All posts by maxinbalham

“Farming in Scotland”

In this post I share some illustrations and extracts from a rare eighteenth century book about flax and hemp cultivation, processing and weaving.

The book’s full title is: A Treatise concerning the Manner of Fallowing of Ground, Raising of Grass-Seeds, and Training of Lint and Hemp, for the increase and improvement of Linnen-Manufactories in Scotland, by the Honourable Society for Improving in the Knowledge of Agriculture. It was published in Edinburgh in 1724 and is attributed to William Mackintosh. As far as I know it is the earliest publication in English about the technicalites of linen weaving. There is a leather-boud copy in Senate House Library, University of London. The title “Farming in Scotland” is embossed on the spine.

The book contains seven foldout plates with illustrations of French, Dutch and ‘Estille’ Looms, and flax dressing tools. I include photographs of the loom illustrations along with extracts dealing with their dimensions. I also inlcude extracts from Chap. VII: Concerning Weaving of Linnen-Cloth in Imitation of the Foreign Linnen.

Photographs courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London.

previous arrowprevious arrow
Illustration of the French Loom, from "A Treatise..." 1724
Illustration of the French Loom, from "A Treatise..." 1724
Illustration of the French Loom, from "A Treatise..." 1724
next arrownext arrow

The French Loom

The Dimensions of a French Loom

A          A Streight Post six Foot high, five Inches square.
BB       Two Mortaisses for the cross Bars, eight Inches and an half from the top.
CC      Two Mortaisses for the cross Bars, seventeen Inches from the ground.
D         The Side four Foot five Inches long without the Tenour, and five Inches square.
E          The Nog, the Stay, the Breast -beam nine Inches high, six Inches and an half broad, and five Inches thick.
F          A streight Post six Foot high, and five Inches square.
G         A streight post betwixt the cross Bars three Foot three Inches high, and three Inches square.
H         A cross Bar four Foot five Inches long without the Tenour, three Inches thick, and four Inches from the Top.
I           Two crooked Pins to hold the Yarn-beam.
K          A Nog to raise the Yarn-beam, nine Inches high five Inches thick, and nine Inches broad, to make Use of when you will, shortening your Work.
LL       Four cross Bars five Foot four Inches long without the Tenour, and three Inches square.
M         A Yarn-beam six Foot and an half long, and eighteen Inches in Circumference.
N         A Breast-beam the same Length and fourteen Inches in Circumference
O         A Cloth-beam the same Length and eight Inches in Circumference.

previous arrowprevious arrow
Illustration of the 'Estille' Loom, from "A Treatise..." 1724
Illustration of the 'Estille' Loom, from "A Treatise..." 1724
next arrownext arrow

The Loom Called Estille

The Dimensions of the Loom call’d Estille.

A          The streight Post five foot high in all, eight inches broad and seven thick from the Ground to the side Post; Then three Inches thick to the Cap, and but one Inch thick to the top for the Cap to go in.
B          A Hole for the Breast-beam to run in.
CCC      Mortaisses for the flat Bars.
D          The Cap two Foot long, three Inches square, and a long Mortaise to go to and fro.
E          The side Post five foot long, seven inches broad, and eight thick.
F          The Nog to stay the Yarn-beam twelve Inches high, three Inches broad and two thick.
G          One Nog to stay the Yarn-beam for dressing, five Inches high, the like Breadth and Thickness.
HH       A thick Piece or two to raise the Yarn-beam, the same Breadth as the Side.
I           A Plank to slip in or out.
K          One Foot eighteen Inches high without the Tenour, eight Inches broad and seven thick.
L          A Box within the Loom.
M         One flat Bar five Foot long without the Tenour, nine Inches broad and three thick.
NN       Two flat Bars five Foot long without the Tenours six Inches broad and three thick.
0          One Yarn-beam six Foot two Inches long, and sixteen Inches in Circumference.
P          One Breast-beam the same Length twelve Inches in Circumference.
Q         One Bor-staff for the said Loom.

previous arrowprevious arrow
Illustration of the Dutch Loom, from "A Treatise..." 1724
Illustration of the Dutch Loom, from "A Treatise..." 1724
next arrownext arrow

The Dutch Loom

The Dimensions of a Dutch loom.

A          A streight Post five Foot high without the Tenour, eight Inches and an half broad, and three Inches and an half thick.
B          The Cap eight Inches and an half broad, two Foot nine Inches long, and three Inches and an half thick.
C          The Side three Foot and an half long, two Foot four or five Inches high at the End without the Foot, and eighteen Inches high at the Breast-beam without the Foot, three Inches and an half thick.
D          The Nog to hold the Breast-beam nine Inches high, four and an half broad.
E          The Hole in the Nog for the Breast-beam to turn in.
F          The Nog to stay the Yarn-beam six Inches high, and five sloaping upon the side.
G         A Board to draw out to lengthen the Dressing.
H         An Iron Hook for the Cloth-beam to run in.
II          Two Mortaisses for the flat Bars, seven Inches long and two Foot broad.
K          One Foot five Inches high without the Tenour eight Inches broad and three and an half thick.
L          An Iron Pin with a Screw for a Board of three or four Inches broad, and one Inch thick, to go from one Side to another.
MM     Two flat Bars five Foot long without the Tenours, fourteen Inches broad, and two Inches thick.
N         A Yarn-beam six Foot and a Quarter long, sixteen inches in Circumference.
O         A Breast-beam five Foot long without the Tenour, twelve Inches in Circumference.
P          A Cloth-beam five Foot long with the Wheel and two Gudgeons.

Extracts from Chap. VII: Concerning Weaving of Linnen-Cloth in Imitation of the Foreign Linnen

Whereas a good Artist can never make commendable Goods with improper Tools, he that will weave good Linnen Cloth must suit his Looms to the Nature of the Cloth which he designs to make: As for Instance, he that would make a strong substantial Holland, can never do it with one of our Estilles or Flanders Looms: Or on the other Hand, he that would make a Cambrick, Baptist or Lawn, or French Holland, shall never make them on Dutch Looms: Therefore in Holland they have one Sort of Looms; In France and Flanders, where they make your plain, or spotted or strip’d Cambricks they have another Sort of Looms, which they call Estilles: in Normandy and Brittany in France they use also a third Sort of Looms: All these employ the Industry in different Sorts of Linnen Cloth, and have fined and refined thereon for many Hundreds of Years… The Structure of the Looms is so essential to your Work, that you will be convinced thereof by one single Instance.

2dly, suppose you were to weave the Linnen Cloth (commonly called Holland) in one of the Looms of this Kingdom; The Beams are set so far asunder, and the Loom itself so slight, (which can’t be otherwise, if you design therein ever to weave Woollen) that you can never make your Cloth firm and substantial; For the nearness of the two Beams in the Dutch Looms, makes the Warp lighter and firmer, and the force of the Leath is much greater on your Weft and strikes it closer with one Blow, than you could possibly do with many Strokes of your Leath in your ommon Loom. Wooden yarn or Worsted, can by no means bear such rough and hard Usage: therefore it is impossible to use one and the same Loom to both the Materials with good Success. But further, your Dutch Looms are made with a much greater Quantity of Timber than your common Looms of the Country are; which makes them firm, and unapt to shake or yield with the Force of your Work: whereas your Looms are made slight on Purpose, for the soft and tender Nature of your Woollen Materials.

