Wool industries and manufactured tradecloths

From the Middle Ages, British wool was the foundation upon which domestic and foreign trade developed and flourished. In the South West, the Stroud Valleys of Gloucestershire and the county of Devon played an important role in this industry.

Exeter was the second largest cloth market in England in the late seventeenth century. In Stroud, the parishes of Chalford, Minchinhampton, Uley and others produced high quality wide loom-woven broadcloths. Famously these were “red for the army, white for the clergy and green for the billiard table.” (Traditional saying from the cloth industry in Stroud.)

Broadcloth was made of carded wool in plain weave, fulled after weaving. Fulling is the process of cleansing, shrinking and thickening cloth with moisture, heat and pressure. The surface of the cloth was raised using teasels, then sheared to achieve a smooth, felted appearance, hiding the weave. Broadcloths produced in the Stroud valleys were renowned for their colour, particularly ‘Stroudwater scarlet’, attributed to the qualities of the water there. These cloths, famous as the cloth of scarlet military uniform, were bought for trade by both the East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Devon produced serges or “long ells”, unusually long cloths with combed wool warps and carded wool wefts in a twill weave. Until the late 18th century Exeter dominated the Devon wool industry. At its peak in 1700, four-fifths of the local workforce were employed in the industry.

Although the Exeter wool industry suffered a decline in the late 18th century, some manufacturers were able to compete with Yorkshire mills who were industrialising the process. One such maker was Thomas Fox at Coldharbour Mill in Uffculme, who continued to produce Devonshire long ells for the East India Company until the 1830s. Fox also campaigned in the region to save the East India Company’s monopoly over the India trade.

The East India Company sustained the Gloucestershire broadcloth industry and the Devonshire long ell manufacturers long beyond their natural decline in the face of competition from the modern Yorkshire mills. Thomas Fox, in a letter to fellow manufacturer J. Fulford of Crediton in February 1813, stated that the East India Company’s orders kept over 16,000 workers in employment.

Wool manufacturing continues at Lodgemore Mill, Stroud where Strachan billiard cloth and Playnes tennis ball felt is manufactured by Milliken WSP.

 

Map of Stroud Valleys

Map of Stroud Valleys showing parishes where mills producing cloth for the two trade companies were located. (From J de L Mann. 1971. The Cloth Industry in the West of England from 1640 to 1880.)

Ham Hill Record Book

Ham Mill record book, Gloucestershire Records Office. This page shows some of the materials and equipment used in the dyeing process, such as ‘aquafortis’ (nitric acid), shears and lead weights.