Before weaving could begin the warp had to be wound on to its roller, or beam, and the threads passed through the healds and fastened to the cloth beam. The warp threads had to be dressed with flour and water paste to make them strong enough to withstand the weaving process. Almost one third of the weaver's time was taken up with dressing the warp and waiting for it to dry.
The weaving operation consisted of sending the shuttle containing the weft back and forth through the threads of the warp. A device operated by a treddle lifted and lowered alternate threads and a lathe hung from the top of the loom enabled the weaver to push each thread of weft up against the cloth already woven.
The weaving of fancy or patterened cloth required two sets of healds, making the fixing of the warp even more involved and time consuming. Inevitably threads broke and had to be mended. The weaving process was slow and laborious, but so was the spinning process until improvements came along in the late 1700s.
The first cotton based cloths to be produced in Lancashire were fustians, which were cloths with a linen warp and a cotton weft. These were being produced from the early 17th century. Flax drying to produce linen had been carried out in Liverpool since at least 1540, as an order forbidding the drying of flax inside houses because of the risk of fire was made in that year. By the late 16th century linen production centred on Manchester had spread to Blackburn, Burnley, Preston and Oldham. The growing demand for linen warp for the expanding cotton industry boosted production.
Although production of fustians was soon more important than linen, linen was still being woven in the 1720s in Warrington. Fustians enjoyed a period of great demand until imported cotton goods from the Indian subcontinent began to be popular with the more affluent and those who sought to emulate them. Fustians had a resurgence when acts were passed banning cotton imports which were damaging the woollen and silk industries. Also fustians' linen warp was stronger than cotton warp. The invention of Arkwright's water frame made the spinning of strong cotton warps possible and that plus the superior quality and versatility of cotton meant that by the beginning of the 19th century fustian production was in decline.
Early textile production was aimed at self-sufficiency. If a family could produce enough textile materials for their own purposes then that was all that was required. Producing a surplus and trading it for other goods, or selling it, was a later development.
It was difficult for early spinners to keep pace with handloom weavers. It was said it needed five spinners to keep one weaver busy. The invention of the flying shuttle made it even harder for spinners to keep up. When the spinning jenny was invented, the process of cloth manufacture was greatly speeded up.
Even before the Industrial Revolution textile production became a major industry, though still largely a cottage based one. The major change in production came with the invention of the powerloom. It was some time before a reliable machine was perfected and this combined with the resistance from handloom weavers made manufacturers reluctant to invest.
Improvements were made to handlooms in an attempt to compete with powerlooms, but it was estimated in the 1820s that the latter could produce four times as much cloth as the former and the handloom was doomed.
A handloom consisted of four wooden uprights joined at top and bottom to form a box-like framework. There were wooden rollers between both pair of uprights, one for the weft and one to collect the cloth. The weaving operation consisted of sending the shuttle containing the weft back and forth through the threads of the warp. A device operated by a treadle lifted and lowered alternate threads and a lathe hung from the top of the loom enabled the weaver to push each thread of weft up against the cloth already woven.
Before weaving could begin the warp had to be wound on to its roller, or beam, and the threads passed through the lathe and fastened to the cloth beam. The warp threads had to be dressed with flour and water paste to make them strong enough to withstand the weaving process.
One of the first inventions to speed up the process of weaving was Kay's flying shuttle which was mounted on four small wheels and knocked back and forth across the loom-gate by small hammers which the weaver operated by cords. This put the weaver further ahead in his output and made it even harder for the spinner to keep up. In 1770 however Hargreaves had invented the spinning jenny which could spin multiple threads.
For more than four centuries East Lancashire has devoted a great deal of its time and energy to the processes of spinning and weaving.
At first, woollen cloth was made from yarn spun from the wool of the native sheep.
By Tudor times, Blackburn was a thriving community whose importance was shown by the appointment of a special Government officer in 1566 whose duty was to inspect, measure and seal cloth intended for export. He had also to check for faulty dyeing, and excessive weighting of the cloth with chalk. The name of this official was the Aulnager, the Blackburn officer being deputy to the County Aulnager. The scale of the local industry at this date can be gauged by the activities of Alexander Nowell. In one week in July 1569, he purchased from local weavers and cloth merchants 2450 yards of woollen and 1300 yards of linen cloth.
Blackburn cloth was exported to the continent by way of Chester, Hull, Bristol, London and Southampton.
By the time of the first Stuarts, cotton was being used with a linen warp, and the local cloth was distinctive enough to be given the name "Blackburn checks", with some of the warp threads and also some of the weft being dyed blue a checked appearance was produced in the cloth.
Flax began to be cultivated in the area around Preston for use in their manufacture. The Civil War had an unsettling effect on the industry and at the Restoration, linen was imported from across the Irish Sea, as the quality was regarded as superior to the locally grown flax.
