Turning the wool taken from a sheep into cloth was a long and labour intensive process that involved the whole family. There were few schools in existence at this time, and those that were available were not free to attend. The working classes lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and everyone needed to pull their weight if the family was going to eat. A child’s labour was therefore incredibly valuable to the family and they helped with the production of cloth as soon as they were able. For many children, this would have been before they were six years old.
From Sheep to Cloth: Step-by-step
1. Sheep are shorn for their fleece. This happens at the end of the winter, when they no longer need their thick woolly coat.
2. The fleece is brought to the weaver’s cottage. If it is to be coloured, vegetable dyes are used, producing muted colours that tended to wash out over time. Chemical dyes had yet to be invented.
3. The fleece is picked and carded to untangle it. This makes it ready for spinning and is a job most often done by young children. Hand cards were constructed from a wooden base with metal staples sticking out like many rows of teeth. Working one card against the other, the wool was brushed to remove all the tangles.
4. The carded fleece is spun into yarn. This job is done by young and old women This work is carried out either in the bedroom of the cottage, where there were a row of big windows, upstairs in the workroom, or on a fine day, outside in the sunshine.
5. Yarn is woven into cloth by the clothier. This is a man’s job and work is carried out on a loom positioned right next to the large windows to take advantage of the natural light.
6. Finished cloth is sent to the fulling mill. Here it is put into a machine that uses a fulling stock (a large wooden hammer) that repeatedly pounds the cloth. This felts the cloth, making it thicker, and therefore warmer.
7. The cloth is pegged out to return it to its original shape. The fulling process causes the cloth to shrink, so it is necessary to stretch it back to its original shape. The cloth is pegged out in an area called the ‘tenterfield’, using tenterhooks.
8. The cloth is mended. This involved inspecting the cloth and mending any mistakes.
9. The fulled cloth is sent for finishing at the cropping shop. This process involves using teasels to raise the nap of the cloth and then using shears to slice across the surface and produce a high quality, smooth cloth.
10. The finished cloth is sent to be sold at the local market. In Golcar, the cloth was at Huddersfield Parish Church, where it was draped over the walls to make it easy to inspect. This continued until the Piece Hall was opened in 1766.
The fulling and cropping were the only parts of the manufacturing process that happened outside of the home. The family had to pay for these services, adding to the expense of cloth making. Any cloth that was not sold at market was used to clothe the family.
This process was repeated in cottage weaving industries throughout the Colne Valley (and across England) until machines started to take over the processes during the 19th century, marking the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
To explore how the process outlined above changed during the Industrial Revolution, explore the My Learning resource Enterprise, Industry and Benjamin Gott
Nap - the surface of a piece of cloth such as velvet, made up of short threads that have been brushed in one direction
Tenterfield – area of land where the fulled cloth would be stretched out to dry on wooden racks fitted with metal hooks.
Tenterhooks – the hooks fitted on the wooden frames that the cloth would be hooked on to, to stretch it back to its original shape.