3dly, The Dutch looms, as I have already observed, are proper for Holland Cloth, but no way proper for your fine Baptists, your French Hollands, your Cambricks, &c. each of which is made-up of finer Yarn than Holland Cloth is; therefore the Estilles are found by Experience to work such fine Yarn better.

4thly, there is yet a third Sort of Loom which is used in Normandy and Brittany in France, which differs in its Structure from that of Holland, because the Cloths they make in those Provinces are never fine: Such Differences as there is in their Looms I will acquaint my Reader withal, and make him best comprehend by the help of the Models engraved at the end of this Book, and the Notes thereon, to which I refer him.

5thly, your next care is to make choice of your Reeds, to the Ends that the Teeth be even, and not too thick; therefore good Reed-makers ought to be encourag’d. It is impossible to make a good Cloth in an unequal and uneven Reed; Neither can the best Workmen in the World make a good Cloth without good Geers which are but badly made in this Kingdom: the Geers generally used in Ireland, are made of over-coarse Thread for weaving of extreme fine Yarn. Coarse Geers are stiff and over-labours your Yarn that runs between the Threads your Geers are made of: it is much better to have Geers that are too fine than two coarse; For the Cloth will last longer by so much as you save and keep your Yarn from breaking and consequently recommend your goods to the Buyers; And you will save your selves much Labour and Time, which would be taken up in Knoting your Warp at every Turn.

6thly, the way of dressing the Yarn in the Loom while it is weaving, is extreamly bad in Ireland; For they make a Stuff of Water and Meal, without Judgement, wherewith they stiffen their Warp; now in France and Flanders &c. they are extreamly curious in the making that Stuff wherewith they dress their Warp; I have therefore given them here the Way of making of it. They must take as much Wheat-flower, and mingle it with cold Water, as will make the Water as thick as Past; this they must boil in the Fire for two Hours at the least, taking Care all that Time to keep it stirring, that it does not burn: If it becomes too thick or too thin, they may help it by adding thereto more water or more flower as occasion is; but then they must (after such addition) boil it at least half an Hour: when it has boiled sufficiently, pour it into a clean Earthen Vessel; where you ought to let it stand till cold: When it is cold, you may make a Hole therein sufficient for you to put some part of your old four dressing Stuff, thereby to leaven the rest, which will set it a Working: When it has fermented for five or six Days, or more, then incorporate the whole together, and use it as you have Occasion. Note, that the older and staler your dressing Stuff is, it is so much the better; wherefore you would always to have a quantity before-hand of it.

8thly, your Weft ought to be always somewhat finer than your Warp. Let the Weaver hold his foot firmly and strongly on his Treadles whilst he weaves, and likewise be careful each Time he throws the Shuttle, that he draws the Thread straight and light to the Cloth he weaves before he strikes with the Leath, or removes his Feet: this will spare him a great deal of Yarn in his Weft, and make his Cloth firm and lasting. There’s but one Thing more that is requisite to be spoken of in reference to the weaving Part of fine Linnen, that at present occurs to my Memory; which is that each Weaver in this Kingdom, who designs to follow that way of Trade, ought to have a Cellar (or some such Place) under Ground to work in; for it is impossible for any man (were he the best Artist in the world) to weave fine Linnen Yarn, unless it be in a close Place; but that the Weather shall affect such Yarn, and cause it to break and snap every Moment.

A Craftsman’s Reminiscences

By Percy Beales

An unpublished account of the linen industry in North & South Lopham, Norfolk, written by Percy Beales in the1930’s, and here transcribed from the manuscript in the Rita & Percy Beales archive at the Crafts Study Centre, University of the Creative Arts, Farnham. Percy Beales was the husband of Rita Beales, weaver, and nephew of Stephen Beales, linen manufacturer in North Lopham until 1915.

A Craftsman’s Reminiscences 1

“When I was a boy the two villages of North and South Lopham, between Thetford and Diss in South Norfolk, was still a thriving hive of village industry. For many generations hand woven linen had been its staple trade, and of such quality was the linen that it found its way into many aristocratic homes in the shires and the metropolis, even into Buckingham Palace itself, for one of the master weavers proudly flaunted the royal crown on his van. In those days Messrs. T. & J. Buckenham 2 had their London headquarters in Berners St, now swallowed up in the encroaching enlargements made to their premises by the well-known firm of Bourne and Hollingsworth. Even the exclusive Travellers’ Club had its tablecloths made by the same weavers. I have one of these tablecloths brand new in my possession and still unhemmed. The “hemming” was always done by the women of the village, usually the wives of the weavers, and they had a special way of hemming only done by them in this village, but the secret of it I have now forgotten. The wives also did the winding of the “pirns” (“quills”) for the shuttles, and their husbands kept them busy (often enough) by the speed with which they wove their webs. At the time of my boyhood the hand-thrown shuttle had been abandoned for the fly-shuttle. The yarn previously spun by hand in the village from flax and hemp grown there too, and in the neighbourhood, was being obtained from Scotland and Ireland. A field belonging to an uncle of … (illegible) is to this day still called “The Hemplands”. But one of the old weavers flatly refused to use this “new-fangled contraption” and remained true to his beloved hand-shuttles which he made for himself from pieces of applewood sawn from redundant branches in his own garden and the old orchards there-a-bout. Nor was his speed any the less than his fellow “moderns”, he could hold his own with any of them. And he always declared, which was perfectly true, that only the old hand-shuttle could make the perfect web because of the intimate control of the tension of the yarn that the finger was able to give as it threw and caught the shuttle from side to side. For in the open-bottomed shuttle, the only type of shuttle that the genuine hand weaver of today should use or care to use, the middle finger touches and presses gently on the quill as the hand grips the shuttle. There was no artificial light in the village in those days beyond the small paraffin lamp and this could not be moved about in the loom as the weaver wanted light shed upon his harness to readjust it, or to find his ends when a breakage in the warp occurred. So he always had a hanging candlestick with a hooked end, easily hung at any particular spot in the loom as required. These were made specially for him by the village blacksmith. The one I have has a straight square shank but many were made more decoratively with a twisted corkscrew pattern shank. An old country doctor told me that he had many times used the hooked end of a loom candlestick to help the delivery of a child at a difficult birth, and assured me it was the most useful device for the job quite as good as the shining and sterilise surgical instrument of today, and he never had a mishap with it. But that was in the days when antiseptic and sterilisation were unknown terms to the cottages and the mention of them would have frightened them out of all proportion to their alleged benefits. After a few inches of the web had been woven the weaver could reach for his “weaver’s bone” from the little box at the side of the breast beam. Gripping it in his right hand he would press the knob end deeply into the woven web and vigorously stretch it from side to side. This also smoothed down all fluffy threads caused by the friction of the reed of the batten (or beater) as the shed was closed with the heddles, and the beater was pushed and pulled with great vigour to and fro’ to consolidate the weft yarn into the web as it left the shuttle, which it did forming an arc of yarn in the open shed. The size and tension of this arc was an individual trait of each weaver, each had his own size of arc and his own right tension for the type of linen he was weaving. It was the habit formed of long years of skill and experienced judgement for the arc never varied a hairsbreadth. The apprentices in those days served a term of seven years on the narrow looms which turned out plain coarse roller towelling for workhouses, hospitals and other public institutions, before they were promoted to the larger and more complicated looms. If the apprentice turned out to be an unsuitable recruit to the craft he was said to be “half-a-fool” and was forthwith encouraged to “go on the land”! For most of the master weavers were also farmers or belonged to farming families and the two crafts were closely interlinked. The weaver’s bone which I have in my possession is a mutton-bone worn as smooth as ivory, and there is a deep dent in the handle worn by the weaver’s thumb where he gripped it hard many times a day for a lifetime or more, for his father probably used the same bone before him and so on at infinitum. Mutton was a meat much in demand in the village for the weavers always used mutton fat as a dressing to his warp after it had been brushed over with flour-paste in which a lump of alum had been dissolved. The threads were all brushed the same way with a special brush made for the Weaver by local brush maker, and now a brush factory at Diss. After brushing on the paste it was fanned with a roughly made fan and just before it became dry the mutton fat was brushed on. The dressing of the warp had to be done to a nicety especially with the finer counts of yarn used many threads to the inch for the finer linen cloths and damasks. The mutton fat was “clagged” in a lump on to a wooden bat but hung on a handy hook on one of the front uprights of the loom. Each Weaver had to supply his own mutton fat. The bat I have in my possession still has some ancient mutton fat on it at least 50 years old, and considering its age it doesn’t smell too bad! The dressing given to the warp created a peculiar particular odour in the weaving shop, not at all unpleasant but quite distinctive; and even after scouring and bleaching the finished linen still retained a (…) trace of this odour, and it was as distinctive though less aggressive than the well-known odour of genuine Harris tweed in brackets (though this is mainly now put on out of a bottle).

