England Textile Occupations Silk, Cotton, Weaving (National Institute)

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
National Institute for Genealogical StudiesNational Institute for Genealogical Studies.gif

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 ($).


The history of textiles in England started from home-based family production of necessary wool and linen materials. Families then contracted with merchants as outworkers to perform a part of the process, such as example spinning or weaving, but any machinery was run by human effort. Silk and cotton were introduced at this stage in the development of the industry. Water-powered machinery for mass production in factories (mills) was introduced in the second half of the 18th century and Benson’s Shire book on textile machines illustrates these well.

™Silk Industry

The English climate is too cold for rearing silkworms, but a silk industry developed in the late Middle Ages processing imported thread and producing silk goods. The art of making silk thread was developed in England by the silk throwsters of London, Leek (Staffordshire), Macclesfield and Congleton (both in Cheshire). The silk thread is reeled off the cocoons in the country of origin and bundled for shipping. When received in England it is thus ready for throwing, which involves five processes - winding, cleaning, spinning, doubling, and lastly the throwing itself which results in a rope-like thread which is both strong and elastic. Bush gives details of these processes and describes their mechanization during the 19th century. Another process to use the considerable amount of waste silk arising from the above processing was developed from the late 17th century and was termed silk waste spinning (Bush).

Early references to silk weaving in England occur in the trade protection Acts of the last half of the 15th century banning the import of foreign silk goods. Huguenot immigration at the end of the 16th and again at the end of the 17th centuries provided increasing expertise in the centres of Spitalfields (East London), Canterbury (Kent), Coventry (Warwickshire) and Norwich (Norfolk) (Bush, Young, Murphy). Weavers’ houses were characterized by large windows both front and back in the uppermost stories (garrets), where the looms were situated, to ensure good light for most of the day. Powerlooms of many types were used from the 1830s. Silk ribbon weaving was a specialty of Coventry and surrounding area where men and women worked the small loom as an adjunct to their other daily activities as outworkers organized by an undertaker who delivered supplies and took finished ribbons for sale.

The 19th century was the heyday of the fashion for silk ribbon, dresses and other uses, but when the import taxes on foreign silk goods were removed in 1860 the English trade crashed and previously comfortably-off silk weavers flocked to the soup kitchens (Murphy). The demand for black mourning crape continued throughout Victoria’s reign, with velvet and plush becoming popular in the late 19th century and made well into the 1930s along with handkerchiefs, ties and bandannas. Shorter skirts from the 1920s created a demand for silk stockings, and during the Second World War all silk was requisitioned for making parachutes, each requiring 67 square yards. When someone found a downed parachute, or they were sold off after the war, they were snapped up. I still have a sheet sleeping bag made from ‘war surplus’, and my sister-in-law had a dress made from a parachute washed up on the beach in Denmark. The advent of 20th century man-made fibres like rayon and nylon reduced silk production in Britain to only the luxury trade in ties, scarves and furnishing silks (Bush)

The whole industry from silkworm to silk weaving is described and well-illustrated by Bush (The Silk Industry. Shire Publications. FHL book 942 U25s v. 194), and Chaloner (People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch) has a chapter on the 17th-18th century British silk industry. The lives and activities of the Spitalfields (London) silk weavers were investigated by Mayhew (Thompson and Yeo’s The Unknown Mayhew. Penguin Books, 1973).

™Cotton Industry

Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were the sites of the first cotton manufactories, known for short as factories and in local parlance as mills since they relied on water mills for power. These started in the mid-18th century and spread to Cheshire and then to Lancashire as steam replaced water power. Mills required a complete change in the style of work from that previously known by outworkers. Employees worked under the supervision of an employer usually at routine tasks and for regular hours, although often still in family or neighbourhood teams. Men ran the spinning mules while women and children were only considered suitable for inferior work such as carding, and piercing respectively. Far more menial positions were needed so women and children outnumbered men in the mills, and the trade attracted large numbers of rural workers to the Lancashire towns up until nearly the end of the 19th century (Hey). The exploitation of pauper children shipped north from southern English parishes is well-known and eventually lead to reform. The area of south eastern Lancashire comprising the towns of Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Bury, Chorley, Oldham, Rochdale, and Wigan, together with adjoining parts of Yorkshire and Cheshire, contained many huge mills and was aptly called Cottonopolis and King Cotton was the mainstay of Victorian England’s economy (Aspin 1995).

