(Woven together from the sources listed, and especially the writings of Mike Davies-Shiel, both published and un-published)

(MDS Collection 54-003)

Sheep farming has been part of a traditional way of life for thousands of years in Cumbria as much as the rest of the country. The hand spindle and spinning wheel with the hand loom were a common sight in the home where they were used to spin the wool from a fleece and weave the yarn produced into cloth.

In the uplands of the Lake District, land suitable for arable agriculture was sparse, and farmers were reliant on the rearing of stock. The Cumbrian sheep breed the Herdwick is reputed to have been introduced by Scandinavian settlers in the tenth or eleventh century, and was renowned for its coarse but hard-wearing wool.

Commercial sheep rearing
After the Norman Conquest, wealthy landowners followed a path to salvation by donating much of their estates to establish and maintain monasteries and their monks. Whole areas of Cumbria were apportioned to one religious house or another who generated much of their income by keeping large flocks on their lands and making sure that the fleeces were of good quality in order to attract foreign buyers. For example, in 1292 AD, Furness Abbey had 14 granges in Furness, Millom, Dunnerdale, Eskdale and Borrowdale – some 400 to 500 tenanted farms with 60,000 sheep in total. Hundreds of fleeces would be packed into sacks for export to the Continent – Furness was sending 30 sacks to Italy each year of good quality wool.

By about 1220 AD, in addition to the Furness Abbey landholdings, Holm Cultram had lands on both sides of the Solway, Calder Abbey possessed most of the Patterdale to Mardale area, Shap Abbey controlled Long Sleddale, Conishead Priory most of the parish of Skelsmergh, Cockersand Abbey in Lancashire had Selside Hall and district, and Byland Abbey of Yorkshire had the Bannisdale-Whinfell area. St.Bees had the Ennerdale to Crummock Water area and around Bassenthwaite, Carlisle Priory held the Vale of Lorton, and the large Fountains Abbey of Yorkshire held part of the Keswick to Langstrath fells.

A cottage industry
Monastery land was redistributed to large landowners after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by the mid-1500s, and wool now went for sale in local market towns rather than being exported. Changes in the national tax regime to encourage production of cloth here rather than abroad supported the growth of the domestic system of cloth manufacture:-

  • Packmen collected fleeces from the farmer at the June clipping time and delivered them by pack-horse to the central ware-house where the organising clothier lived
  • At the ware-house fellmongers or spullars disentangled the coarse matted fleeces and partly sorted them before the sorters did the skilled work of splitting the fleece into different varieties and qualities of wool
  • The packmen took the wool to homes where the wool was carded (to draw out the fibres) and spun
  • The varying qualities of yarn were collected, returned to the clothier, and passed to the weaver – men working at home
  • The pieces of cloth were taken to the bowker, whose job it was to clean the cloth  and remove its natural lanolin’s
  • After which they could be dyed using plant derivatives and ‘natural’ chemicals to dye and fix the dye in the cloth. For Kendal Green – for example – the cloth is first dyed a light blue using either indigo or woad, then over-dyed in a 2nd dye bath with a yellow such as weld of dyer’s greenweed with a mordant such as alum added
  • The cloth then had to be fulled – pounded in soapy water – to mesh together and strengthen the cloth. Each piece had been woven over-size to allow for shrinkage during this process (Click here to find out more about fulling)
  • After washing to remove the soap the cloth would be hung out on tenters to dry whilst retaining its shape
  • The dry cloth would be collected and returned to the ware-house for finishing, using teasels to raise the nap for a fluffy cloth which could then be clipped by the shearman for a smooth finish
  • The finished cloths would be wrapped and delivered to market

Types of cloth
Types of plain cloth made in Kendal parish during this period were …

 1220 Bluette A waterproof wool for capes etc., dyed blue
 1390 Kendal Cloth A woollen fabric, fulled. The term ‘blanquet’ was applied to the white, self-coloured cloths
Kersey A coarse woollen cloth, brightly dyed, fulled
 Cogware A coarse woollen cloth, fulled and raised
 1400s Friezes Mostly coarse wools but some fine, like modern dressing-gown cloth. Tioghter than blanket
 pre 1552 Kendal Coatings Had a nap raised to make the cloth look like cotton. Notably of many colours
 1575 Kendal Cottons The name abbreviated from ‘coatins’
 Friezes, Cogware, Blanket and Russet The latter a brown blanket
 Serge A worsted warp and woollen weft, twisted and usually fulled. A higher quality than ‘coarse’
 Bays (baize) A worsted warp and woollen weft, lightly fulled and raised. A high quality cloth
Duffel A thick, waterproof ‘self-grey’
Carptmeals A coarse cloth, possibly rag rugs or ‘carpet’
Motlaye The Brabanter cloth, coloured and hand-spotted
Kelters A black and whgite coating for kilts
Scotch cloth Tartans, i.e. highly-coloured warp and weft threads
Chamlett A wool and silk cloth of fairly high quality
Mockadow A pile fabric of goat’s hair, of high quality, and not unlike velvet
Fustian A linen warp and cotton weft quality cloth
Check A blue and white checked linen and cotton clothj
Rugs Almost certainly rag rug
‘Culler’, Frescadows, Pucke and Rashe All unknown

