Fulling Mills in Cumbria

From a handout by Mike Davies-Shiel dated April 1992

Leat to Stickle Ghyll Mill, Great Langdale (R.Baker,2012)

Until within the last 40 years, whenever sheep’s wool was used for making clothes, the process hardly ever changed.

  • First the fleeces were separated into qualities of fibre by Spullars or Fellmongers. (By the 14th century, monks of Furness Abbey had nine grades of wool, and Lakeland fleeces ranked slightly above average for the whole of England).
  • Then the wools went by packhorse to Carders in their homes. These folk used two table tennis like bats, covered with thousands of short crooked wires to tease out fibres until they lay parallel.
  • Thence to the Spinsters (young women with strong and very deft fingers), to spin the wool into yarns. Obviously the better wools in the hand of the best spinsters made very fine yarns indeed.
  • Thence to the Websters to weave the cloths; to the Fullers to clean and shrink them ready for dyeing; to Shearmen and Tailors to finish and cut the cloth into clothing. Before Queen Elizabeth’s time, all stockings or hose were cut out of cloth, for knitting was not invented until towards the end of her reign.

But in 1348 AD, the Black Death reached Britain and killed a very large number of the poorer working folk such that there was a shortage of labour, and “… great part of the people, seeing the necessity of masters, will not serve without excessive wages …”. Masters went to the King and insisted upon new rules, and fixed wages. But servants could not afford new clothes, so from 1362 AD to 1571 AD, kings and queens passed a whole series of Acts which limited one’s clothing to the class in which you belonged! For example “It is ordained that people of handicraft and yeomen – (i.e. the skilled working class) – shall not wear cloth of a higher price for their vesture or hosing than within 40 shillings of the whole cloth” – 1362 AD, Edward III.

A cloth was a piece made on a narrow loom, that is 6.5 quarters of a yard and just over 28 yards long when woven, but 1×22 yards once shrunk at the fulling mill. Such cloth averaged 18d per square yard. But wages were fixed down at only 4d per day for Master Freemasons; average skilled men got 2d and labourers about 1d per day.

In the 14th century there were only two classes of society – 1) Royalty, Nobility and Graduates, and 2) Working Folk – 5% and 95% of the population respectively. The 95% had to wear the harsh, thick woollen cloths allocated to them, all plain and single-coloured (dyed-in-the-wool), and not even embroidered! The 1364 edict stated that farmhands (and almost everybody worked on the land) must wear only blanket or russet – thick wool cloths. Thus there was a huge enforced home market for cheap woollen cloths such as were made around Kendal. Better and fancy spotted vestures were for nobility only, or for export.

In 1571 AD, Elizabeth passed the last Act that limited what one might wear. It stated that all except the upper class had to wear a knitted and fulled wool cap on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of 3s.4d per day (one mark or one sixth of a pound). So suddenly, knitted goods were ‘in’ and everyone needed knitting yarns. And to be sure, if you HAD to wear a cap, you made certain it looked different from those of your neighbours!

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign in 1603, there was a rising middle class demanding (and able to afford) better clothes, all tired of endless single-colour garments. For the next 200 years the market for new fashionable cloths was enormous, and Royalty dare no longer inhibit the nation. The “New Draperies” were either Worsted warp and Woollen weft cloths, or Linsey-Wolseys with linen warp and woollen weft. Both were thinner cloths that hung better than thick wools, but because both the worsteds and the linen hardly shrank at all when washed or fulled, and the woollens shrank by at least a quarter of their length and width, neither cloth could be woven before washing, else it puckered and wrinkled horribly. The new method was to dye the yarns before weaving, and then to weave fancy patterns into these new cloths. One could have striped, herring-bone, spotty or patterned cloths, and thus ape nobility. Almost all the patterns displayed in the Kendal Town Hall patterns book of c.1769 are of the New Drapery type.

But what has all this to do with FULLING MILLS?

The earlier cloth mills were usually two-storeyed, about 30x15ft rising to 40x20ft in the late 18th century. Upper rooms contained cloths unfulled and fulled-and-dry. On the ground floor were the huge, cumbersome fulling stocks acting in pairs into large special boxes containing cloths folded across their widths in concertina-like fashion. After 10 hours of pounding, each cloth had been cleverly turned around from end to end and fulled thoroughly. Each box was wide enough to take either narrow cloth (4.5ft wide) or broadcloth (c.8ft wide); also deep enough to take a folded blanket of some 28yds length. A fulling mill with a pair of stocks balanced each side of the waterwheel needed the flow from a 10ft wide stream and saved into a millpond, (against the stopping of flow by manorial cornmills having prime water rights). Such fulling mills were a commonplace across Cumbria, and already we had over 50 mills – 16 in Cumberland and 35 in Westmorland – before the Black Death struck in 1348 AD.

The New Draperies fulling mills though, only fulled yarns. The heavy hammerstocks of clothmills wood have destroyed the spun hanks, so new mills were built with tiny waterwheels less than 8ft diameter turning off thin rivulets or becks a mere 4ft wide and with NO millponds, although often a longish headrace. Typically such a mill was single-storeyed, 30x15ft, needing only a small room for the yarns. Many mills of this type have been identified recently by the author in the 24 out-townships around Kendal; also around Carlisle, Caldbeck, Egremont and Ulverston.

To date, 452 fulling mills have been recognized across Cumbria, 212 being early cloth mills – of which 92 continued until the Industrial Revolution. The remaining 240 were all set up for the New Draperies’ yarns and the later caps, gloves and stockings produced in their thousands of gross for export to the towns of England, and for the armed forces of the day.

(Click on the link for a map of fulling mills in Cumbria)

(Page created 31/01/11. Last updated 02/11/20)