Expansion of the Wool Trade – 16th Century Onwards

Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, England saw the beginning of commercial and colonial expansion. The queen was most supportive of the wool trade, which favoured the increase of exports.

When wool prospered, so did the country, and Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was so concerned about the fate of the wool trade that she decreed that all Englishmen except nobles had to wear a woollen cap to church on Sundays, to support the wool industry. In her reign, wool prospered and so did woolmen.  Even now, the seat of the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords is a large bag of wool called the ‘woolsack’, a reminder of the principal source of English wealth in the Middle Ages and beyond. During the Tudor period, Yorkshire’s towns grew rapidly, as did their production of cloth.

The Project Gutenberg eBook, Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII, by John Lord

A report, dated 1595, shows the extent of the growth of the Yorkshire Woollen District since the last ulnage accounts of the 1470s:

At Wackefeilde, Leedes, and some other smale villages, nere thereaboutes, there is made about 30 packes of brode cloths every weecke, and ev’y packe is 4 whole clothes; the sortes made in Wackefeilde are pukes, tawnyes, browns, blues and some reddes; In Leedes of all colours.

The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industries, by Herbert Heaton, 1920
(pewke, puke, Middle Dutch: puuc, puyck; name of the best sort of woollen cloth)

We can calculate that the annual output of the Leeds/Wakefield district was now about 6,240 broadcloths, compared to about 460 in 1469, at least a 12x increase.

Towards the end of her reign, with the establishment of the British East India Company, new trading routes would be opened up to Persia, so that English wools could be exchanged for local silks, creating another huge opportunity for England in general and the West Riding in particular.

16th Century Wool Towns

Re-enactment – woman operating a traditional English domestic loom

Halifax – the Putting Out System

In West Yorkshire, especially in Halifax, Elizabethan wool merchants or clothiers established a “putting-out” system, paying artisans by the piece to work on cloth owned by them. According to the Statute of Artificers and Apprentices 1563, the clothier was the person who “put cloth to making and sale”.

The “clothyear” (to give the spelling as it appears in some Yorkshire Tudor wills) was the person responsible for the production of cloths. He provided the necessary capital, purchased the raw material, saw it through the various processes, and then marketed the piece. He was the master, the employer, the “head of the firm “. But the “firm” might be of any size, from the family unit upwards, and the exact character of the clothier’s functions varied according to the size of his concern.

If he employed only his own family and one or two outsiders, his own share of the work would of necessity be industrial as well as commercial: he was wool-buyer, weaver, and clothseller. If the scale of operations was large, with numbers of spinners, weavers, &c., employed, the clothier would not engage in any industrial processes himself, but confine his attention to buying the raw material, employing people to work it up, and selling the cloth.

His employees might work entirely under his roof, in which case he would exercise a general supervision over their work. Sometimes a part would work in the clothier’s establishment, the remainder in their own homes, but in very many instances all the work was done in the employees’ cottages, in which case the clothier, stationed in his warehouse, would control the distribution of raw material and the payment of wages when the work was returned.

The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industries, by Herbert Heaton, 1920

Wool merchants and clothiers with their own land were to be found all over the West Riding, but were especially concentrated in the Halifax area. Soon, more than 100,000 cloths were exported annually from the area. Many families became wealthy and built fine houses, which became known as “Halifax Houses”.

Shibden Hall in Halifax. The central section dates from 15th Century and the first owner was a wool merchant, William Otes. Later, for 300 years, the Shibden estate was in the hands of the Lister family, farmers, cloth merchants and mill-owners. Anne Lister (1791-1840), AKA “Gentleman Jack”, made many improvements to the hall in the early 1800s, though by that time it was rather modest in comparison to later-built estates.

In addition to the wealthy woolmen, modest independent workers bought their own wool at market in small quantities and carried it home on their heads to spin and weave and sell on at market. The following quotations from the 16th and 17th century show the rise of Halifax:

Forasmuche as the Paryshe of Halyfaxe beying planted in the Grete Waste and Moores, where the fertilite of the gronde ys not apte to bring forthe any Corne nor Goode Grasse, only by exceedinge and greate industrye of the inhabitants. The same altogether doo lyve by cloth making. The greate part of them hathe to repair to the Towne of Halyfax and ther bye wooll upon the woolldriver, some a stone, some three or four according to thyre habilitie. And to carry the same to theire houses, some iii, iiii, v and vi myles of, upon theire Headdes and Backs and so to make and convert the same eyther into Yarne or Clothe, and to sell the same and so to bye more woolle. By means of which industrye the Gronde in those parts be nowe much inhabited and above Fyve Hundrethe householders there newly increased within theis Fourtye Years past.

