3.5. The Woollen Industry (Cloth)

The woollen industry in the Industrial Revolution had a number of differences against the cotton industry:

  1. the commercial and social structure;
  2. the lesser strength of the thread, which made it more difficult to work it in fast machines; 
  3. the volume of production only increased by a factor of 5x;
  4. automation entered later, starting from 1820 for the spinning processes, and from 1830 for the weaving processes;
  5. less amount of personal suffering by little children or due to unemployment of handloom weavers. 

Commercial and technological structure of the woollen industry in Yorkshire in the period from 1700 to 1820: 

(Floud, Roderick; McCloskey, D. N.; The Economic History of Britain since 1700, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, Vol. 1, Figure 6.2, p. 131)

The phases in the production of woollen cloth, before industrialization, were: 

a)         sorting and cleaning;

b)        carding;

c)         slubbing (pulling out the wool, and winding it on bobbins);

d)        spinning;

e)         weaving;

f)         fulling;

g)        washing;

h)        dressing and finishing;

i)         dyeing;

j)         raising the nap on the cloth;

k)        shearing.

The organization before 1800 was as follows: the farmer sheared the sheep, the spinner in his or her cottage scribbled and carded the wool, spun the thread, wove the cloth on his loom, the “clothier” or “master manufacturer” bought it from the spinner, in his cottage he wove the thread on his handloom to make the cloth, and he then transported it to Leeds on the back of a horse (*), where he sold it to a merchant in the Cloth Hall; the merchant then had it finished on his premises. Actually, in many cases, the clothier did not do the manual work himself, but had two or three weavers in the cottage/workshop, one for each loom, and the auxiliary work was done by journeymen and the children in the family. The expression “weavers’ cottages” is misleading: many of the buildings were of stone, two stories high, with rooms below for the looms and other equipment, and rooms above for living. 

(*) this was not efficient: the clothier lost two days productive time per week.

The dates of introduction in Yorkshire of the technological improvements were as follows (in a number of cases, an invention was patented and used in the cotton industry, but effectively introduced in the wool industry decades later):

1748 (Lewis Paul) Roller spinning / hand driven carding machine

1763-4 Introduction flying shuttle

1780’s Carding and slubbing partially mechanised, but still in domestic production 

1780’s Jennies, introduced in volume 1810  

These were small, they could be used in the cottage, but also in mill rooms; 

they reduced the work for women and children in the cottage. 

They produced more volume of production to weavers. 

The use of the 60-spindle jenny instead of the spinning wheel decreased the labour required by 95 %

1787-1794 Cropping or shearing frame (John Harmer) 

Mechanically operated the shears, and advanced the cloth by means of pulleys; one man could replace the work of ten.

1785-1805 Scribbling machines

These mechanized the process of taking the knots out of the wool.

In 1786, there were 170 around Leeds; each machine would put 12 men out of work, and only use one.

1790-1800 Groups of larger clothiers formed “joint-stock” mills

The processes of scribbling, carding, slubbing and fulling, were carried out all in one building (with simple machines, and steam power), and then the cleaned wool was sent to the cottages to be spun and woven.  

1803   Dressing frame (Radcliffe) starched the whole of the warp before it was bound on the loom

Saved the work of one person

1790-1820 First weaving mills, but small;

in 1805, only one-thirtieth of the cloths were produced in factories.

1796-1805 Arkwright carding machine with cylinders

1800-1820 Introduction of steam engines in mills

1800-1820 Introduction of gig mills 

This was for a process of removing knots from the surface of the cloth, and raising the nap, which would then be removed by the shearers to give a smooth surface; this had been done manually by pulling the cloth over brushes formed of teasles (*).

The machine was a freely rotating cylinder with teasles stuck on it, over which the cloth was pulled. 

Number of persons for a given quantity of cloth reduced from 18 men and 6 boys to 1 man and 2 boys.

Number of gig mills in Yorkshire increased 1806-1817 from 5 to 72.

(*) flower heads of a plant related to the thistle; these heads when dried were very hard and pointed.

1815-1820 Lewis cropping frame, with seven additional cutters, multiplied speed by eight (William Hirst)           

The shearers or croppers used very large shears (4 foot long blades, 40 pounds weight), parallel to the cloth, to cut the nap and leave the cloth with a perfect surface. These men were the best paid in the woollen industry, and the best organised.

The new shearing frame was a machine with two circular blades mounted crosswise, rather like a manual lawn mower (actually it led to the invention of the lawn mower in 1830; there is an early version in the Science Museum, South Kensington).

