Archive | February, 2016

Destroyed By The Humble Duvet.

23 Feb

When I was a child, if it was a cold night, my mum or dad would pop an extra blanket on the bed before tucking me in for the night. I’d lie there all nice and cosy, beneath a sheet  and 2 or 3 woollen blankets. This was before the days of central heating and the all-conquering duvet, formerly known as the “continental quilt”. Spare blankets for extra cold nights, were kept on top of the wardrobe. We were a traditional, working- class British family and we didn’t bother with, or weren’t even aware of , “new-fangled” items that were popular in the rest of Europe. This was before the UK joined the Common Market (EU) in the early 1970’s.  Our view, which we shared with  most of our friends and family, was that British goods and customs were obviously the best and that most things “foreign” were not to be trusted. We were proud to be British and not bothered about being thought of as insular.  Those blankets would have been made in Britain, part of a long tradition of wool- making that stretched right back to the Middle Ages. More likely than not, our blankets and other woollen products were made in Witney, Oxfordshire. Chris and I recently visited the town on a family trek  to the south. In  word association games, “Witney” and “blankets” were once inextricably linked. Even my mum, who unfortunately suffers from memory loss, said “blankets” as soon as I mentioned  Witney to her.

Until a few years ago I had barely been aware of the town, having lived most of my life in the north of England. Then it registered on my radar as the parliamentary constituency of the present Conservative prime Minister: David Cameron. Luckily he was busy in Brussels and London at the time of our visit so we were able to sneak in and out without facing the possibility of an awkward encounter. Today, Witney is mainly a dormitory town for the nearby city of Oxford, 12 miles to the east. It is also a bit of a tourist centre, being on the eastern fringes of the popular  Cotswolds. But, over the centuries, its main claim to fame has been as a wool town. This is proudly commemorated in numerous names and signs dotted about the centre. We stayed in a guest house next door to The Fleece public house. Just down the road was another hostelry called The Company of Weavers. In the churchyard some of the headstones bear images of shuttles and other symbols related to cloth making. A new shopping centre has been named The Woolgate Centre. The former Blanket Weavers Guild HQ is now a museum/heritage centre and is named Blanket House. This weaver’s guild was set up in the reign of Queen Anne in 1714. The presence of the  wool industry in the town actually dates as far back as 969 AD, in late Anglo-Saxon times. The industry really took off  with the arrival of Huguenot weavers from Flanders in the early 1700’s. This is an excellent example of the positive results of immigration for the British economy. I wonder what UKIP or the Daily Mail would have made of it? When Daniel Defoe, the famous writer and a pioneer tourist, passed through Witney in the mid 18th century, he noted that “you see a (spinning) wheel going in almost every door, the wool, and  yarn hanging up at every window.”

Like many of its neighbouring Cotswolds towns to the west, Witney built much of its wealth and reputation on the Wool industry. “Wolds” are gently rolling hills, and “cots” are sheep enclosures. So there was a plentiful supply of wool to supply a flourishing enterprise. Many of the attractive historical, stone buildings which help to make the Cotswolds so popular, were put up by wealthy, successful wool merchants. There was a lot of money to be made. As well as grand mansions, they paid for impressive churches, schools and even almshouses for the poor. This is evident in Witney as well as in its popular near neighbour, Burford.

We stayed on Church Green which is probably the most attractive part of the town centre. Nearby are the old market hall and butter cross. The green itself is a large expanse of open space headed by the Church of St Mary with its impressive spire. It can be seen for miles around. Back in the day though, Church Green wasn’t so peaceful. The whole green was filled with crowded sheep pens as farmers bought and sold their valuable livestock. The nearby River Windrush provided water for the washing, fulling and dying of the wool. Later the river provided power for the early spinning and weaving machines and was subsequently used to generate steam when the industrial revolution got into full swing. Part of the attraction of the Cotswolds to today’s tourist is that it is a throwback to a bygone, pre-industrial era. Bypassed by the main transport routes, most of it’s wool manufacturing towns fell into decline and economic stagnation in the 19th century. In fact it is difficult to spot a Victorian building in any of these places. This explains their  current popularity — they present a chocolate box version of Ye Olde England. However, Witney is the exception that proves the rule. It’s merchants and manufacturers successfully lobbied to have a rail link and it was already an important stop on the coaching routes. It never became a nostalgic backwater. Instead, it embraced industrialisation and the centre of  its cloth production moved from workers’ cottages to large mills. While trying to navigate ourselves out of the town one day we suddenly came across a tall, brick chimney– a remnant of one of those steam powered factories — Witney Mill. It looked incongruous in rural Oxfordshire, as this was a sight we associated more with the Pennine mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north. Until it closed in 1962, Witney Mill was the town’s last working blanket factory.

