History in the details: Materials - Wool (part 3)

History in the details: Materials - Wool (part 3)

A brief history by costume and picture expert Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Following the surge in medieval wool production and exports, in Tudor England wool was an unrivalled commodity, generating great wealth, especially for individual entrepreneurs. The raw wool trade was controlled by powerful merchants – the broggers and staplers – while simultaneously capitalist employers – the clothiers – challenged the old, protectionist medieval guild system by organising the manufacture and distribution of woollen cloth. Continental workers continually arrived in Britain, including Protestant Dutch, Huguenot and Walloon weavers fleeing religious persecution in the 16th century. Their skill in producing lightweight, attractive textiles (called the ‘new draperies’) from combed wool (worsteds) revived the economies of towns like Colchester and Norwich, the latter home to 4,000 ‘aliens’ by 1572.

As the woollen industry advanced, the power of the traditional guilds weakened further, buried under complex rules that frequently provoked demarcation and other disputes. Consequently manufacturers started to migrate away from the wealthy guild-dominated towns into rural areas where fulling mills could easily be established. From the late 1500s, dedicated woollen factory-like mills began to appear in new locations including the West Riding of Yorkshire, and Osney and Abingdon in Oxfordshire: built by local entrepreneurs, these typically employed dozens, even one hundred or more workers operating looms in long weaving rooms. Many local clothiers, however, employed weavers who worked in their own homes, favouring a domestic or cottage industry system that persisted well into the 1800s.

The development of fashion and everyday dress in Britain and much of the western world throughout the early modern period relied on the development and availability of warm woollen textiles of different grades and prices to suit all pockets. Collectively, woollens and worsteds were versatile fabrics, ideal for making into substantial outer garments, from universal cloaks, through male doublets, coats, waistcoats and breeches to female gowns or bodices and skirts. Wool also being Britain’s principal source of prosperity, the woollen industry enjoyed many privileges: by the end of the 1700s, over 300 laws governed every aspect from the shearing of sheep, to the dimensions, weight and quality of finished cloth. Important legislation, passed by King James I, prohibited the export of raw wool, to ensure that English manufacturers had sufficient supply – a policy that persisted until 1824 and gave rise to smuggling on a massive scale. After the English Civil War the merchant classes who controlled Parliament removed many of the restraints on the woollen industry, encouraging individual employers and workers to determine employment terms. Combinations – the precursors of trade unions – began to emerge around this time, with weavers and wool combers among the first occupational groups to clash with their masters.

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wooden bench end from Spaxton church
This wooden bench end from Spaxton church, Somerset is carved with the figure of a 16th-century cloth finisher and carefully observed details of his cloth and tools
Thomas Cromwell
This portrait of Thomas Cromwell, from 1532–3, demonstrates the expensive, heavy quality woollen cloth used to make luxurious Tudor gowns
homas Matthew, woollen draper of Lewes
Woollen mercers and drapers were often wealthy, influential members of the community, like Thomas Matthew, woollen draper of Lewes, East Sussex, commemorated in this plaque

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