The Rise of the West Yorkshire Wool Trade

Map of the Yorkshire Heavy Woollen District to the west and south of Leeds, 1903

Ordnance Survey of England and Wales, Edition: Coloured; Sheet: 7, Publication Year: 1903. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Wool, as a raw material, has been widely available since the domestication of sheep. ML Ryder, who has written extensively on the history of sheep in Britain, suggests that the first domestic sheep were introduced into Britain by Neolithic settlers around 4000 BC.

Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pip
Azar, Sezar, Akka, Contta, Dik
Yanadik, Channadik, Thetheradik, Metheradik, Bumfit
Yanabum, Tanabum, Thetherabum, Metherabum, Jiggit

Variations on this counting was used by Shepherds to count sheep in Yorkshire; derived from a British Celtic language, this method mostly died out in the 20th century.

Wool Weaving’s Ancient Roots

Cloth making in Britain existed from at least the Bronze age (2000BC to 650 BC), when plant fibres, such as wild flax, nettle or hemp, were woven into fine textiles for personal use. A 3000 year old submerged village in the Cambridgeshire fens has recently given up a wealth of information about Bronze Age weaving. Researchers unearthed the oldest perfectly preserved examples of fine plant-based textiles in the UK, complete with the tools that made them. Co-existing with this skill, was the beginning of weaving with wool.

Wool is warm, its natural oiliness provides protection from wet weather and wool was not only to change the fortunes of the people of the West Riding, but also to change the English language. It introduced terms like “dyed in the wool”, “spinning yarns” and “losing the thread” ; people could be “fleeced”, “cloth-eared”, or “sheepish” and some families had “black sheep” in them who might “pull the wool over your eyes” and you could be “on tenterhooks”. Sheep provided wool, sheepskin, leather, horn, milk and cheese, meat and parchment. They require less feed, and less space than cattle. What was not to like?

Anglo Saxons

In Anglo-Saxon times, Yorkshire people worked at home…spinning, weaving and dyeing wool in their spare hours, but most cloth was produced to clothe the family. Yorkshire cloth-making on an industrial scale did not exist at this time. However, by the end of the 8th Century, some woollen clothing was being exported from Hull, mainly of cloaks, woven locally in the East Riding.

West Yorkshire had abundant hillsides with a grass and peat dominated landscape, pastures for sheep to graze and a plentiful supply of soft water for washing, scouring and dyeing. It was therefore ideal for the growth of a woollen industry and commercialisation was just a matter of time…in fact there is every reason to suppose that any excess of cloth not needed for the family would be traded for other goods or food from the earliest times.

12th Century

There were sheep on the Manors and monks kept sheep at the Abbeys…excess fleece was sold abroad to satisfy the needs of the Low Countries, Flanders, Germany and Italy. Foreign merchants would come to the wool fairs each year or would buy straight from the suppliers and they would ship their own purchases back home in their own vessels. One merchant is known to have made a contract with Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds, in the 12th century, to buy the monks’ wool for a period of ten years. The merchant exported it from Hull, to be woven and sold on the continent. Fountains Abbey was another of the great monasteries where wool was produced in vast quantities. But sheep were kept by smallholders too.

From the 12th Century, possibly earlier, Yorkshire families became engaged in the production of woollen cloth for sale. They could combine this domestic industry with the working of a smallholding. Steep hillsides that were unsuitable for growing crops, were perfect for raising sheep. Even today, the Pennine Hills are among the main areas for sheep rearing.

Ulnage

As the manufacture of cloth intended for sale became more common, the Ulnage (Aulnage, Alnage) Law was introduced, in 1196, during the reign of Richard I (the Lionheart). Ulnage is the official supervision of the shape and quality of manufactured woollen and the law stated that:

Woollen cloths, wherever they are made, shall be of the same width, to wit, of two ells within the lists and of the same goodness in the middle and sides.

The aulnager visited the various town fairs and attempted to enforce this single measure of cloth, but the system was subject to many abuses and too much variation.

Notes: There are various measurements given for an "ell" depending on usage, country and date...it was determined by the length of an arm or part of an arm ("ell" historically means "arm") A "cloth ell" or "double-ell" stick was used as a measure. The "lists" are the "selvedges".

The English ell was 45 inches, the Scottish one 37.2 inches and the Flemish one 27 inches. It is possible that it was the Flemish ell in which cloth was measured as much of the output was destined for Flemish merchants. So,two ells width made a broadcloth of say 54 inches between the selvedges. 