As the long village street was composed of cottages, mostly Norfolk-thatched when I was a boy, each with a lean-to weaving shop tacked on to the sidewall, the thudding of the loom-beaters and this unique odour mingled with that of the herbs and flowers in the cottage gardens and the cattle and hay of the intervening fields and farmsteads could be heard and smelt the whole length of the village as the pedestrians walked along the raised grassy bank and cinder path that skirted the cottage gardens and the highway. The weaving sheds, though long silent for many years, may still be seen, tacked-on as it were, to the cottages to this day; but they are now used as garden store sheds or for coal and wood and tools, or as a scullery to the cottage kitchen or sitting room. Most of the simpler types of weaving were done at home by the weavers at their own cottage loom-shed alongside the kitchen, within easy call of the wife when more quills were required. He worked on ‘piece-work’ and was paid for each web as it was delivered. The loom might belong to him or be loaned to him by the ‘master’, this was all according to arrangement. The yarn was, of course, supplied by the ‘master’. The weaver preparing to weave a new web would receive so many hanks of warp yarn and weft yarn requisite to the length and width of web required, usually a 30 yard 90 yard length when finished. He would make his warp at the warping mill situated in the main weaving shop, where the master’s largest and most complicated looms were situated. These were usually very wide looms, or Jacquards mostly of very early design, weaving damask tablecloths of ornate pattern. Weavers would help each other to do the warping. The weavers whose warp it was would control the threads coming from the bobbin-rack through the ”brist” 3 which was the moving frame of warp threads so threaded through its eyes and slits as to lay the threads evenly on the mill and so arranged that the “cross” could be taken at the close of each double revolution of the mill. The helper would turn the handle of the winch which revolved the mill to and fro by means of a broad leather band. The bobbin rack was a very important item in this setup. Linen threads, even the finest, are very strong and would soon wear a deep groove if running swiftly over a wood or even metal edge. A large number of bobbins had to be used for the finer warps. And so directly in front of each bobbin in the rack was the glass top of a beer-bottle broken off and filed smooth, and assembled tightly in position in a wooden frame made for the purpose. These glass bottle-top frames were a work of ingenious art and were a perfect solution of the friction problem of the linen yarn. This old hand-blown glass was just the right and almost everlasting medium required to stand all the heat and friction of the threads during the warping process. But they sometimes got broken by careless use and had to be replaced. It can well be realised then that a bottle of beer had a double significance for a weaver. It not only slaked his thirst, which was too often a mighty one and well-nigh unslakable to a perfectly finished extent; but it also supplied a spare bottle top for emergency use should one have to be replaced when halfway through a warp. And this latter use tended to excuse him from “having a drop taken”, for the weavers were hard drinkers often to their undoing. The less sober ones formed the habit of “going on the booze” between their webs, and not taking a new warp on until necessity forced them to the task. And they would as a rule remain completely sober so long as the weaving lasted. And so it came about that local pedestrian walking through the village street would…” 4


  1. PB’s pencil handwriting is sometimes difficult to decipher. The word I have interpreted as “Craftsman’s” is my best guess. Above the title PB has written the word “Countryman.” The significance of this is uncertain, but perhaps he intended the piece as an article for the Countryman magazine, founded in 1927.
  2. T.W. & J. Buckenham. See my post Lopham Linen
  3. The device referred to here as a “brist” is more commonly called a ‘heck’ or ‘heck block’.
  4. The manuscript ends mid-sentence and presumbly continued on a further page now lost.

Lopham Looms: the Bankfield Loom

This post is about the handloom from North Lopham, Norfolk, now in the collection of Bankfield Museum in Halifax. This venerable old loom has been in storage since it was acquired in 1925 following the closure of T.W. & J. Buckenham, manufacturer of the finest linen in England. I am grateful to the curators for facilitating my visit to take photographs and measurements in May 2023.

previous arrowprevious arrow
Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
next arrownext arrow

The village of North Lopham in Norflok was the last place in England where linen was manufactured on handlooms. The knowledge and skills needed to bring out the inherent beauty of this notoriously difficult material had evolved over centuries and been handed down from generation to generation. (See this post for more about Lopham Linen.) When production ceased, and the old weavers died, much of this knowledge died with them. The equipment that they used, however, can provide some insights into their methods.

When T.W. & J. Buckenham, the last of the Lopham linen manufacturers, closed in 1925, some of the looms were acquired by museums. The only one I have been able to trace went to Bankfield Museum (part of Calderdale Museums) in Halifax. In May 2023 I visited this magnificent loom in the storage facility where it has languished for most of the last century. It is the biggest loom I have ever seen, with some unique and fascinating characteristics.

The loom, which I refer to as the Bankfield loom, appears never to have been catalogued or displayed to the public. The museum curators once descibed it as “basically in 18th century type of loom with twenty sets of heddles selected and lifted by ‘witch’ engine, worked by a single treadle.”1 It was described by Percy Beales as “the most interesting of all” the Lopham looms (see this post for more about Percy Beales).

Photograph of the Bankfield Loom from Michael Friend Serpell (1980), "A History of the Lophams".

The photograph above (hereafter referred to as ‘the museum photograph’) is included in Michael Serpell’s book A History of the Lophams with the caption: “18th century hand-loom from North Lopham Limes. Now at Bankfield Museum, Halifax. By courtesy of the Calderdale Museums Service”.2 In the photograph the loom appears to be in full working order, suggesting it was photographed in North Lopham or re-assembled and set up in Halifax before being put into storage.

Any further information must be gleaned from a study of the loom itself. I have arranged my photographs to focus on the following:

  1. The construction of the loom’s timber frame, with overall dimensions.
  2. The batten assembly, including the fly-shuttle arrangement,
  3. the cloth beam and warp beam, with brake mechanisms.
  4. the ‘witch engine’ shedding device, harness and heddles.
previous arrowprevious arrow
Detail, top of corner post.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, base of corner post.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, junction of corner post and breast beam.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
next arrownext arrow

Loom Frame and overall dimensions

The loom frame has a straight-forward ‘four-post’ configuration, with a full-height post at each corner. This type of loom was often referred to as the ‘Old English Loom’, although there is nothing peculiarly English about it and looms of this type were found all over Europe.3 These looms are very sturdy, able to withstand the high tension and heavy beating needed for linen weaving. They tend to be deep, with a large distance between the warp beam and the heddles, with open sides giving easy access to the warp for the application of a starch dressing.