Cotton does not grow in Britain but arrives tightly packed and matted in bales from whence it undergoes:

  • Willowing, unpacking to allow the fibres to regain their natural state and dry thoroughly.
  • Blending of different quality fibres for different types of yarns.
  • Scutching, the cleaning and formation of continuous rolls.
  • Carding, which forms straight strands from the twisted cotton by combing.
  • Further cleaning, stretching and twisting of threads ready for winding on to bobbins.
  • Spinning.
  • Sizing.

The machines developed during the last half of the 18th century and later are described by Aspin (The Cotton Industry. Shire Publications. FHL book 942 U25s v. 63, 1995), and Benson (Textile Machines. Shire Publications. FHL book 942 U25s v. 103), and history of the era by Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982) and in more detail by Aspin (The Cotton Industry. Shire Publications. FHL book 42 U25s v. 63, 1995). Much unrest was caused amongst the spinners and weavers whose livelihood was threatened by the new machines, resulting in the Luddite Rebellion. Robert Owen and Lord Shaftesbury spearheaded the reform of working conditions in mills in the first half of the 19th century.


Weaving provided a major source of employment in both urban and rural settings from the Middle Ages onwards, usually as a supplement to the family smallholding. It seems to have been at first a female occupation as the early word for weaver waswebster, which is a feminine form. When it became commercialized then male weavers appeared, and in the towns they formed guilds from at least the 14th century. Guilds controlled weaving in all clothmaking towns with the first craft guild, the Weavers’ Company of London being established in 1100, but the Company of Blanket Weavers started as late as 1711 in Witney, Oxfordshire which is still famous for its wool blankets.

Since it took ten spinners to keep one full-time cottage handloom weaver supplied with yarn it is not surprising that spinning was mechanized in the late 18th and early 19th centuries before weaving in the 1820s and 1830s. However the power loom was not adopted widely until the 1830s and 1840s and firstly in the Lancashire cotton trade. This type of weaving was done throughout the 19th century by both men and women on equal terms, a situation unlike any other industry. The woollen and worsted industry in the West Riding of Yorkshire typically used smaller mills and shifted to weaving machines some decades later than the cotton weavers of Lancashire (Hey, Benson). Benson and Warburton (Looms and Weaving. Shire Publications, 1995) discuss the history of weaving with chapters on plain weaving, fancy looms, carpets and special effects, the craft revival stemming from Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 1860s, and modern weaving machines.

Settlers from the Low Countries introduced the weaving of fustians, cloth with a weft of cotton and warp of linen, into East Anglia in the 16th century (Aspin 1995). The craft had reached Lancashire by 1600. Short descriptions of weaving can be found in Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982), Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), Arnold (All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), and Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946 and English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to the Present Day. Batsford, London, 1949). More detail can be found in Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968), Aspin (The Woollen Industry. Shire Publications, 1982) and Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991). Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982) has a section on Welsh weaving, Campbell-Passmore (Old Occupations: Weaving. Family Tree Magazine Vol 6 #3, page 4-6 )describes the life of her Welsh weaver ancestors, and Townsend (Old Occupations: The Trinity [Frome, Somerset] Weavers. Family Tree Magazine Vol 13 #5, page 3-4) that of Somerset weavers. McLinden’s (The Vango’s - a Family of Weavers. Cockney Ancestor #91, page 9-11) ancestor wove the silk brocade for Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.

The processing of wool has been dealt with earlier, thus it is sufficient here to mention two specific woven products. The fame of Witney, Oxfordshire is its unique manufacture of blankets, begun by the Early family in 1669 and continued by eight generations of them! (Bailey 1982). Two different methods of carpet making had early origins in England. Wilton, Wiltshire has been celebrated for its carpets since Elizabethan times, when Huguenots brought the craft there. Axminster carpets, originally made in Axminster, Devon are woven slightly differently and also have a long history. Upon mechanization the manufacture of both types shifted primarily to Kidderminster, (Worcestershire), Leeds (Yorkshire) and Scotland (Bailey 1982). Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) describes the process, early history is covered by Wymer (English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to the Present Day. Batsford, London, 1949) and the period 1861-1913 by Bartlett (Carpeting the Millions. John Donald, Edinburgh. FHL book 942 U3bn).


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.