Owing to the later introduction of alternative standards, a distinction had to eventually be made between "broadcloth" (cloth of two ells width) and "streit" or "strait" cloth (width of one ell). Other standards were later introduced, for example, a Northern Dozen, woven in the West Riding in the 19th century, was 1.75 yards wide.

These days "broadcloth" is also used to simply mean a superior quality of cloth and does not necessarily refer to its width.

Guilds

As the production of woven wool increased, the 12th Century also brought the further development of the tradesmen’s guilds, which regulated and protected the activities of people belonging to the same professional category. Ancient Guilds had pre-dated the Norman Conquest and those such as Woolmen’s Guilds now became regulated by King Henry II in the 12th Century. One of these, the Worshipful Company of Woolmen is one of the oldest still existing of the Livery Companies of the City of London, tracing its roots to 1180. It was the body that oversaw wool merchants to ensure consistent standards throughout the wool industry and all woollen cloth was required to conform to the standards it set out. Within the members of each guild, there were Apprentices, Journeymen and Masters.

The taxes paid by the Guild members indicate how much business was being undertaken. In the 1100s, the York Weavers paid almost as much tax to the Exchequer as did the London Weavers, giving an idea of the relative scale of Yorkshire wool production at this time, with York and towns in the East Riding leading the way in output.

By the end of the 12th Century, citizens in all three Ridings were recorded in the manufacture of woollen cloths. Yorkshire’s East Riding wool cloth had already gained a reputation for being of high quality and was much sought after, though the West Riding produced a lesser quality cloth.

Leeds was now to become the first important centre of cloth-making in the West Riding. The fulling of cloth began to be undertaken in a water mill, known as a fulling mill, a walk mill, or a tuck mill…the number of fulling mills recorded in manor rolls can give rise to an estimation of the number of weavers in the district. In 1185, Temple Newsam, just outside the town of Leeds, had the first fulling mill in England, set up by the Knight Templars, and Calverley, nearby on the River Aire, was to become an important centre for fulling.

13th Century

Process

At first the wool fibre would be sheared. It could then be spun and woven into loose cloth, before being fulled. Fulling involved treating with an acidic liquid e.g stale urine, then trampling in a barrel to remove excess grease and shrink together the loosely woven fibres into a compact tight cloth. The process continued with a second fulling with fullers earth, beating with wooden mallets, then rinsing, which also made the cloth softer and felted it to make it more waterproof. The skill of the fuller enabled the quality of the cloth to be controlled.

Following the fulling process, the cloth was attached to a wooden tentering frame (on tenterhooks), outdoors, in order to stretch it to the required size, settling the weave to a consistent dimension and even tension. It also acted as a way of drying and bleaching the cloth with natural sunlight.

Then the nap (velvety texture) was raised by brushing it with dried teasel heads to create a pile. The pile was made even by cropping closely using shears.

Gathering teasels

Commercialisation

From the beginning of the 13th Century, we can trace the development of the woollen cloth trade from court records, which describe, for example, the fines made to Leeds-based dyers, fullers and weavers for various transgressions, such as selling cloth of the wrong breadth or length. At the same time, the Manor Court Rolls of Wakefield, referring to towns and villages in an area between Wakefield and Halifax, have plenty of evidence of the existence of cloth making in the towns and villages of the Calder valley.

In 1284 Thomas the Weaver of Hipperholme complained that his two cows had disappeared from the common and in the same year weavers of Sowerby and Sandal came before the Court.

Ossett was the home of Robert the Lister (a Lyster is a dyer), in 1274, and other dyers carried on their business at Alverthorpe and Halifax.

Of fullers there were many. These men washed the grease and other foreign matter out of the rough pieces which had been woven in the cottages for home use; but the existence of so many fullers leads one to believe that a great part of the cloths which came to them had been made for the home or foreign markets.

Certainly, all down the Calder Valley we find the fulling-mill at Sowerby, Halifax, Rastrick, Mirfield, Dewsbury, Ossett, and Alverthorpe. These mills were the property of the lord of the manor, and the tenants were compelled to use the manorial mill and no other. But though the lord retained the monopoly for his mill, he did not manage the work himself; instead, he leased the mill to one or two of his tenants for an annual rent. Thus, in 1277, William the Fuller of Wakefield and Ralph de Wortley paid forty shillings as one year’s rental for the mill at Wakefield.