The timber for the frame appears to be pine. The unusually wide frame is 272cm (8′ 11″ inches) wide and 172cm (5′ 8″) deep, measured from the outsides of the corner posts, which are about 181cm (5′ 11″) tall.

The corner posts are about 15cm (6″) deep and 10cm (4″) wide. The bases are irregular and appear to have rotted. Damp conditions are beneficial to linen weaving, and old linen looms were often set into earthen floors and therefore prone to rot.

The main joints are mortise and tenons, with a double tenon joining the breast beam to the corner posts. Some of these joints are strengthened with quare-headed iron bolts.

previous arrowprevious arrow
Detail showing batten with swords detached from loom frame.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail of forked sword.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, junction of sword and reed cap.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, fly-shuttle box.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, fly-shuttle picker.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, fly-shuttle box.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, picking stick.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
next arrownext arrow

Batten and fly-shuttle assembly

The heavy batten (or lathe, or lay) assembly has been detached and no longer swings. It is unusual in having forked ‘swords’ each made from three pieces of timber. In the old museum photograph it can be seen hanging from supplementary beams whose ends sit on the cross rail running across the loom above the weaver’s head. It is curious that the swords do not straddle the top of the loom’s side frame as I would expect, suggesting that perhaps it had once belonged to a slightly narrower loom.

The loom is fitted with a fly-shuttle assembly. The pickers for propelling the shuttle along the race are made from three pieces of thick leather sliding along an iron rod (very similar to the pickers on one of the damask looms in the Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn). The cords tying the pickers to the batten and the picking stick have perished, and the picking stick, once held in the weaver’s hand, is detached and lies among other odds and ends in a box on the floor.

previous arrowprevious arrow
Detail, cloth beam ratchet.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, cloth beam.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, warp beam.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, warp beam.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, warp beam.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
next arrownext arrow

Cloth beam & warp beam

The cloth beam is about 17cm (7″) in diameter, fitted with an iron ratchet brake at the right-hand end. The ratchet wheel is about 29cm (12″) in diameter and has roughly 100 teeth. The beam has an iron axle whch rests in mortises in the loom frame.

The warp beam is of similar dimensions to the cloth beam, and also has an iron axle. There is a slot running the length of the beam to accept a thrum stick at the end of the warp. The axle at one end of the beam turns in a wooden bearer which can be raised or lowered to adjust the height of the beam. The axle at the other end rests in an iron bearer which can also be adjusted vertically. At this end the beam is fitted with a ratchet brake 36cm in diameter with 44 teeth. A label attached to the ratchet wheel indicates it was made by Garside & Derring, Brassfounders of Halifax, suggesting it was fitted after removal from Lopham, perhaps as a replacement for a broken one. The ratchet wheel was braked with a pawl lever on the under-side. A broken cord is tied to the end of the pawl, alothough it is not clear how this was operated.

It is not immediately obvious how the warp was advanced. The museum photograph shows a long wooden lever pivoted on the upper front cross rail. The lever’s handle is above the weavers head to the left, and its other end is attached to a cord running down to a metal lever near the foot of the right front-post. It is likely that this was part of a ratchet mechanism which turned the cloth beam when the handle over the weavers head was pulled down. A similar ratchet system exists on the linen looms in Lisburn and the Ulster Folk Museum, though without the long wooden lever. The Bankfield loom is much wider, making it difficult for a weaver to lean down to reach the lower lever, hence the need for the second overhead lever.

previous arrowprevious arrow
Detail, witch engine.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, witch engine.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, coupers.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, coupers.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
Detail, heddle sticks.Linen loom from North Lopham, Norfolk (Courtesy of Bankfield Museum, Halifax)
next arrownext arrow

Witch engine and harness

Sitting on top of the loom in the centre is a ‘witch engine’ operating 20 heddle shafts. A witch engine is similar to a dobby mechanism (according to some authorites a witch is a just a different name for a dobby). Both are mechanisms for selecting and lifting a number of shafts, using a single treadle. According to John Tovey’s (1965) The Technique of Weaving: “The difference between the dobby and the witch lies in the selection mechanism. The dobby has large square pegs set in large holes, and the pegs push the hooks off the lifting knife, the witch has fine straight pegs like match sticks and the hooks are pushed onto the lifting knife.” 4 (I am not familiar with the detailed working of dobby or witch mechanisms, and would love to hear from anyone who can shed further light on this.)

The frame of the witch engine appears to be hardwood of a finer construction than the rest of the loom, and is almost certainly a later addition. Some components, including the ‘lags’ holding the pegs, are missing.

The hooks of the witch engine are still tied to 20 ‘coupers’ immediately below it. The coupers are pivoted at the left-hand end. The cords which would have connected the coupers to the heddle shafts have been cut, but the museum photograph shows how each shaft was tied at four points along the length.

The intricately tied heddle shafts now lie in a heap between the batten and the cloth beam.


I am unsure what kind of linen was woven on this loom with its twenty shafts. Norfolk Museums hold a collection of Lopham linen (see my post), consisting of fine damask and huckaback towelling. The damask was made on a Jacquard loom, while even the most complicated of the huckaback can be made on a loom with only five shafts. The Thomas Jackson manuscript, written in Yorkshire in the eighteenth century, contains drafts for fancy linen twills needing 16 shafts, while the Ralph Watson manuscript c.1800 includes drafts for ‘damask diaper’ needing 15, 20, 25 or 30 shafts. The Bankfield loom could have been used for cloth like this, but I have seen no evidence that such cloth was produced by T.W. & J. Buckenham.


  1. Michael Friend Serpell (1980): A History of the Lophams. p.198
  2. Ibid., 112.
  3. see for example Luther Hooper (1910) Handloom Weaving Plain & Ornamental. p. 88.
  4. John Tovey (1965) The Techniques of Weaving. p.15-16.

From Lopham with Love.

Postcard sent by Percy Beales to Rita Rabone c.1913

Two postcards in the Rita & Percy Beales Archive at the Crafts Study Centre show the village of North Lopham during the last days of ‘Lopham Linen’ in the second or third decade of the twentieth century. 1

The horse chestnuts are in flower so it must be May, but the year is uncertain, perhaps 1913 or 1914. The photographs, by Archie Donald Maling, were taken a few yards apart, looking in opposite directions along the same lane. Made into postcards, they were then sent by the young Percy Beales to Rita Rabone. Rita and Percy married in 1917. Rita Beales would later become one of the most accomplished linen weavers in England, with Percy as a kind of manager and advocate for the craft. 2

On the first postcard Percy wrote the following message:

The house in the centre is the one where you are to stay. The girl with the basket is my uncle Stephen’s maid standing just near his gate. The girl next to the child with the parasol is my Aunt Annie’s washer-woman’s daughter. The child with the parasol belongs to the man who hires out traction-engines and mowing machines, which I don’t suppose however that we shall require. The white blotch in the sky I take to be the sun which hasn’t quite managed to come out yet for I have not yet seen it.