Kendal had developed as a thriving centre for a rich area by the 1500s, and the granting of borough status by Elizabeth I in 1575 with its accompanying charter putting all the finishing trades and marketing into the town’s hands was confirmation of its role. The woollen industry remained Kendal’s principal business up to the late 19thC.

During this period, working folk (95% of the population) had by law no option other than to wear the harsh, thick woollen cloths, all plain or single-coloured, in which this area specialised. By the end of Elizabeth I’s reign in 1603, however, there was a rising middle classable to afford better clothes and demanding more than single-colour garments. For the next 200 years the market for new fashionable cloths was enormous, and royalty dare no longer inhibit the nation. These “New Draperies” were either worsted warp and woollen weft cloths, or linsey-wolseys with linen warp and woollen weft. The yarn was now dyed before weaving into new fancy patterns. John Crewdson’s pattern book of 1769 contained 498 samples of linsey-woolsey cloth, covering a full range of quality from everyday cloth for working clothes to fabric of fine quality woven in surprisingly vibrant colour combinations.

The factory system
Towards the end of the 18thC woollen mills were built to incorporate the new technological developments such as Hargreaves’ spinning jenny of 1764 and Arkwright’s carding engine of 1775. The finishing processes of bleaching and dyeing were not mechanised until the 1840s and 1850s, steam powered weaving sheds in the 1860s.

The manufacturing pattern – the factory system based on the mill – was now something like this (at least for plain woollens)…

  • Wool was produced on the farm, collected by mill or clothiers’ agents and washed in soft soaps
  • The wool fibres were aligned or carded for spinning on water-driven carding engines, usually to be found on the first floor, where picking machinery was also installed
  • The wool was then spun on manually-worked jennies or, later, by long water-powered mules, on the top floor
  • The yarn was then sent out of the mill to the domestic narrow-loom weavers, or sent to the ground floor to be made up into blanketing on a massive broad loom. (Worked by hand and foot – power looms did not become established in Kendal mills until after the middle of the 19thC.)
  • The cloth was then returned to the mill for further washing, and was then dyed and fulled (usually in a separate building)
  • The cloth was then dried and stretched back into shape by hooking it on tenter-frames
    The cloth was brushed with teasels and the nap raised, and then sheared, dressed or cropped to make different surface finishes. Finishing, warehousing, weighing and packing were done on the ground floor
  • Elements of the cottage system survived long after the gradual development of the factory system, especially weaving which stayed in the home or workshop rather than move into the mill. Every branch of the woollen industry was a skilled and individual craft trade.

Steam power mostly replaced water power in the 1800s, but thorough mechanisation was not carried out until too late to compete with rivals in Yorkshire and Scotland. By the 1930s, the growth of overseas competitors and the development of artificial fibres further reduced the profitability of Cumbria’s remaining mills which gradually closed down or found alternative uses.

The mills
Notes on a selection of Cumbria’s woollen mills can be seen by following this link.

The Kendal weaver : John Satchell, Kendal Civic Society & Frank Peters Publishing, 1986
The pattern book of 1769 : Kendal Town Council, 2010
Old Lakeland : J.D. Marshall, David & Charles, 1971
The woollen industry : Chris Aspin, Shire Publications Ltd., 1992
Traditional buildings and life in The Lake District : Susan Denyer, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1991
The Lake District at work : J.D.Marshall & M. Davies-Shiel, David & Charles, 1971
Industrial archaeology – a handbook : Marilyn Palmer (et al), Council for British Archaeology, 2012
Industrial archaeology of The Lake Counties : J.D.Marshall & M. Davies-Shiel, David & Charles, 1969
Landscape and society in medieval Cumbria : Angus Winchester, John Donald, 1987
The harvest of the hills : Angus Winchester, Edinburgh UP, 2000
A history of Cumberland & Westmorland : William Rollinson, Phillimore & Co., 1996

Goodacres Carpets (article)
Howgill Woollen Mill (article)
Farfield Mill (article)
Farfield Mill near Sedbergh (website)

(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 31/02/22)