I have always been fascinated by the Textile Industry having taught countless children about it in my days as a History teacher. When my pupils complained about having to do their schoolwork, I reminded them what their life would have been like 150 to 200 years ago. Children worked long hours in factories and mills. Before that, when industry was centred on people’s homes ( cottage industry), every member of the family was expected to contribute. In the textile industry for instance, the boys would help their fathers do the carding ( combing of the raw wool), while the girls assisted their mothers with the spinning ( i.e. — turning the raw wool into thread or yarn, by stretching and twisting it.) Thus the name for an unmarried woman is still a “spinster”, although it might be deemed rude to actually call someone that today. One can imagine the girls and women telling stories as they worked — “spinning a yarn.” Meanwhile, the man of the house, when he wasn’t working in the fields, would busy himself on the loom, turning the thread or yarn into cloth. In Witney this was mainly turned into blankets. A shuttle containing the thread was passed quickly from side to side, weaving in and out of the vertical threads already attached to the loom. Thus today we get the term “shuttle service” for a bus or a train that goes back and forth between two close destinations. The weaver worked in the room which had the biggest window to maximise the light he needed to do the job. This is why old weavers’ cottages have their biggest windows upstairs, where the loom was operated. Examples of these can still be seen in and around Witney.

In the past, the fields around Witney would have witnessed a very strange sight — countless rows of blanket-drying racks. Blankets were not woven individually. Instead they came in “stockfuls” which equated to about 24 blankets in one piece. After weaving, the blanket cloth was washed and pounded to make it shrink and become firmer. This was done in  fulling mills which were situated along the river. A “stockful” was the amount of cloth that would fit into a fulling mill’s stocks. I hope you’re following all this! The cloth would obviously be wet when the fulling was complete so it had to be dried on the large racks in the fields. Afterall, no-one wants to be a “wet blanket”, do they? Gangs of men hauled the large lengths of soggy cloth up on to the wooden racks, attaching them by means of “tenterhooks.” It must have been a difficult and rather tense job, giving rise to the modern phrase — “being kept on tenter hooks.” The hooks made holes in the eventual blankets which, for a long time, were an accepted part of the product. On a fine day, it was possible to dry over a mile of blankets outside. Once it began to rain however, every available man had to be mobilised to get the cloth in quickly. In the 20th century, indoor tentering lines began to take over, but outdoor tenter racks could still be seen in the Witney fields up to the late 1950’s. It must have been a spectacular sight. I suppose the nearest we come to it today is rows and rows of shining solar panels.

So Witney embraced the industrial revolution and became the blanket capital of the UK. It exported a lot of its woollen products too. At the time of a devastating earthquake in Sicily in the mid 20th century, the Witney mills worked round the clock to provide warm blankets for the poor, homeless victims in Italy. Then it all finished. On 19th July, 2002, the looms fell silent for the final time. A thousand years of wool making in the town came to an end and the industry that had dominated the economic and social life of the town was consigned to the waste-bin of history! The Witney wool industry had successfully survived many great changes and challenges, moving out of the cottage into the factory; changing from muscle power to water and steam power and finally electricity. Yet it met its match in the early 1970’s with the rise and rise of the humble duvet!

This soft, flat bag filled with down, feathers, wool, silk or synthetic alternatives is very effective in keeping us warm at night and has made bed making much simpler. The bag is place in a cover and then just placed on the bed. Its insulating properties are very effective in keeping us warm. Duvets have been around since Viking times. They were originally developed in northern Norway. The name comes from the French for “down” The down of the Eider duck is particularly effective. From the 16th century it was popular with wealthier people in the west. In the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Princess and the Pea”, published in 1838, the royal lady lay down on 10 eider-down duvets!

Maybe ordinary British people avoided these “Continental Quilts” because they were strange and foreign. But eventually, in the later 20th century, the duvet overcame all resistance and the blanket was largely vanquished. Thus Witney’s wool industry is no longer a going concern. It now provides the raw materials for museums and heritage trails to amuse and interest tourists like myself. Having said that, just today, I was passing a bedding shop in my home town of Saltburn by the sea, on the North Yorkshire coast, and couldn’t help noticing a pack of pillows with the label: “Made in Witney”. So it seems that Witney has not quite vacated our bedrooms afterall. It has not totally  succumbed to its  seemingly all-conquering  foreign rival! And, considering its political connection with Mr Cameron, it is still the heartland of the “dyed in the wool Tory.” As a Labour supporter it pains me to acknowledge this, but I wouldn’t want to “pull the wool over your eyes” would I?