Trowbridge Loom

Trowbridge Loom

Weaver at Work

Weaver at Work


A local museum that reflects the rich history of Trowbridge. There is some evidence of an Iron Age hill fort on the same site as the later Trowbridge castle, where the Shires Shopping Centre is currently located. Iron had been brought into the area by the Celts, as they defended the area against the invading Romans, who wanted the important lead and silver mines in Salisbury. The Romans had to take 20 hill forts to get to the mines, and Battlesbury Camp, near Warminster has a Roman Cemetery at its North West entrance which suggests that it was one such fort, and Bratton Camp near Westbury is thought to have been another.


The Romans left Britain in 410 AD, and the Saxons soon took over. But by the 870’s, Britain was under threat from the Vikings. Alfred, King of Wessex, the last major Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, faced a Danish army based in Chippenham. The battle took place in Ethandun, what is now known as Edington, near Westbury. The battle was crucial, for victory for Alfred ensured the survival of the Kingdom of Wessex and halted the Viking advance, ultimately leading to the foundations of England. When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 following the Norman conquest, the settlement of Trowbridge was first recorded, although the spelling was different – Straburg – which may have a corruption of the real name , which simply means tree-bridge. By then it must have been a place of some importance as it appears to have been the main residence of Brictric, the most important landowner in Wiltshire and the place from which his estates were administered.


As the town grew, so did the manufacture of woollen cloth, and it became associated with the town for the first time. By the Tudor period, Trowbridge had grown wealthy and the town continued to develop a reputation for fine quality wool. As the woollen industry became more important, clothiers started to dominate the trade and became very wealthy. Many clothiers built fine houses, including The Parade, which Pevsner considered one of the finest row of clothier’s houses in the country. At this time, many of the cloth processes took place in the workshops behind these buildings or in the workers own homes. By the 18th century, machinery had revolutionised the production of cloth, though weaving still required handlooms.


To clean it, the wool was washed by hand using water and either soap wort or urine, locally called sig. Baskets were used to hold the wet fleece, which was rinsed in flowing water – the local stream – and allowed to dry in the sun if possible. This process was done at the dyehouse by the 18th century. The raw fleece was sorted by hand into different classes of wool. The picker would assess the quality of the wool by looking at and feeling the staple ‘in the grease’. As it was picked over by hand, dirt and other vegetable matter (burrs) were removed or fell through the mesh supporting the fleece. Beating with willow twigs, the willower cleaned the raw wool, removing dust and dirt. By the end of the 18th century, a water driven willowing machine, called a willow or willyer was used to help remove burrs. The wool was passed over iron spikes on a roller. This was not as good as the hand treatment as it was too harsh on the fibres. More recently, vegetable matter was removed by carbonising, the wool being treated with sulphuric acid.


Working in the clothiers workshop, the scribbler oiled the wool to make it easier to work with. Olive oil, known as Gallipoli oil, from the Mediterranean was imported through Bristol. From 1675, the scribbler used hand cards to pull the wool over a scribbling horse, a frame covered with iron teeth set in leather leaves. Scribblers were often older or disabled workers. The fibres could then be hand carded. From the 1790s, scribbling engines took over this work. These machine s were originally horse powered but were later worked by water power and then steam. In the factory, because of the noise it made, the opening machine was locally know as a bumbler. If the wool was not ‘well opened’ after it had been blown out, it was put back into the machine for further opening. If wool was to be dyed before spinning, this would take place after cleaning, in the dyehouse. The wet wool was placed in large dye vats containing boiling water and dyestuffs, some of which were imported, others were grown locally. The wool was then dried outside or in a fire stove, a heated stone building with slatted staging. Mechanical driers have take over this labour intensive job. Some raw materials for dyestuffs were imported and some were grown locally. Indigo came from Keynsham. Natural dyes have been superseded by synthetic dyes. Working in the blend room, the blender spread out layers of well opened, dyed fleece. Several colours may need to be mixed to produce one shade. A machine called locally a Fearnaught or Tucker was used to mix and blend the fibres.


Wool was carded to straighten the fibres ready for spinning. This job was always done by the spinner. In Saxon times, an iron comb was used but by the 13th century, hand cards had been developed. These consisted of two wooden boards covered with metal teeth which produced a loose roll of fibres (a rolag). Frome was the local centre of the hand card making industry. Cards were supplied to the spinners by the clothier. After mechanisation, carding was carried out on a carding set, a series of rollers which produced a flat web of fibres. The piecener took pieces off the carding set, joined them by hand and fed them into the slubbing billy. One of the earliest processes to be mechanised was the conversion of carded fibres from a web into bundles of fibres. The slubbing billy came into use by the 1790s and looked very similar to an early spinning jenny.


