New Threads: Uncovering the Stories of England’s Past Weaving Industry
For centuries, cloth production was the main industry in and around Trowbridge. Many local people can still trace ancestors connected to the weaving trade, from its origins as a predominantly cottage industry, through to the appearance of the first mills, and on to large scale industrialisation.
Trowbridge’s weaving mills began to close down one by one in the 1960s and 1970s. Fortunately some enlightened mill workers saw the historical significance of their cloth samples, tools and machinery. Sometimes, with only a day’s warning of imminent closure, they would hastily fill their cars with items from the mill, thereby saving them from the skip and preserving this significant heritage for future generations.
The last working mill in Trowbridge, owned by the company Samuel Salter Ltd and situated in Home Mill, finally ceased to operate in 1982, thereby ending centuries of tradition. This had a long-lasting impact on the declining prosperity of the town and its community. However, in 1990 Trowbridge Museum opened in Home Mill, thus returning life to a building that had come to symbolise the end of a once dominant industry.
The museum displays tell the story of the West of England woollen cloth production and those who worked in the industry. Thanks to the rescue of industrial artefacts by those insightful former mill workers, these items now form a significant part of the Trowbridge Museum collection.
The museum was recently granted a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £1,172,500 to expand into the third floor of Home Mill. This space used to be filled with spinning mules preparing yarn for the cloth, but was unused since the Mill closed in 1982. The planned expansion will return life to the factory floor through imaginative displays exploring the uniqueness of the factory setting and the views of the many textile-related buildings that still exist. There will be weaving demonstrations, displays of the unique West of England textile machinery and collections, state of the art learning facilities, and an expanded temporary exhibition space. The library and research facility will become a focal point in the South West for the many fascinating stories associated with West of England woollen cloth production.
In preparation for the new displays, museum staff are conducting research into the textile collections, seeking to discover more about the weaving mills, their history, the cloth designers who worked in the mills, and their clients.
From the many sample books and lengths of cloth held in the museum’s collection, there emerges a strong visual story of woollen cloth production and the changing demands of fashion. The mills did not just produce traditional cloths like tweeds, tartans and checks. After the Second World War, production changed to include lighter and brighter cloth for the ever-expanding ladies’ fashion market. The patterns became far more experimental and the colours changed to satisfy the whims of the latest fashion. Thanks to a Creative Wiltshire grant¹ the museum has been able to purchase garments made with cloth from the Trowbridge Mills. A recent acquisition of a 1950s Gor-Ray dirndl-style skirt shows the bright and colourful ladies’ fashion of the time ². The skirt has a pastel blue ground cloth with a decorative supplementary warp border in a rainbow of colours. Through the records and samples in the museum’s collection, it is known that the skirt was created by the designer and subsequently Managing Director of Samuel Salter Ltd, Kenneth Ponting³. One of the sample books of his designs also shows a fantastic range of variations of the colour-and-weave technique, sometimes in the soft pastel colours of the time but also in more dramatic and bold hues.
It is exciting to locate relevant garments and to follow the progression from one particular design within a sample book that has been used by a designer to create a fashionable complete piece. The search is now focused on locating garments that were made as part of the iconic 1960s designer Mary Quant’s Ginger Group range. Mary Quant Ltd was an important client for the mills in Trowbridge and, together with a group of young English designers, she helped the British ‘rag trade’ industry flourish 4.
The museum is also fortunate to have sample books from George Charmbury, which span his five decades as a cloth designer at the Trowbridge mills between the 1930s and 1970s. The books give a fantastic overview of the changing developments in design, but also show how individuality could still be expressed within the designs. One of George’s signature designs involved the creation of small motifs, especially of animals, using a supplementary warp. This particular cloth is of a lightweight quality and would probably have been used for ladies’ garments.
The museum has an extensive oral history archive of the museum workers. Interviews recorded with George shortly before he died explain that he would design with a maximum of 16-shafts, and would always try to economize by producing several fabric patterns in one warp, just by changing the weft and ‘peg’ or lifting plan. The mill's imperative was time and money and they had to ensure that fabric was produced as efficiently as possible. Consequently, designers had little time to go into the details of a design or even to spend time weaving samples before it had to go into production. The only significant preparation was in yarn wraps, and colouring in the design on paper. The rest was down to an individual designer’s level of qualifications and skills.
The museum is extremely fortunate to continue to have contact with George Charmbury’s family and, together with them, George’s own words and the many objects he left to the museum, a detailed picture is starting to emerge of the life of a cloth designer in Britain’s once busy and thriving weaving industry. This story is just one of many that will form part of the new and expanded displays, and Trowbridge Museum is looking forward to welcoming visitors to discover more when it re-opens in May 2020.
Check the Museum website for more information about the planned activities and updates about the expansion project: www.trowbridgemuseum.co.uk
See Diary, p.48.
1. Creative Wiltshire is a Heritage Lottery Funded project running from 2014 to 2019 which aims to collect and celebrate the work of the county’s creative people. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Chippenham, is working with project partner Swindon Museum & Art Gallery and other participating museums, archives and local studies libraries to widen collections, fill gaps and ensure that creativity is better represented for the benefit of all to enjoy. See www.creativewiltshire.com for further information.
2. Gor-Ray was established in the 1920s and produced ladies’ skirts. It was one of the main clients of the mills in Trowbridge, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.
3. Kenneth Ponting later wrote a book about the weaving industry in the West of England: Ponting, K.G. (1957): A History of the West of England Cloth Industry. London: Macdonald.
4. An article in the Sunday Times from 1966 traced the rise in exports of garments between 1954 and 1965, stating that the ‘British rag-trade’ was in a ‘euphoric and bouncy mood’, and had reached a value of around £49.6 million by 1965. The article also pointed towards one of the major contributors: the young designer Mary Quant.
About the author: Hanne Dahl is the Collections and Exhibitions Officer at Trowbridge Museum where she has been researching the collection since 2015. Some of this research was included in the recent V&A Museum’s Mary Quant exhibition.
She is currently organising a study day on woollen cloth production in the west of England, to take place at Trowbridge Museum in 2020. Contact Hanne with any questions or for more information. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appears in edition #271 of the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.
The Journal is published on behalf of the Association of Guilds of Spinners Weavers and Dyers. It covers a wide range of textile subjects, including articles on historic textile techniques and cutting edge modern design.