The Weaver’s House, Coventry: Not Just For Weavers
It took twelve medieval spinsters to keep a single weaver supplied with yarn, Annette told me. Annette is one of the volunteers at The Weaver’s House in Coventry. Although I have lived only half an hour away for thirty plus years, I had never heard of it until I visited with a group from summer school. Now I enjoy going back to their Open Days and Weaving Workshops whenever I can. Always learning something, or spotting something I hadn’t noticed before.
On a sunny afternoon, tea, cakes and a trip back to a medieval weaver’s life has a magnetic pull. Especially when it’s just a few minutes escape away from present-day hustle. The narrow house in Black Swan Terrace has been taken back almost to its 1455 skeleton, as the wattle and daub carcase testifies. In the 1540’s, this was the home of John Croke, narrow-loom weaver.
Opening straight off the street, the two-storey hall was the family hub and would have been fairly smoky – as the soot-marks on the ceiling show. Although a 17th century chimney was added, smoke from the original open fire meandered out through a hole in the roof. Now, with no glass in the windows, would you close the shutters and put up with the gloom, or leave them open and endure all weathers?
Everyone would have slept in the hall – except for the parents. Any young women in the family would have slept “on the shelf”. Literally, a shelf projecting at first floor level.
Painted cloths would hang on the hall walls and of the only other ground-floor room, the tiny parent’s chamber. The bed didn’t need to be very long, as their weak chests and constant coughs kept them sleeping sitting up. Fortunately, that left room for a ladder up to the solar – the working core of the house.
The solar is now almost completely occupied by a magnificent horizontal narrow loom, just as it would have been by the 1540’s. Built of oak, each section was lugged up the narrow ladder and built in situ. Ideal for tabby weaving, it would have been warped up for about 24 yards. That would be one man’s work for six weeks. Yes, only men were acknowledged as weavers in those days.
How does that compare to your projects? What about those twelve spinsters keeping him in yarn? Each spinning about 2.5lb of fleece in a 70-hour week, as well as looking after the kids, feeding the family, and growing the veg. Want to try?
Although you’re unlikely to get a turn on the magnificent beast in the solar, The Weavers’ Workshop runs sessions on Mondays and Thursdays when you can try out different weaving techniques for a small charge. I’ve seen table looms, peg looms and stick weaving producing all manner of bags, scarves and wall-hangings, to mention just a few.
The long back garden also attracted me: in medieval times, there would have been a pigsty as well as the family veg plot, and an area for herbs for home remedies and strewing herbs for the floor. The privy would have stood at the far end, although that’s long gone.
At John Croke’s house, part of this bigger-than-allotment-size garden has been set out for dye plants. Volunteers have supported this with well-documented natural dyeing and mordanting experiments backed up by woolly examples.
I saw weld and woad, madder and meadowsweet. Meadowsweet: now, there’s a useful plant - use the metre-high top growth for strewing and the three-year-old roots for red dye. Not that common weavers could have worn red in medieval Coventry. Their lives would have been much more drab.
The weather here wouldn’t have been suitable to produce plants for the “true blue” cloth Coventry was famous for, but I did spot a specimen plant at The Weaver’s House. If you want to find out what it is, why don’t you visit. Entry is free but donations are appreciated.
As well as the regular open days from April to September, you can arrange bespoke tours or workshops for groups.
The Weaver’s House,
121 Upper Spon Street,
For more information: Tel: 024 7625 7117
Leicesteshire Guild for Weavers Spinners and Dyers