HandLoom Weavers

The expansion of handloom weaving

Both the spinning and weaving of cloth were originally carried out by people in their homes, who would then take the finished cloth to market. Originally using wool, which was brought in from Lancashire, and then cotton when it started arriving in huge quantities from America.

When cotton was first introduced into this country, it was assumed it must come from some sort of sheep, and when told it came from a plant, people decided that it must therefore come from a sheep plant.

"There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie."  Wrote John Mandeville in 1350

In Daniel Defoe's book of 1724, he recorded his journey through Great Britain and describes the working and living conditions of the labouring classes he found on his travels.
"and so nearer we came to Halifax we found the houses thicker and the villages greater. If we knocked at the door of any of the master manufacturers we presently saw a house full of lusty fellows, some at the dye vat, some dressing the cloth, some in the loom. These people are full of business, not a beggar not an idle person to be seen. This business is the clothing trade."

Handloom weavers working under the domestic system sometimes saved small amounts of yarn until they had enough to make an extra piece of cloth to sell for their own profit. Two weavers, Abraham and Henry Stansfield, were threatened with prosecution when they tried to sell two pieces of cloth to the owners of Mytholm Mill The Leeds Intelligencer published a Caution to Cotton Weavers in 1792 which reads as follows “we have requested them in pity for our large families, to take back their property and to forgive this offence, promising never to commit the like again”.

Once mechanisation had been introduced into cotton spinning by Samuel Cronpton with his Spinning Jenny, the obvious next step was to mechanise weaving. Although handloom weaving had been speeded up in the 18th century by the introduction of the flying shuttle, weaving was still done by hand either at home or in small loom shops. Spun cotton was now produced in large quantities for the first time by the mills, so handloom weaving was expanding to keep up with the supply. Although they lacked the status of their 18th century counterparts, it was still possible for handloom weavers to earn good wages in the early 19th century.

One of the advantages of having mills in this district was the presence of handloom weavers forming a large part of the population. The Sutcliffe papers show that one mill-owning family were employing hundreds of handloom weavers both locally and in East Lancashire. Ledgers and account books give the names of weavers in the townships of Heptonstall, Ripponden, Sowerby and Soyland, and show that in the 1820s and 1830s they were also employing an agent in Colne called Andrew Stuttard to organise weavers in the cotton weaving districts of Marsden, Brierfield and Barnoldswick areas.

Power Looms begin to take over

Initially the introduction of the  power looms was patchy as the early machines were not able to produce as good a quality cloth as could be woven by hand, but as the machinery evolved power loom production took over from the handmade process in the 1830s and 1840s. Wages were lowered and the amount of time between one job and the next could be days or weeks. In the wake of a typhoid epidemic in the winter of 1842 a doctor called Robert Howard wrote about medical and sanitary conditions in Slack – he lived at no. 15 New Road in Hebden Bridge and was paid by the poor law guardians to attend the sick. Howard’s’ local interests included medical and sanitary improvements in the town and district, but he was also concerned about the loss of dignity suffered by handloom weavers now forced to rely on charity.

Extract from a Handloom weaver’s reminisces
Some political economists believed that there was a need to replace the old domestic system with the disciplined workforce of the mills where more and more people were now employed. Others saw it very differently. Joseph Greenwood’s family had made their living from farming as well as handloom weaving and this interaction – the dual economy - had long been characteristic of the area. Looking back on his childhood, growing up on the Wadsworth hillside in the 1830s he wrote:  

“The weavers as a class were poor, but they had their good times, the dwellings being on rising ground where they got the early sunshine in its splendour and where the atmosphere was not fouled by the smoke of the factory. There was no bell to ring them up at four or five o’clock in the morning nor again at noon, nor were they bound to stay late at night; there was freedom to start and stay away as they cared.”

“The later years of the forties were a very acute time for handloom weavers. Our house was on the spur of the hill, and towards the south, from it we could see the whole countryside and the village of Heptonstall to the west, the farmsteads and cottages about them to the north - west with here and there an occasional row of cottages. The summer’s sun would shed its genial rays on the patches of corn fields, nearly all oats. The same sun in winter just before setting, shone over the snow and the wide expanse. Then there was the clear cold frost clear from the fog of the valleys, and the reflection from the windows of the weavers’ cottages were much brighter than the brightest electric light in our large towns nowadays, but it was a time to make the flesh tingle and hunger to feel all the keener. The same windows which used to be lighted after dark from within were now in darkness, and many of the houses unoccupied, the hand wool comber and the handloom weaver are not there. In the walks that one might take in the lanes and footpaths, old faces are not to be met. The old families are not known, nor have been for some time. The sound of song and the shuttle is departed.”

From Joseph Greenwood, Reminiscences of Sixty years ago, 1909.

However, the poverty of the handloom weavers became of national concern. The handloom weavers tried to say that their jobs were safeguarded by statutes dating from Tudor times, but mill owners argued that these laws were archaic. Parliament appointed a Select Committee in 1803 and again in 1806 to investigate the issues and in 1909 the Govt. repealed all the old legislation. The age of the mill and factory system had won.
This change from cottage based to mechanised, mill based industry changed the whole social and cultural way of life.

Peel says of the working class before the repeal of the Corn Laws,
"Oatcake was then the 'staff of life' and oatmeal porridge an article of constant and universal consumption once a day at least, often twice, and not infrequently three times. Butchers' meat was a luxury in which they could seldom indulge, and then only to a very limited extent. Manufacturers everywhere were availing themselves of the many wonderful inventions that were being brought out for cheapening labour, and as the new machinery threw thousands out of employment when extensively introduced, the poor, misguided wretches, who could not understand how that could be a benefit which deprived them of the means of earning a livelihood and reduced them to beggary, met in secret conclaves, and resolved in their ignorance to destroy them. Had they been better instructed, they would have known that it was their duty to lie down in the nearest ditch and die."

Several of the local mill-owning families were instrumental in standing up to the Govt when they tried to introduce the workhouse system. Up till then families in need were paid money from the Poor Relief by the Overseer of the Poor. It was felt by some that this deterred people from working and that people should be put into workhouses where conditions were deliberately kept poor. Several of the local mill owners, people of some standing in the area, were against this and refused to set up workhouses in the area, continuing to pay its own poor relief.

There was much trouble and constables and soldiers were sent in to seize goods from John Fielden of Todmorden, who led the defiance. He in turn then said he would close all his mills in protest, thus forcing 3000 people into the new workhouses.

Infantry were drafted in and Fielden eventually re opened his mills.

Handspinning in people’s homes

Taking Cloth to Market
Taking the finished cloth to market

Sheel Plant
Sheep plant as drawn by John Mandeville

Sheep Plant
Sheep plant – also known as the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

Handloom Weaver
Later picture of handloom weaver – at Bogg Eggs of Wadsworth

Woman Making Oatcakes
Making oatcakes

Pictures from
The Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker
George Walker, a son of gentry, was born in 1781 near Leeds. His series of forty colored engravings depicting life in Yorkshire accompanied by text was first published as The Costume of Yorkshire in 1814.

- Home - About - Maps - Mills - People - Water Power - Image Gallery - Resources - Schools -
- Media - Contact - Sitemap -

Power in the Landscape 2007