Historical Textiles Technology

Colchester was associated with the production of woollen textile fabrics between the 16th and 18th Centuries. Bourne Mill was at various times the site for fulling woven woollen cloths (production of wool felts). These fabrics became so well known that they carried a trademarked Seal of quality. The Colchester wool trade began to decline midway through the 18th century as it moved north to Yorkshire.

Bay Cloths

These were lightweight woollen fabrics, prepared by hand weaving using hand-spun yarns. They are typified by simple plain weave (or Tabby) constructions which might vary in weight from about 100 – 200 grammes/ metre2. They were often supplied in natural or bleached white.

Say Cloths

These were heavier weight woollen fabrics, again originally hand woven using hand-spun yarns.
They featured 2/2 Twill diagonal weaves which are more robust, but slightly more complex to weave. The weights might vary from about 150- 350 g/m2

Fulling Wool Cloths

Bays and says would be woven in the Dutch quarter of Colchester and sent to Bourne Mill to be processed in Fulling Stocks to produce felts. The process involved folding the cloth into stacks about a metre square, placing in a wooden trough, and steeping in water, soap, and sometimes stale human urine (chamber lye) for a few days. The mill water wheel would then drive large wooden (oak) hammers to pound the cloth, which would be moved around by the fuller to achieve uniform treatment. 
The aims of fulling were to :-
  1. Consolidate woven fabrics by using the natural tendency for wool fabrics to felt. Wool is one of the few fibres which shrinks and felts, due to the scaly surface of the fibres. The scales all point in direction from the root to the tip of the fibre, so that when a cloth is agitated  in a lubricant such as water or soap solutions the fibres ratchet over one another leading to shrinkage, matting and thickening.
  2. Increasing the thermal insulation properties to provide more warmth in clothing and blankets.
  3. Improving the wind resistance (reducing air permeability) of the material.
  4. Improving the dimensional stability of the fabric to washing and wearing. Felting causes about 20 - 40% shrinkage and consolidation of the fabric – effectively pre-shrinking the material so that further dimensional change is limited.
  5. Changing the surface appearance, texture and handle of the fabric for aesthetic and fashion reasons. 
  6. Improving the durability of the fabric to wear and usage, as textiles and clothing were very expensive, meaning that many people had far fewer items of clothing.

Use of stale human urine in fulling

This is often cited as one of the liquids used, as ”chamber lye” was readily available to be bought and sold – there being no flush toilets or sewers for disposal in those days. Stale urine is a source of alkaline chemicals such as ammonia and amines. However, clean wool is attacked by alkali, so it would only be used on greasy undyed fabrics. The reaction between wool oils and greases and alkali produces soap, which would assist with the lubrication and ultimate cleaning of the fabric.  

Use of Fullers earth

Fullers earth is an absorptive clay mineral containing aluminium silicates. It absorbs oil and grease from the woollen fabric to aid with the final cleansing process after fulling. Current uses of Fullers Earth include cat and pet litter tray absorbants, wound dressings, and as a lubricant/sealant in oil drilling rig shafts (Bentonite®)

Drying and Tentering

After fulling and washing the felt would be removed from the stocks, unwrapped, and stretched outdoors on a wooden tenter frame to remove creases and to allow drying. The cloth would be attached to tenter hooks on the frame (hence the term “to be on tenterhooks”). There were regional differences in the nomenclature. Tenters were used in East Anglia and Yorkshire, whereas Stenters were used in the Lancashire cotton industry. 

Textile colouration

Before the advent of synthetic organic dyes cloths were often coloured using natural vegetable and animal dyes.  Cellulosic based vegetable dyes would preferentially be substantive to vegetable fibres such as cotton, and linen. Animal protein sourced dyes would be substantive to animal protein fibres such as wool and silk to achieve fast colours. However, wool treated with a mordant such as alum or chromium compounds would also absorb vegetable dyes. 

Vegetable dyes

  • Forsythia, Honeysuckle and Horseradish would produce the colour green
  • Walnuts produce a rich brown
  • Ragwort and Saffron produce yellow      
  • Madder would produce the colour red
  • and Indigo the colour blue

Animal dyes

  • Cochineal beetles are still used today in some parts of the world to produce a rich red

Author: Dr Richard A Scott