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An unpublished account of the linen industry in North & South Lopham, Norfolk, written by Percy Beales in the1930’s, and here transcribed from the manuscript in the Rita &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.