The number of mechanical frames increased 1806-1817 from 100 to 1462; of 3,378 shearmen, 1,170 were out of work and 1,445 only partially employed. 

1815-1820 Hydraulic presses for wet wool cloth (William Hirst)

1825    Mules introduced for spinning instead of jennies

(5 times productivity)

1830-1850 Power looms started in low volume in Leeds woollen industry.

1840-1850 Large increase of wool imported from Australia

1840-1850 Use of cotton for warps in the cloth

1858           Piecing machine

Replaced six half-timer boys

The changes in the use of equipment, and in the work of the people, were:

The first mills for woollens in the West Riding were set up in 1790-1800. But for a long time they were small (average 68 employees in Leeds in 1835). Spinning in these mills was with mules. But the majority of the personnel in the mills were employed for preparatory and finishing processes.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the lesser number of weavers required for the given volume of wool, allowed the large clothiers to reduce the payment levels to the domestic weavers. 

Starting from about 1800, the “domestic system” showed signs of breaking down. This system had had the characteristics of close relationships between the journeymen (individual weavers) and their masters, a steady income, identification with the manufacturing process, and security of job tenure. It was being replaced with working for pieces (when the mill owner gave you the order), instability of work, renegotiation of price levels, and little contact with other people. However, the small clothiers still had their farm holdings, so that they could produce their own food.    

We do not know how the domestic hand-loom weavers of woollens fared after 1840, but it seems clear that they continued in large numbers even after 1860, and with reasonable incomes. The information comes from Mr. Edward Baines, M. P. for Leeds, and writer of a history of the industry, in an address to the Statistical Society of London in 1859: “the hand-loom weaver in the Woollen Manufacture has never been reduced to the miserable wages paid to the same class of operatives in other manufactures, ..” (p. 4); “the continued existence of the system of domestic manufacture in the woollen trade;” (p. 4); “Four-fifths of all the hands employed in the worsted trade are in factories, whilst only about half of those in the woollen trade are in factories” (p. 7); “The manufacturers of the outlying district bring the cloth made in their looms, twice a week, to be sold to the merchants in the two great Cloth Halls of this town” (p. 29).  

Thus the general “picture” in each period was as follows:

Before 1800

Cottage

Spinning: Spinning wheel, Women

Weaving: Hand-loom, Men

1800-1840

Factories for Spinning, Cottage for Weaving

Spinning: Jennies, Men

Help spinning: Small children

Weaving: Hand-loom with Fly-shuttle, Men

1820-1870

Factory in town, with steam power

Spinning: Mules with steam power, Men

Help spinning: Children

Weaving: Hand-loom (in own cottage), Men, either paid by piece, or salaried out-work  

          OR Power-loom in factory, Young women

(change from hand-loom in cottage to power-loom in factory, gradually during this period)

After 1870

Factory in town, with steam power

Spinning: Mules with steam power, Men

Weaving: Power-loom in factory, Young women

Note that during the whole period, the spinning function is carried out by the men, and the weaving function is also done by the men (except in some, late, cases, where the power-loom weaving is done by women).

We have a list of the personnel in a woollen mill, with external weaving, in 1859. We see that the spinning and weaving functions are in general carried out manually by men. This was because the wool for cloth, due to the characteristics of the thread, could not easily be worked in fast and repetitive machines.

(Baines, 1859, Table (Q), p. 27)

Monetary income level

Arthur Young gives us the incomes for cloth workers in Leeds in 1769. The men weavers earn 10s. 6d. a week if they are fully employed, but the real yearly average is about 8 shillings; a boy of 13 or 14 earns about 4s. a week, and some of the women earn as much as the men. There is not always enough work. The weekly income of the men weavers is equivalent to 60 lbs. of oatcakes or 24 lbs. of beef. (Arthur Young, 1771, pp. 137-139)  

The following table of wages comes from the books of one woollens company, and is cited by Baines:

(Baines, 1859, Table (N), p. 25)

We see that the wages in general increased from 1795 to 1815, decreased somewhat to 1825, and stayed at the same level to 1857.

(Baines, 1859, Table (M), p. 24)

Note: Huddersfield was the centre of the “fancy trade”, that is, more complicated and decorative designs, for which the power-loom could not be used.