Percy Beales was descended from the two main linen manufacturing families of North & South Lopham. His uncle was the linen manufacturer Stephen Beales, whose business closed on his death in 1915. His grandmother was a Buckenham. The once famous firm of T.W & J. Buckenham made the finest linen in England, had the Royal Warrant as suppliers of Diaper and Huckaback Table Cloths to Her Majesty, and survived until 1925 as the last commercial handweavers of linen in the country. 3

Linen had probably been woven in North & South Lopham for centuries. On 15th February 1839 John Mitchell, a Commisioner for the Parliamentary Report on the Condition of the Handloom Weavers, met some of the Lopham weavers in the ‘Bell’ public house. In his report he described North Lopham as “one green oasis in the vast desert of discontent.” There were then fifty weavers in the Lopham parishes, with nine masters, doing ‘middling business’ making shirting, sheeting and table linen. The material was hemp, grown and hand-spun locally, some of it very fine, mainly across the Waveney valley in Suffolk. 4

Postcard sent by Percy Beales to Rita Rabone c.1913

The message on Percy’s second postcard to Rita reads as follows:

“The house on the right is my Uncle Stephen’s. The woman who lives in a farmhouse opposite has eleven children, the oldest of which is thirteen. I suspect most of the children in this picture belong to her. I met an old lady on Sunday who had 15; all grown up and doing well. In the distance you can see Jack Shaw (with the pony that will come to meet you) talking to the Blacksmith. The man in his shirtsleeves is one of my Uncle’s old weavers just going home to a dinner of shrimps.”

Jack Shaw had worked for both the Buckenhams and the Beales, first as a weaver and then as a driver of horse drawn vans. He lived until 1949 and was described in a letter from Lopham resident Mary Gooderham to Eric Pursehouse: “I remember John Shaw – a Weaver and a great personality, who entered the employ of Mr. Buckenham as a boy and continued with him all his life, becoming the driver of a linen van and accompanying Mr Buckenham on his journeys which often took them away for three months. John knew his way about London and the Home Counties and went to Buckingham Palace quite frequently – but stayed outside with the van, while Mr B went inside.” 5

Detail of postcard sent by Percy Beales to Rita Rabone c.1913

The waist-coated weaver on his way home to his dinner of shrimps might be Pipman Keeble or Tip Ludbrooke. Michael Friend Serpell records that they took two of Stephen Beales old looms up to Lancashire after his death, perhaps to teach their craft, but I have no idea what became of them.

previous arrowprevious arrow
Photograph of Rita Rabone and Percy Beales, c.1916.
Percy & Rita Beales spinning at the Limes, North Lopham c.1930's
next arrownext arrow

Percy’s references to his uncle in these postcards would suggest they were written before Stephen died in 1915. Percy and Rita met while she was studying at the Royal Academy of Music between 1909 and 1913. He had just returned from studying piano in Leipzig. So the postcards must date from the period 1909-1915, probably nearer 1915, presumably on a visit to Percy’s Aunt and Uncle. Percy and Rita lived in Gloucestershire after they were married, but returned to Norfolk when The Limes – the big house in North Lopham owned by the Buckenham family – came up for sale in 1926.

For more about Lopham Linen see my post about the collection of Lopham linen in Norfolk Museums.


  1. The papers of Rita & Percy Beales, courtesy of the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham.
  2. Biographical details from: Patricia Baines (1989) A Linen Legacy: Rita Beales 1889-1987
  3. 1. For more information about the linen industry in the Lophams, see: Michael Friend Serpell (1980): A History of the Lophams, and: Eric Pursehouse (1966) Waveney Valley Studies.
  4. Pursehouse, p.187.
  5. Pursehouse, p.189.

Fly-Shuttle Springs: the Stick, the Rope and the Coil

Last year I converted my loom into a ‘spring-loom’ by building a new fly-shuttle mechanism. Before starting I spent some time looking at looms in museums and old photographs. I found there to be three alternative ways of making the springs, which I call the stick, the rope and the coil.

Springs or no springs

Old looms fitted with fly-shuttle mechanisms often had some kind of spring to assist in throwing and catching the shuttle – hence the term ‘spring-loom’. But not all fly-shuttle looms had springs. Both Timmy Feather’s loom in Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley, and the cast-iron ‘dandy loom’ in Helmshore Mills Textile Museum show no signs of ever having had springs. And the illustration of a fly-shuttle in Luther Hooper’s Hand-Loom Weaving Plain & Ornamental (1910) also shows fly-shuttle mechanism without a spring (see below).

previous arrowprevious arrow
Detail of illustration from Luther Hooper (1910) "Hand-Loom Weaving Plain & Ornamental"
Detail of illustration from Luther Hooper (1910) "Hand-Loom Weaving Plain & Ornamental"
Photograph of Timmy Feather's Loom, showing the end of the shuttle race and box, without any spring mechanism. Courtesy of Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley.
next arrownext arrow

The ‘stick’ spring

Where springs are fitted, they seem to fall into one of three types. The first and simplest of these uses slender branches of willow or similarly flexible wood with one end rigidly fixed to the swords of the lay. Some adjustment can be made by varying the length of the cord to the picker, or by finding a new stick! Springs of this type are found on old Irish looms for weaving linen damask, such as those in Lisburn Museum and Ulster Folk & Transport Museum. I assume these rather gentle springs are well suited to the light shuttles used on these looms.

previous arrowprevious arrow
'Stick' type fly-shuttle springs on a linen loom in Ballyduggan Weavers Cottage.
'Stick' type fly-shuttle springs on a linen loom in Ballyduggan Weavers Cottage.
next arrownext arrow

The ‘rope’ spring

The second type of spring, which I call the ‘rope’ type, uses a rigid stick whose upper end is caught between two twisted cords or ropes running from the front posts of the loom to the back. The woollen loom in the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum uses this kind of spring, as do some of the looms in old photographs from Newtownards, NI. This type of spring can be adjusted by adding more or less twist to the rope. These springs are potentially stronger and better suited to the heavier shuttles used for weaving wool.

'Rope' type fly-shuttle springs on a wool loom in Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.
The ‘coil’ spring

The third kind of spring uses a coil spring attached to a lever. This seems to me a less elegant solution, with more components, and reliant on the availability of industrially manufactured coil springs. The loom in the Gigg Mill Weaving Shed in Nailsworth, and the small sampling loom in Lisburn Museum are both fitted with this type of mechanism.

previous arrowprevious arrow
'Lever' type fly-shuttle springs on a loom in Gigg Mill Weaving Shed, Nailsworth.
'Lever' type fly-shuttle springs on a loom in the Irish Linen Centre, Lisburn.
next arrownext arrow
Invention of the fly-shuttle

It is generally agreed that the “flying-shuttle” was invented in 1733 by John Kay, a reed-maker from Bury in Lancashire. The term “flying-shuttle” is a bit misleading. John Kay’s patent, Number 542, descibed it as a “wheeled shuttle”, and it was only much later that it became known as the “fly-shuttle” and still later the “flying-shuttle”. The shuttle itself is only one component in an assembly of parts which propels the shuttle across the loom when the weaver pulls a cord. It enabled a single weaver to make the wider cloths that would previously have needed two weavers seated side by side, while also significantly speeding up the weaving process. There appears to be no mention of a spring of any type in Kay’s original patent.

