Our Object Highlight this week was chosen by Kathy, one of our Museum Assistants and she has chosen our collection of looms
A potted history of the early development of the weaving loom
As you walk along the upper gallery of the Museum, you will see many different weaving loom types situated around the space. Three looms are of particular note because of their relationship with each other and with Trowbridge’s weaving history.
The first of the three looms is the warp weighted loom, which is an example of the vertical loom used by the Saxons (and others). Archaeologists found clay loom weights when they excavated the Trowbridge castle site before the Shires shopping centre was built, showing very early evidence of what would have been domestic weaving in the town. Vertical warp weighted looms were superseded in Europe by horizontal looms from about the C13th.
During the Middle Ages, England was the chief supplier of raw wool to the then known world and from the C14th – C16th the wool industry produced great wealth. The tradition of weaving in England had this important wool industry as its basis. Organised weaving at this time was strictly controlled by guilds in all cloth making towns and cloth production became big business. An increase in cloth production and harsh guild restrictions led to the growth of a rural based domestic system as weaving became a family enterprise. Weavers, usually men, did the warping; children carded the fleece and women spun yarn. The typical English handloom of two or four shafts was a substantial piece of equipment made of solid timbers forming a four-poster framework measuring 2.5 metres by 2m by 2m. The warp threads were now set on a horizontal, not vertical plane.
The second loom of the three referred to is the C18th /C19th horizontal floor loom and is a (modified) example of the solid four-poster framed floor loom. Loom design had now changed so that lifting the horizontal warp threads in groups was possible and operated by foot treadles, leaving the weaver’s hands free to throw the shuttle and beat up the weft, thereby speeding up production. In addition, the invention of the flying shuttle in 1733 also sped the process up considerably. Weaving on handlooms experienced a boom in the decade 1795 to 1805, with number of handloom weavers in the United Kingdom estimated at 400,000. The floor loom would have occupied a room on the upper floor of the weaver’s cottage and this example is very much like the ones used in weaver’s homes in Newtown and Castle Street, Trowbridge.
A major change in cloth production came with the industrial revolution and the invention of the power loom. This posed a devastating threat to the hand weaver’s livelihood. It was some time before a reliable machine was perfected and this combined with the resistance from handloom weavers made manufacturers reluctant to invest.
Improvements were made to handlooms in an attempt to compete with power looms, but it was estimated in the 1820s that the latter could produce four times as much cloth as the former and the handloom was doomed. The third Museum loom then, is a power loom called a ‘Dobcross,’ manufactured between 1860 and 1967, with the Museum’s model being made in 1956. The arrival of power looms saw weaving moved out of weaver’s homes to a factory setting, with each weaver operating up to four looms at a time. By the 1860s hand weaving had finished in Trowbridge, with all weavers moving to work in factory sheds.