangled mass into a filmy web.

For worsted yarn the wool is straightened out, washed and dried and then combed to remove the short fibres (noils). The long fibres are combed into a sliver and wound into a ball called a top. The woolcomber’s art is described in detail by Jackie Evans (Old Occupations: The Woolcomber. Family Tree Magazine Vol 13 #1, page 3), and Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), and it was the last to be mechanized, notably through the efforts of the Cartwrights (see Chaloner’s People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch.).

Spinning with distaff and spindle has been done from prehistoric times, until the early 1800s in remoter districts, but the spinning wheel enhanced production from the 13th century so that only ten spinners were needed to produce thread for one weaving loom. It was typically women’s work, giving rise to the original meaning of the word spinster as spinning woman, and genealogists refer to the female line as the distaff side. The purpose was to produce a continuous wool thread with a twist, firm enough for weaving. The inventions of Hargreaves, Arkwright and Crompton (see Chaloner’s People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch.) revolutionized the process so that by the end of the 19th century most thread was produced mechanically. The history and craft of spinning is covered by Leadbetter (Spinning and Spinning Wheels. Shire Publications), Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982), Aspin (The Cotton Industry. Shire Publications. FHL book 942 U25s v. 63, 1995), and Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), and there are smaller sections on the craft in Aspin (The Woollen Industry. Shire Publications, 1982), and Dixon (A Heritage of Anglian Crafts. Minimax Books, Peterborough, Northamptonshire, 1981).

Newly woven cloth is fulled or wa(u)lked or tucked, that is, thickened and cleaned by a person known as a fuller in southern and eastern England, a wa(u)lker in the west and north, or a tucker in south western counties (Reaney and Wilson). This was formerly done by trampling the cloth underfoot in a tub of warm soft water to which a detergent such as fullers’ earth has been added. The friction causes the fibres to mat together, or felt, which reduces the size of the piece by up to a third. Fulling/walk/tuck mills powered by water occur as early as 1135 so were the earliest part of the wool industry to be mechanized, and are illustrated by Aspin. Passmore (Old Occupations: Fullers and Tuckers. Family Tree Magazine Vol 8 #4, page 4-5, 1992) has a good article on fullers and tuckers.

The cloth then had to be tentered or dried in the open air whilst stretched out on tenter frames containing rows of tenterhooks to anchor the cloth, giving rise to the phrase on tenterhooks meaning ‘in a state of suspense or mental anguish’.

Once the cloth was dry the fuller then finished it by cropping the knap so it was smooth, and could produce a number of different finishes by raising the pile of the cloth either when wet or dry using the spiky heads of teasel plants in a wood frame called a bat. This rowing, teaselling or teazle knapping was later mechanized (see Aspin), and Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946) comments on current growing of teasels for this process.

Dying of the wool could take place at various stages in the production after the grease had been removed.

Feltmaking was a small but important section of the industry that produced a non-woven material called pressed felt that has a huge variety of applications, from hats to carpets, piano hammers and inking rollers to toys. The feltmaker uses heat, moisture, pressure and vibration to make the wool fibres lock together. The product may be thin or thick, soft and bulky or so solid that a saw is needed to cut it.

Different guilds regulated different parts of the woollen industry and many have left records; apprenticeships have been indexed for the Woolmens’ Company (anyone in the wool trade) 1665-1828 (Webb 1997), the Dyers’ Company 1706-1746 (Webb 1999), and the Feltmakers’ Company 1678-82, 1692-1800 (Webb 2002). Records of the Clothworkers’ Company (an amalgamation of the Fullers and Shearmen) 1788-1803 are available on fiche from the Society of Genealogists (2000) giving names and addresses of masters, wardens, assistants and livery members from all over England, but mainly in the London area.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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