Woollens workers (shillings per week) 

Wool SortersSlubbersSpinnersWeavers
Power-loom
DressersWeavers
Domestic
MenMenMenWomenMen
1800 2217 
1805313125 
1810333128
1815373132 
1820332926 
1825292620 21 
1830282522 21 
1835272525920 
1840242724920 
1845222923920
1850222520920
18552124171020
18602327291220

Baines, 1859, Table (N), p. 25

No income data for “weavers domestic”

(1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850 interpolated)

Woollens workers (loaves per week)

Wool SortersSlubbersSpinnersWeavers
Power-loom
DressersWeavers
Domestic
MenMenMenWomenMen
18002116
1805292923
1810252421
1815363031
1820403531
182535322425
183036322827
18353734341228
18403236321227
18453242331329
18503641331533
18552833231427
18603541441830

Woollens workers (shillings per week)

Woollens workers (loaves per week)

The wages in the hand-loom weaving of cloth were higher than those in the cotton and worsted industries, because it was very difficult to construct a power-loom which could work this type of thread:

“It will be seen hereafter, that the wages of the worsted weavers are considerably below those of the cloth weavers; whilst those of the cotton weavers are greatly below those of the first named. A worsted weaver will generally earn half as much again as a cotton weaver, whilst a cloth weaver will earn as much as both together.”

(House of Lords, Hand-loom Weavers, 1840, p. 551)

“…. the Power-Loom in the Woollen Manufacture works much more slowly than in the worsted manufacture; in the latter, on the average, the shuttle flies at the rate of 160 picks per minute, whilst the power-loom in weaving broad cloth only makes 40 to 48 picks per minute, that is, just the same as the hand-loom. The weaving of woollen cloth by hand is a man’s work, whereas the weaving of Cotton, Linen, or Silk by hand was a woman’s or a child’s work. Hence the hand-loom weaver in the Woollen Manufacture has never been reduced to the miserable wages paid to the same class of operatives in other manufactures, and hence he maintains a more equal competition with the steam-loom. It is to this cause that we must principally ascribe the continued existence of the system of domesticmanufacture in the woollen trade; and to the same cause we must ascribe the slower advances made in the woollen than in those manufactures where all the processes can be more advantageously carried on in factories, by one vast system of machinery, under a single eye, and by the power of great capital.”

(The italics are in the original text)

(Baines, 1859, p. 4)

Humphrey Boyle’s Estimate of Living Costs in 1832

The only findable source for a family budget in Leeds in our period, is a theoretical calculation made by Humphrey Boyle, a radical and “freethinker”.  For information as to Humphrey Boyle, see https://www.thoresby.org.uk/content/people/boyle.php

  Least possible sum per week for which a man, his wife, and three children can obtain a sufficiency of food, clothing & other necessaries – Feby. 12th, 1832                 
  
                                          s.  d.                                                                £.  s.   d.
Rent 2/-, fuel 9d., candle 3d.          3   0                 Brout up…                                  14   6 ½
Soap 3d., soda 1d., blue &                                       Vegetables 1d. per day                    7      
starch 1 ½ d.                                       5 ½           Salt, pepper, mustard, vinegar.        2
Sand, black lead, bees wax &c.             2               7 pts. beer 1 ½                              10 ½
Whitewashing a cottage twice                                 Water                                                 1   
a year                                                   ½              Schooling for 2 children                  6
1 ½ st. flour for bread – 2/6d             3 9               Reading                                            2
¼ st. flour for puddings – 2/8d. st.       8               Wear & tear in beds, bedding, 
Eggs 2d., yeast 1 ½ d.                            3 ½          brushes, pots, pans, & other
1 ½ pints milk per day at 1 ¼ d.        1 1               household furniture                    6
¼ stone oatmeal 2/2 d.                           6 ½          Clothing: husband ½ d., wife
1 lb. treacle 3 ½ d., 1 ½ lb. sugar                                   8d.                                         1  10    at 7d. lb.                                    1  2                        each child 4d.                      1    0
1 ½ oz. tea at 5d, 2 oz. coffee    
1 ½ d.                                                10 ½ 
5 lb. meat 6d.                                    2 6                                                        
 ——-                                                              ——–             
                                          14 6 ½                                                             £ 1  0  3     
                                                      ——-                                                              ——– 

Besides the sum required for the fund which it is agreed every workman [ought] to lay in store for sickness and old age, I have set nothing down for butter, not being certain whether it is essential to health, although it is to be found in almost every cottage where the weekly income is not more than half the amount I have stated for the proper support of a family: tobacco, although it is in very general use, I have omitted for the same reason: neither have I reckoned anything for religious instruction, which is thought by great numbers of the people as necessary to their happiness as is their daily bread: something, therefore, ought to be allowed for it.  The above is not made out from my own knowledge of housekeeping only; I have elicited from the most intelligent & economical of my acquaintances their opinion upon the most weight items of expenditure, which, if correct, would have made the account rather more than is here set down. If, upon the most strict enquiry, no material alteration can be made in the detailed estimate of the necessary weekly expenditure of five persons, I conceive that a case will be made out that the average earnings of workmen are not sufficient for the proper support of their families; and will prove at the same time that if greater economy was practiced, if less was spent at the public house, there would be a much greater degree of comfort in the workman’s cottage than to be met with at present. H. Boyle

