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England Textile Occupations Knitting, Bleaching, Dying, Textile Printing (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 ($).

Textiles (cont.)[edit | edit source]

Knitting[edit | edit source]

Knitting Hand knitting goes back many centuries, of-course, and was practiced by both men and women for earning extra income particularly in the long winter evenings. It was used as a social occasion amongst women, and this tradition continues in the many small co-operative knitting groups that exist in England and Wales (Filbee).

The stocking frame, which mechanized the production of knitted stockings, was invented in 1589 and several technical improvements arrived, especially in the 18th century. Previously stockings, which were worn by both sexes, had been sewn together from cloth. Silk, wool and cotton stockings, night-caps, socks, gloves, shawls etc. were now woven or knitted, the latter type being the more durable. The 1811 description (Hurley 1991) treats these as two different procedures but this is at variance with later authors such as Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982)

From its beginnings in Nottinghamshire the wooden hand-operated stocking frame moved into over 100 Leicestershire towns and villages as a cottage and small workshop industry. Those who could not afford a frame hired one from middlemen known as masters who were stingy towards their outworkers. FWK’s (frame work knitters or stockingers) were independent-minded and typically nonconformists, Leicester becoming known as the Metropolis of Heresy. During the last half of the 18th century the cottage industry came under intense pressure from:

  • Reduced demand for stockings when the fashion for men changed to trousers
  • The Napoleonic Wars stopped exports.
  • Disastrous harvests increased the price of bread.
  • Mass production in factories by newer, water-powered machinery cut prices.

TheLuddite Rebellion, named after Ned Ludd, one of the first to smash one of the new, powered machines, started in 1773 and was particularly bad during the period 1810-1816 (Goddard 1990 part II). It involved cottage workers in Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire (Bailey 1982) and also the cotton workers in Lancashire.

The gradual change towards working in a factory or shop, rather than being exploited as outworkers, caused the violence to subside, but not until the mid-19th century. The term Luddite is still used to indicate a person opposed to change, although the original connotation of oppression and starvation wages does not survive. Further information on frame work knitting can be found in Aspin (The Woollen Industry. Shire Publications, 1982), Goddard (Old Occupations: Was Your Ancestor an FWK? Family Tree Magazine Vol 6, Part I in #4, page 4-5; Part II in #5, page 4-5, 1990) and in more detail in Palmer (Framework Knitting. Shire Publications, 1984). There are only three surviving years of apprenticeships of the Frameworkknitters’ Company (1727-1730) but they are indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 6. Broderers’ Company 1679-1713, 1763-1800; Combmakers’ Company 1744-50; Fanmakers Company 1775-1805; Frameworkknitters’ Company 1727-30; Fruiterers’ Company 1750-1815; Gardeners’ Company 1764-1850; Horners’ Company 1731-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1997).

™Bleaching[edit | edit source]

Bleachers were formerly known as whitesters or whitsters and from the earliest times have used three methods of cleaning and bleaching textiles and clothes derived from plant matter:

  • By the action of water, sun and air.
  • Using the ammonia in fermenting dung and urine.
  • Using soap made from ash and fat.

From the end of the 18th century the chemical oxidizing agents chlorine, hypochlorites and peroxides were used. These required much rinsing after processing, and Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol III. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1994) and Aspin (The Cotton Industry. Shire Publications. FHL book 942 U25s v. 63, 1995) describe the processes. Foster (Bleachers, Dyers and Calico Printers. Lancashire Family History and Heraldry Society Vol 20 #3, page 36-41, 1999) has written on using newspapers for information about bleachers.

™Dying[edit | edit source]

Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) describes the work of the dyer and Foster (Bleachers, Dyers and Calico Printers. Lancashire Family History and Heraldry Society Vol 20 #3, page 36-41, 1999) uses newspapers for information about them. Only one register of apprenticeships, from 1706-1746, for the Dyers’ Company survived enemy action in WWII, and these have been indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 25. Dyers’ Company 1706-1746. Society of Genealogists, 1999).

™Textile Printing[edit | edit source]

The printing of colourful designs on to silk, cotton, cotton-chintz and calico (a cotton cloth that resembles linen) was introduced in the 17th century. Townsfolk preferred silk, brocades and damasks but country people liked chintzes (Victoria and Albert Museum) and cottons printed with flowers for clothing and curtains. Printing was either done from wooden blocks, sometimes with raised copper or brass strips or pins on the surface, or later from copper cylinders. Silkscreen printing was introduced about 1930 and its economical rotary form now has most of the market. The trade needed lots of pure fresh water and large fields in which to lay out the cloth to bleach and dry before printing. It was established around Macclesfield, Lancashire, and on three rivers around London—many businesses around Merton on the Wandle in Surrey, with a few at Stratford on the Lea in Essex and at Crayford on the Cray in Kent. My father’s family were in this trade for over 200 years, and moved between these four areas for work. My paternal grandfather was a seven colour man at David Evans, Crayford (see Chapman 1983), meaning he could handle the correct placement of the maximum seven different blocks on one piece of cloth at a good speed. He was the best printer in the shop, so his position was secure and he never had to look for work in one of the other areas.

Textile printing is described by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), 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), and in more detail by Clark. Local archives for the above areas have much to offer the family historian, and articles appear in the journals of the relevant Family History Societies, for example that by Pond (West Ham and the Early Textile Trade. Cockney Ancestor #54, page 47-49). Foster (Bleachers, Dyers and Calico Printers. Lancashire Family History and Heraldry Society Vol 20 #3, page 36-41) has written on using newspapers for information about calico printers.


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