Early spinners worked on a drop spindle, drawing out and twisting the wool fibres to make a yarn. Wool is easy to spin because the scales on each fibre cling together helping to make a continuous yarn. The spindle was made of either wood or bone with a weight, or whorl at the base acting as a flywheel. Twisting the spindle put twist into the fibres, producing a strong yarn. Warp yarn was spun harder for strength. In the 14th century, spinning was done on a great wheel, again with the spinner standing to work. A spindle mounted onto a frame was connected to a wheel which the spinner turned by hand. The drawn fibres were held at an angle to the spindle so that each time they slid off the end of the spindle, a twist was added. Yarn was wound onto the spindle by holding it at right angles and turning the wheel. The first machine made to spin yarn was the spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764. Hand operated by one person, spinning the jenny produced dozens of lengths of yarn at the same time. By 1793, women and children could earn 4 to 5 shillings a week. Before any wool was attached to the jenny, it had to be carded and slightly twisted into slubbings. Bobbins of slubbings at the front of the machine were converted to bobbins of spun thread at the back. Yarn was wound onto cones which held ten times the amount of a bobbin if it was warp yarn. This of course took the place of several hand spinners and meant that the weaver could be kept supplied with as much yarn as he needed. Once the yarn had been spun, it could be plyed or doubled (called doubling) to create a thicker, softer thread.


Ring spinning was first invented in America in the 19th century and was mostly used to make heavy carpet yarns. Not until the 1950s was the method used to spin thread for the fine woollen industry. Developments in the suppression of the ‘balloon’ which was formed prior to the winding on of the yarn onto the spindle; the improvement of the ‘false twist’ tube which twisted the yarn in the drafting zone (this would be the draw in the mule) and the introduction of lightweight plastic ‘travellers’ all took away a great deal of the strain from the slubbing and the yarn. This meant that continuous spinning was possible, in contrast to the ‘spin and wind on’ process of a self-acting mule. The self-acting mule (one can be seen in Trowbridge Museum), has a maze of gears, cams and ropes, with one electric motor powering the whole machine.


Making up a warp was originally done by the weaver. On a vertical loom, the warps were wound around the top bar and held under tension by baked clay loom weights. On a horizontal loom, the warp stored on the beam at the back is gradually unrolled as the cloth is woven and wound onto the front roller. Before 1750, warping was done using pegs on a wall. The thread was looped alternately over and under the pegs to accommodate a measured length. Where the yarn crossed between the pegs, called ‘the lace’, a thread was tied to hold all the warp threads together. The warp could be lifted off and made into a loose chain (using chain stitch) to be carried home by the weaver. The warp is often called the chain and the weft, the abb. By 1800, warp yarn was measured on a vertical warping bar before being wound onto the warp beam. This bar was a large rotating framework with a measured dimension. A large drum called a warping mill replaced the bar, from which the threads could be wound onto the warp beam. The warp yarn was sometimes treated with size, for strength and then dried before use. The warper not only had to get his lengths correct but he also had to arrange the threads, called ends, in the right order when patterned cloth was being woven. Warping became a specialised job as warps got longer and more complicated on power looms. On a big loom, a warp may consist of between five and ten thousand threads (ends) divided into sections of two hundred ends.


The museum also features displays on the inventors of Trowbridge; Isaac Pitman devised the Pitman shorthand - which had a dramatic effect on the workplace prior to the typewriter - his brother, Ben, invented an electrochemical process of relief engraving. John Dyer invented the rotary shearing machine, which mechanised the shearing of woollen cloth during the finishing process. Possibly one of the most successful was George Hayden, who patented a number of inventions for improving the production of woollen cloth, but also in the heating and ventilation of buildings. His company went on to provide heating systems for King George IV in Windsor Castle, the Houses of Parliament and the British Museum Reading Room. The Museum has wheel chair access by lift. Please check before you come that the lift is working. The Museum displays are all on one level except the ‘Castle’ which has a wheel chair ramp. The museum has toilet and baby changing facilities. Assistance dogs are welcome.


Location : The Shires Shopping Centre, Court Street, Trowbridge BA14 8AT

Transport: Trowbridge (National Rail) 5 minutes or bus. Bus Routes : 60, 65, 67, 68, 69 Zig Zag and 265 stop close by.

Opening Times : Tuesday - Friday 10:00 to 16:00; Saturday 10:00 – 16:30

Tickets : Free

Tel: 01225 751339