In the family records of Boyle & Son, Leeds)    

(Yasumoto, 1995, p. 326)

From this document we can extract some useful conclusions:

  • the standard of living of the hypothetical family, measured by consumption of food and necessities of the home, was good;
  • the statement at the end of the table, seems to say that the father would only be earning 20 shillings a week, and thus could just pay for these expenses; actually, the majority of the men in constant employment had 20 shillings, but the older children would be earning another 5 to 10 shillings;
  • the table shows only 2 shillings for rent, which would be for a minimum type of house; with 20 or 30 shillings income, the hypothetical family could reallocate 2 shillings to pay for the rent of a better house, but one presumes that they cannot or will not;
  • the back-to-back houses, which were inhabited by the lower class of workers, were of two storeys, one room in each storey, each room 15 feet by 15 feet, and 10 feet high; we see that the fact that they live in these houses (5 to 6 people in each), does not demonstrate that they have insufficient income or insufficient food consumption;
  • apparently 5 pounds of meat weekly for the family, is taken to be a necessary amount.

West of England

The wool trade had been carried out in the West of England (Gloucestershire, and parts of Wiltshire and Somerset) since the Middle Ages. In the later eighteenth century it was about the third of the size of the West Riding industry, and it decreased somewhat during the first 30 years of the nineteenth century, for reasons which are not totally clear. The West of England produced cloth of a finer texture and more width than the West Riding; this was particularly used for men’s clothing. 

The commercial and productive relationships were different to those of the West Riding. Instead of a fluid contracting system between the different professions, in the West of England, the master clothiers (who were rich people, with large houses) had each a number of spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, etc., working for them. 

Commercial and technological structure of the woollen industry in the West of England in the period from 1700 to 1820: 

(Floud, Roderick; McCloskey, D. N.; The Economic History of Britain since 1700, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, Vol. 1, Figure 6.2, p. 131)

At the end of the eighteenth century, all of the different phases of processing the wool were done by persons. But with the coming of machines, a number of minor activities were not done by humans (see the calculation pages below); this had a special effect, because in a number of activities, the totality of the workers in one village did only this work. From 1790 to 1835, a number of businesses failed, and some could not find enough work. In 1825, there was a strike by the weavers for better pay to compensate for longer hours, and months later, the local banks failed, so that more businesses went bankrupt. 

The workers were in general paid enough (see the following table), but the humanitarian problem was that of the outwork weavers. They had very low wages, because there really was an excess of people. In 1839, those with contracted work in the factories of the clothiers earned 12 shillings a week, while those in outwork, and without guarantee of material each week, earned only 6 shillings 6 pence (there were reports of children dying from illnesses brought on by scarcity of food). However we are only talking about 1,800 families. 

Power looms were not used before 1840, as there were no manufacturers in the South of England. Fulling mills were replaced by rotary milling machines from 1834.   

The weavers of wool in the West of England with continuous employment had a good standard of living up to 1830:

1840 Southwest England

The Sessional Papers of the House of Lords, in the Session 1840, p. 374

The following data about cost savings come from a report about wool processing in the West Country. The costs and savings are similar to Yorkshire, but the dates of changes are somewhat earlier.

(Lipton, 1921, pp. 258-260; quoting House of Lords, Hand-loom Weavers, 1840, p. 439)

Statement of Weekly Wages of Trades and Callings in Stroud, 1836:

Trade or CallingAverage Working HoursWages or Earnings
Per Week
Agricultural Labourers12  9 0
Bargemen1214 0
Blacksmiths1315 0
Boot-closers1215 0
Bricklayers1015 0
 “ “ “ Labourers1010 0
 “ “ “ Makers1218 0
Carpenters1015 0
Dyers1010 0
Joiners1015 0
Masons10 15 0
Nailers12 16 0
Plasterers1015 0
Sawyers10 16 6
Shoemakers1214 0
Stonecutters1220 0
Tailors1318 0
Watchmakers1025 0

W. A. Miles, Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of the Hand-Loom Weavers in England and Wales (1837-41), Gloucester Section, p. 139

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