Woolly Thinking


Cloth MillsOf the well over one hundred mills that once produced cloth in the Stroud Valley in the southern Cotswolds, only two are still woollen cloth mills. The area, however, is stippled with reminders from a time when the manufacture of cloth dominated the local and national economy: terraces of weavers' cottages on Chalford's hillside, and the villages of Painswick, Bisley and Minchinhampton, where wealthy wool merchants built their houses. And, of course, the mills themselves, the skeletons of which are highly visible along the roads south from Stroud to Chalford and Nailsworth. Dunkirk Mill no longer produces cloth but does offer an insight into the industry that for centuries was at the heart of Cotswold prosperity. It is open but rarely, so if you are interested in visiting, check http://www.stroud-textile.org.uk/

Getting there is interesting in itself. If driving, you will need to find the cycleway carpark behind the Egypt Mill, just outside Nailsworth. From there it is a fifteen minute stroll through the woods along the former railway line, with the Nailsworth Stream and the mill leats and ponds below you to the left. At the mill, you turn step down and then pass through a short tunnel to reach the mill itself – just as millworkers would have done.

The mill is today the Dunkirk Mill Centre, which occupies the ground floor of what is now a block of flats. There is a massive working water wheel directly powering a rare piece of historic textile machinery. The overshot wheel, twelve feet wide and thirteen feet in diameter, was installed in the mill in 1855 as part of the last major re-building programme carried out during its time as a woollen mill. The wheel is operated regularly on opening days (subject to water supply), and the sight of the wheel starting to move in a powerful cascade of water is striking. There is also a large working model pair of fulling stocks in operation, a display of locally made woollen cloth, a rare, working, mid-19th century teazle raising gig and an early 19th century mechanical cloth shearing machine known as a cross-cutter. Enthusiastic volunteer guides give a detailed commentary.

Fulling refers to the cleansing of cloth, usually wool, to eliminate oils and dirt, and to the thickening process. It involves two processes: scouring and milling. Scouring refers to the cleaning process, for which fuller's earth was used. This is a soft, highly plastic, sedimentary clay or clay-like earthy material occurring in nature as an impure hydrous aluminium silicate and was often used in conjunction with 'wash', or human urine, which for centuries had been the traditional medium. Originally the process was carried out by pounding the wool by foot but from the medieval period fulling often was carried out in a water mill. These processes are followed by stretching the cloth on great frames known as tenters, where it is held onto those frames by tenterhooks. At the time fulling was the only powered stage of the clothmaking process, making use of the natural power of flowing streams to work the fulling hammers. In the age of the Industrial Revolution, intensive mechanisation gave rise to mills such as the Dunkirk. Before the end of the 18th century most of the cloth mills were used for the finishing of woollen cloth which had been prepared and spun in the countryside and woven locally. The demand for uniform cloth during the wars with France provoked investment in new machinery and in buildings to accommodate them, completing the transition from fulling mills to factories that undertook all the cloth production processes, with fulling stocks, teazel raising gigs and shearing apparatus. Teazels are bristly flower heads which abound in local fields and which were harnessed to machinery for the napping process. The dyers, meanwhile, famously mastered the challenging production of scarlet cloth: known locally as Stroud Scarlet this became standard for the army and the royal family. They also supplied cloth to the Royal Navy.

The 19th century Gloucestershire woollen cloth trade was based on the production of broadcloth of the highest quality. The reasons for its eventual decline at the end of the century may be accounted for, at least in part, by changing fashions and an increasing demand for the lighter worsted cloth produced in the north of England. Now there are only two sites involved in cloth production at Stroud and Cam, serving mainly the snooker table, casino table and tennis ball markets. The tennis balls used at Wimbledon, for example, were most likely made here. New balls, please!

Our Cotswold walking & cycling tours take in some of the most beautiful spots in the Cotswolds! Click here for more information.

NewsKatharine Mabbett