The Weaver’s Guide

Late last year I finally made it to the North Yorkshire County Records Office to look at the manuscript known as The Weaver’s Guide: Linen Designs by Ralph Watson of Aiskew. In this post I share some photographs of the manuscript, along with some background about Ralph Watson and my speculations on the techniques he may have used. I have written before about how I first learnt about the manuscript, back in 2020, and about some cloth I made from one of Ralph Watson’s drafts in 2021 & 2022.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow
The manuscript

I arrived for my appointment at the County Records Office in North Allerton to find The Weaver’s Guide waiting on a cushion in the middle of a big grey table. The manuscript is about twelve inches high and eight inches wide, bound in brown embossed leather, with one hundred and fifty pages. On the first page is a short introduction inviting potential customers to select patterns to be woven on commission. Most of the other pages are taken up with hand-drawn geometric designs for a type of linen cloth known as damask diaper. The gridded designs are ruled in red ink with black cross-hatching, and each has a title inscribed underneath: The Milk Maid’s Glory, The True Lovers’ Knot, Lady Denbigh’s Fancy, Prince Ferdinand’s Breakfast Cloth, The Deep Wounds of Calder. The last few pages include profile drafts of the diaper patterns and some other weaver’s drafts, including the ‘happings’ that kept me busy for most of 2021.


previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

I had acquired black & white digital scans of the manuscript a couple of years ago. I knew it well and wasn’t sure what I would learn from seeing the real thing. It was finer than I had expected, and more alive. The patterns seemed to change as I shifted my viewpoint, just as they would as woven tablecloths. It also occurred to me that the patterns are drawn at roughly one-to-one scale, the same size as the patterns in the woven cloths which they represent. For example, the smallest unit in the pattern called The True Lovers Knot is about 1.7mm square. In the woven cloth this would correspond to five ends and picks, equivalent to a sett of about 75 ends per inch – a suitable sett for linen yarn of about 30/1.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

The manuscript was written by Ralph Watson, a linen weaver from the village of Aiskew, near Bedale, at the northern end of the Vale of York, between the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors. The manuscript is described by the County Records Office as dating from the eighteenth century. It was probably compiled over several years, and before 1805, when Watson’s son-in-law Francis Lodge took over the business. We know from Watson’s headstone in the churchyard of St. Gregory’s in Bedale that he died in 1812 at the age of 64. According to advertisments in the York Herald in 1801 and 1803 he manufactured linen damasks, diapers and huckabacks, as well as plain cloth and sheeting, up to two and a half yards wide. He had agents in York, Doncaster, Sheffield, Lancaster and Chester.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

We know from Watson’s introduction that his designs are for a type of cloth known as damask diaper: “… if any please to Employ me either in Dammask’s or Diapers they may be sure to have them done in the Best Manner any breadth which they chouse, (but the following figures is all for Diapers).”

Damask diaper is made up from alternating blocks of weft-faced and warp-faced twills. Weavers’ drafts at the back of the manuscript indicate that Watson used a five-end satin twill. The cloth can be woven using different colours for warp and weft, creating blocks of contrasting colour where the warp or weft predominates. More often, damask diaper was woven with the same yarn, bleached or unbleached, for both warp and weft. The warp-faced and weft-faced blocks catch the light differently producing a more subtle visual effect.

Unlike damask woven on a Jacquard loom or the earlier draw-loom, both of which control individual threads and can therefore make intricate designs with curves and diagonals, damask diaper is made on a shaft loom and is limited to designs made up of stepped rectilinear blocks. Most of Watson’s designs are based on four different ‘divisions’, although some have six divisions.

As far as I know there were two ways of making damask diaper in Watson’s time. The first used a loom with two harnesses (groups of shafts, or leaves), sometimes called a shaft draw loom. This has a front harness with long-eyed heddles operated by treadles, and a back harness operated by overhead pull-cords. The front harness forms the satin twill ground weave, and the back harness forms the block pattern. John Duncan includes a description of this apparatus in his Practical and Descriptive Essays on the Art of Weaving (1808). The advantage of this ingenious arrangement is that it can be operated without assistance or complicated mechanisms. However, I am sure this was not the technique used by Watson. Towards the back of the manuscript Watson includes drawings of lifting plans that are incompatible with the use of a double harness. (1)

The alternative to this is a loom with lots of shafts – five for each division of the pattern. Most of Watson’s designs have four divisions and would therefore need twenty shafts. It is generally considered impractical to operate more than a dozen shafts with treadles. By Watson’s time a variety of automatic mechanisms for lifting shafts had been invented. For example, John Murphy’s Treatise on the Art of Weaving (1827) describes an automatic lifting device called a ‘parrot’. I think it likely that Watson had one or more looms fitted with a ‘witch’ engine, an early version of the ‘dobby’. Bradford Industrial Museum has an old loom with a witch engine, and an eighteenth century loom with a witch engine was given to Bankfield Museum in Halifax when the Norfolk linen weaving firm of Buckenham’s closed down in the 1920’s. Both the witch and dobby engines sit on top of the loom. The selection of shafts for lifting is made by pegs called ‘lags’ set into a set of wooden bars linked in a continuous chain.




Someone has inserted a slip of paper between two of the manuscript’s pages, like a bookmark. The slip is a copy of an invoice, payable to Francis Lodge, Damask Diaper and Linen Weaver, Aiskew, near Bedale, Yorkshire. Lodge was Watson’s son-in-law and had taken over his business in 1805. The invoice is for a total of £2-2-11, for boiling 17 pounds of yarn, weaving 12 yards of damask at 2 shillings and 3d per yard, bleaching the same at 8d per yard, and supplying 20 cuts of yarn “to make out the above”. The invoice suggests that the customer was supplying the yarn, which may have been home-spun. It also indicates that the cloth was bleached after weaving, rather than the yarn being bleached first.

Lopham Linen

(December 2022)

This is a post about my trip in July to view the collection of Lopham linen in Norfolk Museums, with photographs and descriptions of rare examples of handwoven huckaback cloth made around 1900.

I am grateful to Ruth Battersby Tooke, senior curator of Costume and Textiles at Norfolk Museums Service, and Rachel Kidd, curator at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse, for welcoming me and unearthing items from storage.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

Linen was manufactured on handlooms in the Norfolk villages of North and South Lopham for centuries. The firm of T. W. & J Buckenham of North Lopham survived into the 20th century by focusing on high quality linen for prestigious clients including the Royal Household, having received the Royal Warrant as suppliers of Diaper and Huckaback Table Cloths to Her Majesty in 1837. Perhaps most famous for their damask tablecloths woven on Jacquard looms, they also made fine sheeting on very wide looms, and huckaback towels. Some of this ‘Lopham linen’ was acquired by Norfolk Museums when Buckenhams finally closed in 1925. (1)

I had first read about Lopham linen in Nesta Evans’ The East Anglian Linen Industry (Rural Industry and Local Economy 1500-1850), whilst trying to establish a context for the manuscripts written by the 18th century Yorkshire weavers Ralph Watson and Thomas Jackson. A history of linen manufacture in Yorkshire has yet to be written, but Evan’s book on East Anglia sheds much light on an industry that once flourished across Britain. Norfolk Museum’s collection of Lopham linen provides an opportunity to study examples of traditional cloth made using methods that had changed little for hundreds of years. The Jackson and Watson manuscripts both include drafts for patterned huckabacks, and I knew that the Norfolk collection included some similarly elaborate huckaback towels made for Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s residence on the Isle of Wight.

