A Few Things You May Not Know About British Wool

Alexander FREELING
A Few Things You May Not Know About British Wool

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that modern British history cannot be told without the story of British cloth making.

Textiles drove every element of industrial development: the rise in centralised, mechanized production, the rapid expansion of trade in both volume and distance, and the great migration of country people into cities.

The Force of Cotton

In the nineteenth century, cotton dominated economic growth. In fact, by mid-century, cotton constituted almost half the value of British exports, and its sales reversed the balance of trade between Britain and Asia for the first time in history.

Over the century, the entire landscape was transformed to meet the industry’s needs: new roads and bridges, foundries and shipyards were built; artificial lighting propagated; coal was burned and iron cast in record amounts.

But British cotton was an international product from the outset: the cotton plant is not indigenous to the British isles, nor suited to it. Although raw cotton is processed by spinning, weaving and finishing, much as wool, cotton demands a warm climate, vast space and labour to plant and pick. For these reasons, the history of cotton is also inextricably linked to colonization and then to slavery.

It is due to the dominance of cotton that wool needs to be understood in relation to it.

The Landscape of British Wool

The history of British wool is longer and more modest.

Sheep had been farmed in the British Isles for centuries. The geography, particularly in Scotland and the north of England, was well suited. Sheep need land, but not the most fertile of soil; they must be cared for, but by a single shepherd, not the crowds of paid or coerced labour required by cotton.

Although finished wool never became an export on the grand scale of cotton, nor did wool production collapse so dramatically as British cotton exports declined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Still, the same technical innovations that drove cotton production also transformed wool.

Wool was for centuries a cottage industry: a collection of individual labourers working from their own homes, spinning or weaving wool, and selling their produce locally. A travelling merchant of the sixteenth century might buy some of the better cloth for sale in London, and from there a portion might be exported (unfinished and awaiting dye) to the great cloth market of the Netherlandsbut on the whole, wool was not an international trade.

Wool quality was determined by the skill of the individual producer, and the fineness of the fleeces, which was often the limiting factor: merino sheep competed for space in the fields with crossbreeds which supplied both wool and meat. During this period, major merchants did mark their products, but to provide a means of redress against pervasive fraud, rather than to create a brand in the modern sense.

Changes in technology transformed the woollen industry into the form we now know. The fly shuttle (1733) increased weaving speed, followed by spinning machines, most famously James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (1765). The crucial change for home spinners occurred two years later, when machines were adapted to use industrial power sources: initially water, and then steam. By this point, the efficiency and consistency of the machines decisively outperformed the home spinners, and drove them into the factory, or else into poverty. By 1790, a combing machine had been invented, making the worsted industry fully mechanized.

A fancy narrow loom from 1855

These machines had two major effects. Firstly, the cost of the machinery meant that cloth making became a capital-intensive industry. This forced the old artisanal labourers to become employees of a new class of merchant clothiers, who bought unprocessed wool and financed the entire production process. Spinners and weavers were consolidated into mills whose machines they did not own, and worked in a location, and to a timetable, they could no longer control; they became employees.

Secondly, those mills required local supplies of water and coal, which drove them to Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire and Derbyshire, which became the home of British cloth.

By the end of the eighteenth century, production had been consolidated almost entirely in factories. The following century saw the great rise and fall of British cloth production, as the same forces of comparative advantage that favoured mill owners over independent labourers then began to reward factories abroad and, as a result, weaken Britain’s share of the world export market.

The next blow to wool and cotton came in the early twentieth century, from the invention of synthetic threads, which needed neither land nor labour, and could mimic to a reasonable degree the properties of wool, silk, cotton and hemp.

Yet for Parisian Gentleman readers, this final chapter of the story is perhaps the most exciting.

Although the nineteenth century saw a dive in British cloth production, it also saw continued consolidation and further technical innovation. As the margins on the cheapest cloths diminished, production shifted towards quality. (In fact, although many connoisseurs lament the introduction of synthetic cloths and blends, these shunned synthetics provided a reason for surviving wool and cotton producers to push for finer, higher quality cloths, since the cheapest and strongest products would now inevitably be synthetic.)

The Story of the Legacy of Patrick Martin

To take one example of this shift, consider Patrick Martin, a cloth designer from Belfast, who emigrated to Yorkshire in the mid-nineteenth century to work in the mills, eventually starting his own business—Martin and Sons—in Huddersfield.

The eldest of his sons, Henry Martin, inherited the family business in 1880 and continued to expand, focusing on quality fine worsteds, becoming the largest employer in Huddersfield in the process. The company focused on the menswear trade through the following centuryeven in 1917 breaking convention and attempting to sell directly to Savile Row, to the consternation of other manufacturers.

In the 1950s, the firm was another victim of the manufacturing decline, and underwent multiple buy-outs, but ultimately survived as a quality-focused suiting manufacturer, eventually becoming part of the newly-consolidated Huddersfield Fine Worsteds Group in 1976.

In 1907 Martin and Sons were granted a patent for a new kind of worsted cloth whose open weave would remain open even when pressed or crushed, thanks to an extra twist in the weaving process. The resulting cloth was crisp and ventilated during wear, and became popular as tropical suiting. Readers who wear it will recognise this cloth as Fresco. It is still available in the same form, now sold under the mark of Hardy Minnis, another member of the HFW stable, and itself a merger of two cloth merchants, John Hardy and J&J Minnis. Alongside Fresco Lite and the two-ply mohair version, Fresco III continues to be made in Huddersfield.

Indubitable British Makers of Today

Today British mills account for around ten percent of the European woollen market. (Italy is around fifteen percent.) The days of vast growth, as well as unregulated and often dangerous labour, are over.

But for men who wear wool, there is still much about British cloth to be celebrated: Minnis’s Fresco for summer tailoring, Fox’s flannel and Moon’s tweeds for sports jackets, and Dugdale’s bunches for business suits, to name a few.

Two British makers have recently released collections of woollen ties:

The Merchant Fox, the retail arm of Fox Brothers, has collaborated with Drake’s on a range of flannel ties, and H.N. White, a lesser-known but equally impressive British tiemaker, has a series of challis ties made from a stockpile of vintage Huddersfield wool. Harry White, the owner, is something of a fabric hunter, having gone to Macclesfield for printed silks, Sussex for woven silks, Somerset for flannel, and Ireland for linen.

For the Huddersfield cloths, Mr. White selected a range of lively patterns, principally Prince of Wales and gun club checks. I am told that the green Prince of Wales design is a favourite of an esteemed American menswear writer who will be well-known to PG readers.

The distinction between town and country clothing has softened somewhat in recent decades, but these vintage cloths have the tones of woodland, wheatfields, and open heath. They are, like all British woollens today, entwined with their history.

I am grateful to Iain Milligan of Huddersfield Fine Worsteds, and Harry White of H.N. White, for assistance with my research.

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