By the late 17th Century a new source of competition was developing in the shape of linen yarn from Hamburg in Germany, which was sold cheaper than Lancashire could manufacture it. These developments harmed the farmers who grew flax, but benefitted the manufacturing side.
By the 1720s we are able to form some idea of the number of Blackburn people actually working in textile manufacture. The local parish registers records the names of 391 families so engaged.
The manufacturers and merchants agitated against the Act of 1720, and succeeded by 1736 in getting a new Act passed which made it legal to dye, print or paint any cloth manufactured in Great Britain, provided that the warp was entirely of linen.
This brought new life into the industry.
Chapmen were employed by the merchants. These men rode on horseback between Manchester Market, and Blackburn and other East Lancashire towns, supplying raw cotton to the spinners at their homes, or to special warehouses called 'Putting out shops'. The weavers also brought their finished cloth to these shops. A quantity of raw cotton was weighed and given out to the operative, with a ticket showing the actual weight. The same weight, less a small percentage for wastage had to be returned in cloth woven to a particular pattern. 18ozs. of raw cotton allowed 2ozs. as waste.
The cotton wool had to be spun on a hand wheel, and the cloth woven on a handloom in about two or three weeks, when the Chapman would be in attendance at the warehouse. Should the weaver fail to produce the cloth on time, he would have to wait until the Chapman next visited the warehouse before he could be paid or get fresh supplies of cotton. Because of this the weaver and his family, who did the spinning worked excessively long hours in order to finish their cloth 'piece' on time.
The handloom became an essential item of household furniture, and its influence on house design can be seen on the outskirts of Blackburn to this day. The cottages either had the handlooms in the basement, the entrance to the living quarters up two or three steps, and a long row of windows alongside, to give light for working the loom, or in an upper room, in which the windows ran full length of the cottage. Examples of the first type of weavers' cottages can be seen on Redlam on the left hand side going out of Blackburn.
By the late 18th century, the design of the handloom had been improved by the inventions of John Kay of Bury and cloth was being produced by the weaver faster than yarn could be spun by his family, so some weavers changed over to spinning. Demand for cloth continued to grow, and local carpenters and furniture makers built large numbers of looms. The parts were standardised, so identical looms could be erected very rapidly. Farmers installed handlooms in their barns, or built special shops to house them. They thus combined weaving with farming, producing cloth in the intervals between weeding their crops, milking their cattle and feeding their animals.
The deficiencies in the primitive hand spinning wheel, and the difficulty in obtaining yarn, stimulated men of an inventive turn of mind into devising replacements. James Hargreaves devised a "jenny", which could spin up to 20 threads at the same time. This number was increased to 50. Richard Arkwright invented a machine for spinning using sets of rollers turning at gradually increasing speed, producing thread, strong enough to use for the warp, and adapted to working by water or animal power.
The new spinning machinery was destined to bring about a change which would transfer production of cotton from people's homes to specially constructed factories. The way that it affected the handloom weaver was that weft instead of cotton wool was given out by the Chapman, freeing the wives and elder children for work at the loom and young children were employed in winding the long hanks of weft onto small bobbins for use on the shuttle.
An act of 1774 had legalised the use of cloth manufactured entirely from cotton, and the first piece of calico, woven from cotton, was made in Blackburn in 1776. By 1778 there were several qualities of calico being woven in Blackburn which were referred to as "Superfine", "Common fine" and "Common Calico". This period was the golden age of the handloom weavers, and weekly wages of five pounds were not unknown.
With the start of the French wars in 1793, the continent was isolated from British trade, more particularly by Napoleon's Decrees of 1806 and 1807. Wages were cut by the masters, and there were failures, including a Mr.Watson of Preston. The weavers sent a petition to Parliament for a Minimum Wage, this was rejected. In January 1809, 918 Blackburn families were on relief, with doles of soup, oatmeal and potatoes. A fresh petition was sent to Parliament in 1811, and on its being turned down, the weavers resorted to machine breaking in the factories. This was the so called Luddite Riots.
At the end of the war in 1815, trade did not revive. The soldiers were discharged, and joined the labour market, often setting up as handloom weavers, and so lowering the weavers' wages.
In November 1816, a meeting of prominent townspeople was held in the Grammar School to start a subscription for relief of the poor. Conditions deteriorated all through the 1820s. In 1825, 65 banks failed, and the winter of 1825-26 brought the weavers close to starvation. A relief Committee was formed, which organised work and money payments to unemployed weavers. The road along the top of Revidge was constructed by the unemployed weavers at this time.
