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woollen industry

woollen industry. This responded early to the possibilities presented by water power, and the fulling mill, introduced in the late 12th cent., spread widely thereafter, although hand-finishing of cloth survived in remote rural societies until the 19th cent. Distaff spinning was replaced by the wheel in the 14th cent., and the loom was improved constantly to help weaving productivity. Quality control was exercised by town guilds, but country districts were free of regulation. This aided the rise of rural clothiers who sold in cloth halls, exports to the principal European markets in the Low Countries being supplied via Blackwell Hall in London and managed by the Merchant Venturers' Company.

Although cloth exports rose remarkably from the late 15th cent., the introduction into East Anglia from the 1560s of ‘new draperies’, mainly worsteds, by protestant immigrants fleeing persecution added to the product range available to both the home and foreign market. Manufacture was often controlled by merchants who put out materials to be made up by workers in their own homes. A few entrepreneurs tried to concentrate production, intending to raise productivity by closer supervision of the labour force and able to control quality and raw materials directly.

By 1700 the woollen industry was Britain's most important industry with a range of products from luxury to plain goods. Its links with agriculture were intimate; its parliamentary lobby was therefore strong. John Kay's ‘flying-shuttle’ (1733), intended for use in the woollen industry, was only slowly adopted, compared with its use in fustian-weaving. Merchant clothiers expanded production in areas with the lowest labour costs, often building large loomshops. Improvements were made in carding and scribbling, the preparatory processes, and in the 1780s worsted-spinning was first mechanized, using Arkwright's water frame, and wool-spinning followed (1810) with the application of Crompton's mule. Most mills were small and in the 1830s on average employed fewer than 50 workers. As late as 1858 only about half those employed in the industry worked in factories. The transition to the factory system was clearly slow. However, technical change did meet resistance from the croppers or shearmen who finished off cloth and were being replaced after 1800 by the gig mill and shearing frame. The croppers and shearers were the backbone of Luddism, especially in Yorkshire.

The industry fared well for most of the 19th cent. The home market was buoyant, and ‘new’ products such as tweed hosiery, mohair, and alpaca found extensive markets overseas. South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand added significantly to wool supplies from the 1850s. Wool imports increased fivefold between 1850 and 1885. Yorkshire and the west country dominated the industry, although the Scottish borders exploited the demand for tweed and hosiery until the 1970s.

From the 1870s foreign competition and tariff barriers in Europe and the USA began to hit exports. An atomized industrial structure of small family firms did not help. The combination of spinning and weaving within the single business became general and was often accompanied by the integration of finishing and dyeing. The real disaster occurred after the First World War. The contraction of world trade in the great inter-war slump hit hard. Too much equipment was obsolescent, and the lack of capital investment adversely affected productivity. However, the industry was saved by tariff protection from 1932 and the revival of the home market in the late 1930s. Man-made fibres attacked the industry from the 1950s, especially the production of carpets, and its future rested with reacting rapidly to changes in fashion and markets. Decline was rapid after 1965.

John Butt

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