Preamble to “The Halifax Act 1555”


There is nothing so admirable in this town of Halifax as the industrie of the inhabitants who, not withstanding an unprofitable and barraine soil, have so flourished by the cloth trade that they greatly enrich their own estates and winne praise from all their neighbours.

William Camden in “Britannia”
Sorting Wool

Halifax woollen cloths became known throughout the country and were sold at cloth fairs in London. They included “Halyfax tawny”, “Halyfax grene”,”Halyfax russet” and “Halyfax niger carsey” (or kersey). Kersey was not too expensive, a yard wide by 12 yards long, and had a reputation for being hard-wearing, weatherproof and good value. It was used to make everyday coats and jackets. A smallholder could weave one piece of kersey at home in about a week, leaving enough spare time for some farming.

More here about Halifax.

Huddersfield and Almondbury

The origins of the town of Almondbury are far older than those of nearby Huddersfield. Almondbury was an important centre for commerce during Medieval and Tudor times. A charter was granted in 1294 for a market in woollen cloth and this was held weekly for 300 years, but during the 17th Century, Huddersfield began to replace Almondbury as the main centre of woollen trade in the district. Huddersfield was granted its market charter in 1671 and provided strong competition for nearby Almondbury.

The building of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which was opened in 1811 and later the building of the railway line between Leeds and Manchester, left Almondbury completely behind, since Huddersfield was on the direct route and able to transport its woollen produce more easily.


Wakefield had a wool market in 1308 and Flemish cloth weavers began to settle there about 1470. By the 16th Century, Wakefield and nearby towns and villages had become a major centre for cloth finishing, dyeing and marketing wool and woven cloth and became known for their broadcloths.

Wakefeld apon Calder ys a very quik market toune, and meately large; wel servid of flesch and fische both from the se and by ryvers, whereof dyvers be theraboute at hande. So that al vitail is very good chepe there. A right honest man shal fare wel for 2 pens a meale…Al the hole profite of the toun stondith by course drapery…It standith now al by clothyng.

John Leland, mid 1500s

Dewsbury, Bradford and Heckmondwyke

The Brode Loom (broadloom) was a double width loom on which “Northern Dozens” were woven. These were 1.75 yards wide and the loom was operated by two people. There is lots of evidence of such looms being operated in the villages and towns near Leeds, and will be found in the stories of the author’s own family in Ossett.

Woollen blankets also became an important woollen product made in the Dewsbury area and in Heckmondwyke, while Bradford was known for its fine worsted cloths, used for tailored garments.

During the 16th Century, the wealth and diversity of the wool trade in Yorkshire now became concentrated in the West Riding. The towns of Leeds, Wakefield, Bradford and Halifax, and the towns and villages nearby, prospered because of the cloth trade. During the 1500s, Halifax led the West Riding of Yorkshire towards becoming one of England’s most prosperous textile manufacturing districts and the driving force of the English economy.


Leeds by JMW Turner

Leeds had a long history of estate and home based woollen production. It has been stated elsewhere that one of the earliest Fulling Mills in Yorkshire can be traced back to Temple Newsam at Leeds in the 12th Century. However, in 1379, the Poll Tax records show only about 300 residents and the town was of less importance than nearby towns of Selby and Snaith.

The influx of Flemish weavers in the fourteenth century and later the Huguenot weavers who were seeking asylum from persecution in the 16th Century, brought with them skills that were highly in demand in the growing textile industry in the town and Leeds increasingly became known for its fine woollen cloth. Medieval markets were laid out in Briggate and on the Old Leeds Bridge. By the 1700s, Leeds had become a busy textile town, boasting two cloth markets.

The town’s situation on the River Aire and proximity to the Yorkshire coal fields also put it in a good position to prosper and grow. The completion of the Aire and Calder Navigation facilitated the movement of the town’s woollen produce and the import of raw materials.

In 1788, Thomas Lloyd bought Armley Mills which was to become the world’s largest woollen mill, and the prosperity of Leeds as a wool town was to match the cottonopolis over the Pennines that was Manchester.