The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industries, by Herbert Heaton, University of Adelaide, 1920

14th & 15th Century

It is certain that the rise of the production and export of woven cloth was influenced by the arrival of Flemish immigrant cloth-makers, many of whom arrived in East Yorkshire during the reign of Edward III and boosted the population of the villages and towns that had suffered badly in the great plague (Black death). During the later fourteenth century the “Flemings” and other weavers, from Brabant in the Netherlands and from the Flanders towns of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges, were to be found settled in the north and east of Yorkshire. The boom in cloth-making in East Yorkshire also attracted weavers from other parts of England to settle, in particular from Lincoln.

However, most of these immigrants did not appear to settle in the West Riding, as the 1379 poll tax records for Halifax, Leeds, and Wakefield and the towns nearby confirm, by an absence of Flemish and Flanders names.

The reason for the lower quality of woollen cloths from the West Riding, was said to be due to the less stringent sorting of wool and a deficiency in managing the processing. This is probably partly a consequence of not having received the skilled workers from the continent that had been able to drive up the quality of the cloth-making in the North and East Ridings. Leeds, geographically closer to the weavers of the East Riding, was quicker to benefit from the influences of the better manufacturers there than the more western towns. To the west of Leeds, the woollen industry was therefore less established in the 14th Century. An example of wool’s progress in the area can be estimated from the records of Halifax.

15th Century Halifax

Although Halifax was destined to become one of the most important and largest commercial cloth towns in the country, there was little evidence of this in the Poll Tax returns of 1379.

By 1414, the Halifax Court Rolls show that a little cloth was being manufactured in the town and the following men were identified:

  • Richard Lister (whose descendants are associated with Shibden Hall), clothmaker,
  • William and Richard Lister, litsters (ie dyers) and fullers,
  • John Otes (walker or fuller),
  • Another John Otes, mercer (dealer).

By 1439, Halifax had 32 messuages (houses with land and adjacent buildings), one shop, one cottage, one fulling mill and there were 44 owners of “messuages, lands and tenements”. It has been calculated from rental records (in the book Yorkshire Coiners), that the town consisted of about 313 inhabitants. Among those, cloth making was still only widely carried on as an auxiliary occupation, in addition to a man’s main work. he would be aided by his family members and the finished cloth was mainly for home consumption.

By 1467, 17 men were engaged in the cloth trade in Halifax, including 8 fullers and, along with other towns to the south and west of Leeds…e.g. Bradford, Dewsbury, Heckmondwyke and Wakefield…Halifax was soon to begin its rise as a wool town.

Ulnager (Alnager, Aulnager) Statute

The Ulnager Statute determined the size of a woven cloth – so a “cloth of assize” was determined to measure “26 yards long by 2 Ells wide” and these cloths attracted a subsidy (up to sixpence per assize cloth), which varied according to the type and quality of the cloth, its colour and whether a full cloth or half cloth. The Ulnagers were sworn officers of the King, appointed by the Crown to collect the subsidies owed to the King on woollen cloths made.

At this time, the majority of cloths in the West Riding were no more than 12 yards long, so they had been exempt from the ulnage payment. However, the law was changed in 1393-4 to say that all cloths would be charged ulnage in proportion to their size and the Yorkshiremen now had to pay their full contribution. A stamp or seal was applied to the cloth to prove it had been taxed and the amount paid was recorded.

The Ulnagers’ Accounts, between 1394 and 1478 give us some clues about the rise of the woollen district in the west. The records of these payments tell us how much cloth was being sold all across the county, and the new subsidy was at last revealing the full extent of manufacture, as many of the smaller exempt bolts of cloth had not been counted in the past.

By 1397, Wakefield producers were now taxed on 173.5 cloths for the year, compared to 120 at Leeds, but Bradford and Halifax paid no ulnage at all that year, their small output having been lumped together with one of the larger towns.

By 1469, the quantity of cloth pieces taxed at Halifax was just below York and Ripon in number, with 853 cloths, Wakefield 231 cloths, Leeds 176.75 cloths, Almondbury (nr Huddersfield) 160 and Bradford 88.5. Taking the whole output from the county between 1379 and 1469, cloth production was up by 300%. 

By 1473, the majority of woollen cloth attracting the subsidy was being woven in the West Riding, with Halifax topping the list for production, second only to York itself. The West Riding had come into its own.

However, the process of making cloth of no particular size became unsatisfactory for the purpose of taxation, so various subsequent statutes defined the exact sizes that different types of cloth could be made. The law also sought to define how “good” cloths, imperfect cloths, and half cloths were stamped or sealed and taxed.

Over the next three centuries, the export of unprocessed (raw) wool gradually declined, in favour of the export of woven wool pieces, produced on the looms of Yorkshire in sizes determined by statute.

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