The Committee calculated that in March 1826, there were 10,600 weavers in or near Blackburn, 6,412 of whom were unemployed, with 2,200 on relief. In the Spring of 1826, the fury of the weavers reached such a point that they assembled on the outskirts of town on the 24th April, marched into the centre of Blackburn, and smashed all the power looms they could find. In February 1827 wages had fallen, so that the most an average weaver could earn was 4s. 0d. per week. A further round of wage cuts took place in January to May 1829.
The 1830s were a miserable time for the handloom weavers as more types of cloth were woven by power looms, and this caused a reduction in the handloom price for the same type of cloth; there was also a general downward trend over the decade and in 1837, wages were reduced 25% in a single year. There was widespread distress among the handloom weavers in Blackburn.
In the winter of 1841 to 1842 a Committee was formed to administer relief, and their report issued in December 1841 makes gloomy reading. 7,000 people in Blackburn were having to exist off 2s. 8d per week. The section of the Report on Lammack states : "Most of the cottages in this district are handloom weavers. They were, consequently, found generally employed, but receiving very scanty remuneration for their labour, and the scanty pittance exhibiting an almost weekly reduction. The majority of persons visited were found to be hardworking, clean, managing and patient under their many and great privations. Their principal food is oatmeal porridge, with either churned or sweet milk, and potatoes stewed with a little water, salt and an onion or two for dinner".
In the 1840s a pernicious system of increasing the length of the piece to be woven was prevalent. At Whalley, in February 1846, a weaver received 9d. for weaving a piece of cloth 42 yards in length.
Soup kitchens were set up to relieve the poor of Blackburn in the winter of 1847, but after this date trade improved. The number of cotton mills in Blackburn with power looms increased, and most plain sorts of cloth were produced on them in great quantities. The boom in the products of the power loom stimulated the demand for finer and patterned cloths which could only be produced on the handloom.
As the handloom manufacturers employed nearly the entire population of the villages, there was less chance of unscrupulous masters undercutting them. Locally, Tootal, Broadhurst and Lee employed weavers in Mellor Brook, Osbaldeston and Copster Green; Henry Smalley ones in Mellor; while Ribchester and Blackburn suburban areas served Horrocks, Jackson. and Co. The weavers of Shadsworth and Guide carried their pieces into Darwen. While the demand for all kinds of cloth was increasing, it was inevitable that more effort would be put into improvements in the power loom which would enable more complicated and patterned cloths to be woven.
In August 1857 an invention was reported at Witton which would enable a loom to produce spots, checks and satin stripes and "The cloth would be more even in texture and smoother in finish than that turned off by a handloom weaver". These inventions marked the short revival of handloom weaving. In October 1859, Tootal, Broadhurst and Lee closed down their three storey warehouse in Heaton Street, and many handloom cottages were put on the market. In June 1869, seven such cottages at Blackamoor; with weaving shops attached, and two at Ramsgreave all empty, were up for auction, but remained unsold.
The American Civil War from 1861-65 dealt all the cotton industry a severe blow. It almost decimated the handloom branch, cutting off the market in the rest of America as well as cotton supplies from the South. The United States tariff policy with a prohibitive duty on the goods prevented the recovery after the Civil War. Its rapid decline in Blackburn can be seen by tabling the number of firms dealing in handloom goods.
The few remaining handloom weavers were men who had deliberately turned their back on the new society, in order to preserve their independence. From the late 1880s onwards, they had to make and sell their own goods. In Blackburn, these were mainly towels, which were bartered in provision shops, or sold to local drapers. There was a better chance of making a success of the trade if it could be combined with some other domestic occupation. Richard Ratcliffe of Green Gown was Blackburn's last handloom weaver. He had worked on power looms at Roe Lee, but
in the 1890s purchased a cottage at Green Gown, and worked once more at the handloom. In 1906 he gave a demonstration of his craft on a float in aid of the Indian Famine Fund, and again in July, 1913 at Roe Lee, for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. He died in 1921, aged 88.
The first cotton based cloths to be produced in Lancashire were fustians, which were cloths with a linen warp and a cotton weft. Cotton was sometimes incorporated into linen cloths to produce smallwares, or 'cotton-linens,' which were often woven with coloured, striped or checked patterns. Fustians were a fairly coarse, cheap cloth.
Production was well established in Lancashire by the mid-seventeenth century and Blackburn had become a recognised centre for the industry. During the next century many handloom weavers turned from producing woollens and linens to fustians.
The materials were supplied by local merchants who bought linen from Liverpool and raw cotton from London. They would then sell the finished cloth in London and throughout the country.
Figures for the import of raw cotton suggest a steady growth of the fustian industry throughout the eighteenth century and a survey of Blackburn parish registers for the years 1704-7 show that almost half the bridegrooms were fustian weavers.