The Museum of Norfolk Life occupies the eighteenth century Workhouse buildings at Gressenhall, near Dereham. Among the collection is a photograph of the weaver Albert Tyler (above), sitting behind one of the North Lopham looms, taken around 1900. Gressenhall also has a small painting from the early 1800’s, depicting one of the carts used by linen manufacturer William Buckenham to transport and advertise his wares. The firm of T.W. & J. Buckenhams was formed around 1800 when William, of South Lopham, joined forces with his brother Thomas of North Lopham. Also in the collection at Gressenhall is a fine Jacquard-woven damask tablecloth, with a central chequerboard pattern and the famous Lopham ‘spider-web’ motif in the corners.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

Most of the Norfolk collection of Lopham linen is stored at Norfolk Museums Service in Norwich. My study visit was focused on the huckaback towels, which l describe below in order of their museum catalogue numbers. (2)

1970.553.1 (above) is a piece of pale huckback towelling, apparently from 1906. All of the huckabacks are labelled as unbleached and vary considerably in colour, this being the lightest. The term ‘linen’ once referred to cloth made from either flax or hemp, the latter being easier to grow and much used for domestic production, particularly for coarser cloth, until the middle of the 19th century. I assume the yarn for these Lopham linens is all flax, although I can’t be certain. Unbleached flaxen yarn varies somewhat in colour, and it was once common practice to bleach cloth, rather than yarn, through a lengthy process of exposure to sunlight and water. Partly bleached or not, this cloth appears to have been washed and ironed.

The weave structure is a standard 5-end huckaback, with one repeat every 10 ends and picks (see my weavers draft amongst the images above). One side of the cloth has weft-wise floats, each passing over 5 warp-ends, while the other side has warp-wise floats, each passing over 5 weft threads (picks). My analysis based on the close-up photographs taken by Ruth Battersby-Took estimates that the sett is about 45 ends per inch and about 33 picks per inch.

A note on the box in which 1970.553.1 was stored states the following: “Huckaback; Lopham Linen; fairly coarse, unbleached; rococo st design with label; Wood reff bleach – 1906; one of three patterns cut from long lengths now owned by Ipswich Museum”. However, a note on the museum database states: “Bleached Huckaback, Lopham linen. Early 20th C.”

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

1970.553.1 is another standard huckback, about 70cm wide, also very pale, and rather finer than 1970.553.1. I estimate the sett to be about 85 ends per inch and 65 picks per inch. The notes on the storage box and the database read: “Lopham linen; bleached fine birds eye; hand towel type; one of three patterns cut from long lengths now owned by Ipswich Museum”; and “Unbleached huckaback, diapered with label ‘Woodroff Bleach, 1906″.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

1970.553.3 is a patterned huckaback. Whereas standard huckback is based on a 5-end unit, these patterned huckabacks are made up of 4-end units with pairs of floats in a tabby ground. These weaves are sometimes called spot weaves or Bronson spots. Here the pairs of floats are arranged in a staggered cross formation. This can be woven on 5 shafts. The cloth is about 70cm wide and the sett is about 48 ends and picks per inch. It has a creamy gold colour, definitely unbleached.

The notes on the box and database read: “Lopham linen; cream coloured, fairly fine, with diaper pattern; one of three patterns cut from long lengths now owned by Ipswich Museum”; and “Cream coloured, diamond patterned diapered, Lopham linen.”

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

1979.193.1 is similar to 1970.553.3, but the pairs of floats form a diagonal trellis arrangement. The colour is also similar, but it is somewhat coarser, sett at about 33 ends and picks per inch. There are no detailed notes on the box.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

1979.193.3 is an unusual 9-end huckaback, each repeat being 18 ends and picks, with floats over 9 ends or picks. The sett is about 42 ends per inch.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

2006.282 is perhaps the highlight of the collection. It has a pale golden colour and is about 94cm wide. It has been partly finished, keeping the woven selvedges, but hemmed at the end and embroidered in red with “Osborne Kitchens 3” on the back and “VRI 1899” and a crown motif, on the front. This elaborate huckaback uses the same structure as 1970.553.3 and 1979.193.1 but creates a larger pattern in the threading and treadling. It can also be woven on a loom with 5 shafts. The sett is about 36 ends and picks per inch.

The notes on the box reads: “Kitchen Towel made from Lopham linen for kitchens of Osborne House, Isle of Wight home of Victoria and Albert and family”.


1. For more information about the linen industry in the Lophams, see Michael Friend Serpell (1980): A History of the Lophams; and Eric Pursehouse (1966) Waveney Valley Studies.

2. The museum’s numbering system seems to have changed at some point; e.g. 553.970.1 is now 1970.553.1

The linen manufacture of North Yorkshire, once upon a time.

(November 2022)

Concering the locations of Ralph Watson and Thomas Jackson, and the distribution of linen manufacture in North Yorkshire.
previous arrowprevious arrow
A map of North Yorkshire, with pins locating sites of linen weaving
Map of North Yorkshire c1788, from "The Rural Economy of Yorkshire" by William Marshall.
next arrownext arrow

The first image above is a map of North Yorkshire pinned to my studio wall. The black pin at the top right, near the mouth of the River Tees, locates the tiny village of Wilton, home to the three generations of eighteenth century weavers called Thomas Jackson – father, son and grandson – authors of the manuscript known as the Weavers Thesis Book in the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York.

The blue pin near the A1 Motorway locates the village of Aiskew, near Bedale, about 30 miles from Wilton and home of Ralph Watson, author of the book of linen designs now in the North Yorkshire County Records Office, c 1800.

The red pins begin to answer a question: Is it just a coincidence that two of the best historical sources about pre-industrial linen weaving in England originate from this part of North Yorkshire? Or was there a pattern of linen manufacture in the area?

To get a better understanding of the context for these weavers’ manuscripts I turned to a source of local knowledge: the Women’s Institute Village Books. The North Yorkshire Village Book, first published in 1991, was compiled from contributions from members of the North Yorkshire Federations of Women’s Institutes. It covers less than a third of villages, the narrative is quite selective and sources are not referenced. It may not be the most rigorous of historical sources, but it was somewhere to start.

Each red pin on the map above locates a village which, according to the book, has some historical association with the cultivation, processing, spinning and weaving of flax or hemp. Given that the book is far from exhaustive, the actual extent of the linen industry must have been larger. Nevertheless, the distribution of locations does suggests some interesting patterns. The map indicates a concentration of linen industry in the area around Knaresborough and Nidderdale at the south east of the upland area now known as the Yorkshire Dales, and a scattering of industry around the southern and north-eastern edges of the Yorkshire moors. It is interesting to compare my map with the map from 1788 included in William Marshall’s The Rural Economy of Yorkshire.

Since I did this pin-sticking exercise I have found some better sources of information. No one has written a comprehensive history of linen weaving in Yorkshire, or England, or the British Isles, but I recommend the following:

A History of Nidderdale by the Pately Bridge Tutorial Class, edited by Bernard Jennings. A model of rigorous historical study with some chapters dedicated to the evolution of the local linen and hemp industry which was particularly significant in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The East Anglian Linen Indutry: Rural Industry and Local Economy 1500-1850, by Nesta Evans (1985). The most comprehensive and detailed study of the history of linen weaving anywhere in Britain.

A History of the Lophams by Michael Friend Serpell (1980). With several chapters dedicated to the history of linen weaving in North & South Lopham, Norfolk, up to 1925.

The Linen Industry of Shropshire, Hilary Green (1981), (article), in Industrial Archaelogy Review, Volume V, Number 2, Spring 1981.

In Memory of Jane, Wife of Thomas Jackson

(October 2022)

Concerning a grave in Yorkshire and a manuscript in a New York museum.


previous arrowprevious arrow
Gravestone in St. Cuthbert's churchyard, Wilton, North Yorkshire
Detail from page 45 of Weavers Thesis Book, Cooper Hewitt Museum, (accession number 1958:30:1)
next arrownext arrow

In the churchyard of St. Cuthbert’s, in the hamlet of Wilton, near Lazenby in the North Riding of Yorkshire, is a gravestone bearing the following inscription:

In Memory of Jane
Wife of Thomas Jackson
Buryed Oct br. ye 13th 1758
Aged 26 years

To those who for her loss are griev’d
This consolation given…

The rest of the epitaph is now obscured by long grass, but there’s no need to try to decipher it because it was also written down on paper.

Thomas Jackson, husband of Jane, was a weaver and the author, along with his father and son, both also called Thomas, of a manuscript now in the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York, where it is known as Weavers Thesis Book (accession number 1958:30:1).  The manuscript, a notebook of sixty-four carefully inked pages, is a unique and precious document providing insight into the life and practice of three generations of weavers in 17th and 18th century Yorkshire. It records details about the cloth they were making alongside family births, deaths and weddings. Life and work side by side.

We know from the notebook that this Thomas Jackson married Jane Scarth of Lazenby in 1754. They had a son called Thomas in 1755, and a daughter called Mary in 1756. Jane died five hours after giving birth to their second daughter, who would also be called Jane, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon of 13th October 1758.

In the book, Thomas wrote down three alternative epitaphs for his wife. The first reads as follows: 

To those who for her loss are griev’d
This consolation given
She’s from a world of woe reliev’d
And blooms a rose in heaven.

(Read this for more about the Thomas Jacksons and the Weavers Thesis book)

Hemp weaving at the Ecomusée du Clos Parchet

(September 2022)

Concerning a nineteenth century loom and the recollections of a hemp worker in the French Alps.

Ecomusée du Clos Parchet

The star exhibit of the Ecomusée du Clos Parchet is the building itself, situated on a mountainside in the Haute Savoie, built in 1815 and now preserved as a typical example of a traditional Savoyard farmhouse. The form of these farmhouses evolved over centuries to be exquisitely fit for purpose. The stone-built bottom storey is divided into two, with a byre for cattle, sheep & pigs on the north side, and living quarters on the south. A tapering chimney, large enough at the bottom for smoking hams, runs up from the kitchen through the timber built barn which comprises the upper story and where winter feed was stored. The building now houses an astonishing array of old tools and household items, including a loom dated 1868.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

Our museum guide Nora explained how most farmers in the region had two farms, one in the valley and another on the mountainside. Hemp was one of the crops grown in the valley, for processing into yarn for weaving. The museum has an interesting collection of hemp processing equipment and antique hempen textiles, including tablecloths, blankets and items of clothing.

previous arrowprevious arrow
next arrownext arrow

The growing and weaving of hemp was once common across Europe. In Britain it had largely disappeared by the early 19th century, but before that the english word ‘linen’ was used to refer to cloth made from either flax or hemp, and the latter was easier to grow. I have not found any examples of old hempen cloth in Britain.


Le Chanvre

Pinned to the museum wall is a letter from a Madame Minier who, after visiting the museum in 2000, was moved to share her experience of harvesting and processing hemp. She had worked on a farm in Coulombier, Pays de la Loire, in North West France, in 1928-30.

Here is my translation of Madame Minier’s story:

by Madame Minier

My father, a railway employee, was transferred to the Gare La Hutte Coulombiers in November 1928. We moved from Chartres to Coulombiers. I swapped a landscape of wheat fields for one of pasture, and the cultivation of a new crop – hemp. My father had heard about it from his brother who was a farrier in Balon.

For two years, from 1928 to 1930 (I was ten years old in 1928), I had the opportunity of doing hemp work. Fields of good quality soil were ploughed and then sown. The stems grew tall and easily reached over a meter in height. The farmers were looking for labour. The uprooting was done by hand, a stem at a time. Each person (more men than women) would make bundles of a specific number (which I forget) of stems and tie them all together with the last strand. Your earnings depended on the number of bundles pulled out during the day. It was very arduous work, often it was hot, the soil was very dry and it was necessary to extract the roots with the stem and shake them to get rid of the soil, and above all not to break the stems.

By the time the field had been completely uprooted, a stem at a time, and your wrists were aching as a result, the bundles of hemp were piled up in a truck fitted with its sides, and transported to the edge of the stream or the river, for retting.

The bundles were then placed side by side on the stony bottom of the clear stream, then crossed and crossed again and so on until about 20 to 30 centimeters from the surface. The piles were then loaded with very large stones to ensure their stability. The current had to be regular and of medium speed for the water to pass through these piles. The leaves and the soft parts of the stems rotted and in doing so gave off a very strong and very bad smell. The water became cloudy very quickly and the poisoned fish rose to the surface, opening their gills wide. They showed signs of drunkenness and quickly all the fauna of the river was poisoned.

When the putrefaction of the pectic cement which enveloped the hemp fibers was finished, the piles were undone and the bundles, all sheathed in rot, were grouped in bigger bundles or spread out on the bare ground. There was then an unbearable nauseating smell that spread throughout the countryside and sometimes reached the town. And it was in the middle of summer!!!

Once well dried the bundles were shaken vigorously, still by hand, to loosen and remove as many fragments of decomposed material as possible. After this drying, essential for preserving the fibres, the bundles were stored in a barn.

In the heart of winter, around the months of January / February, when the agricultural work had stopped because of the weather, and once the maintenance work on equipment and buildings was completed, the agricultural employees found themselves without work. They would then be hired on the farms where the hemp had been harvested – often many of them relocating for the work.

It was now necessary to rid the fibers of all the impurities that remained. For this it was necessary to crush and cut the stems. First, the bundles had to be heated for 24 hours in the hemp oven. This was cylindrical, topped with a pepperbox roof and with two doors (one for each level).

It was first necessary to light the fire and maintain it with fagots and logs. Hot air rose through a vault pierced with numerous holes. The hemp was loaded through the top door. There are still a few farmyards with hemp ovens that are no longer maintained or are used as sheds on both levels.

The “cooked” hemp was then taken out of the oven. In the barn we had installed the rollers and the breaking machines (les teilleuses). The bundles were first passed over a kind of table and between two or four fluted rollers which crushed the hemp – that is to say what remained of the bark of the hemp stalks.

Then it was necessary to break or beat the stalks.

The bundles were untied. While the right hand lifted and then lowered the blade, the left hand shook the bundles side to side and then pulled them so that the entire length of the fibers was well treated. It was often necessary to make two or three passages and to shake well to detach the bark from the fibers. The pale straw-colored tow had to be cleared of all impurities.

These bundles were then grouped into “poupées” ou “poupines”. (Note: I cannot find equivalent English terms for poupées or poupines.)

The salary therefore depended on the number of “poupées” perfectly crushed and cut during the day. It was very difficult to synchronize this asymmetrical movement, you had to get the hang of it. The room (the barn) was unheated and draughty. The atmosphere was hard to breathe because it was dusty: the light hemp fragments fluttered in the air before coming to rest on the ground.

All this work: uprooting, retting, crushing and breaking, was done under the supervision of the master while the mistress prepared the meals. The workers were fed on the farm. The owner-operators were referred to as Master and Mistress (Maître et maîtresse). I worked at the breaking and scutching of hemp at the farm called La Fuye, owned by Mr. & Mrs. Evrard, in Coulombiers.

We left the village in 1932 (I went to a boarding school in 1930) and later learned how the cultivation of hemp declined: the fibre sold less well, labor became scarce, farm workers moved to the city and demanded a higher salary. Hemp was was replaced by other crops, including beet, a sugar factory having been set up in Mamers.