Women and Worsted

My Norfolk Horn obsession is taking me to places I didn’t know I wanted to go but now I’m there I am loving it.  I have followed the Norfolks trail to Norfolks medieval and early modern textile industry.

England dominated the international textile trade, booms and busts notwithstanding, and Norfolk was the world centre for Worsted textiles. Textiles that were only possible to make due the production of vast amounts of yarn produced on what must have been an epic scale.

This is an extraordinary feat when you consider that until the introduction of powered spinning machines in the 1750’s, all yarn was spun by hand either on a spindle or on a wheel. And spun almost exclusively by women.

In the early medieval period spinning with a spindle and distaff was a ubiquitous activity of all women that transcended all classes.  For many women it the only way for them to provide their households with textiles. Spinning was so prevalent that it was not thought of as a skill or a craft that could be mastered but as some kind of natural ability inherent her gender. The spear side and the distaff side were terms to distinguish male inheritance from female inheritance. Spinster is still used today to describe an unmarried women. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath cites a proverb that holds that the natural endowments of women as ‘Deceit, weeping, spinning, God hath given to women kindly, while they may live.’

There are many contemporary images showing women spinning, or carrying her equipment, spindle and distaff visibly prominent as she carries out her other tasks, as a visual representation of her productiveness and positive wifely attributes.

My favourite is The Lutrell Psalter,an 14thC manuscript with illuminations showing depictions of everyday life on a manor through the year. Its wonderful, go take a look here. In it most of the depictions of women show them either directly engaged in spinning or undertaking other activities with distaff and spindle visible ready to whip out at a moments notice.

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Spinning on a great wheel and carding wool (source: Lutrell Psalter folio British Museum)
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a women attending her chickens, spindle and distaff tucked in her arm.

 

Luttrellffff60womenstrikingaman

In this image a women looms above a cowering man brandishing her distaff  with her spindle flying like a flail. I can’t help but wonder what his crime was.  Depictions of irate women brandishing distaff and spindle occurs alot.  Misericords in Malvern and Westminster also show husbands being chased by irate wives with raised distaffs.

 

 

And one of my personal favourites:

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Jousting.  Just another alternative use for a distaff  (source: National Library of France)

Women must have had their spindles and distaffs about them at all times, ready to whip out and put to use at every opportunity. It must have been an incessant unrelenting and all pervasive activity.

In Norfolk, doing different seems to have been a consistent thread through time. Whilst the spinning wheel was widely adopted elsewhere, in Norfolk, spinning ‘on the rock’ (as spindle spinning was known) persisted more or less until mechanisation replaced hand-spinning from the mid 1700’s on.

The simple reason for this technical.  A great wheel cannot spin a worsted yarn (I wont bore you with the technicalities of worsted and woollen – that is whole chapter all on its own). As a consequence, in Norfolk all the worsted yarn, for which its spinners were famed, used in the worsted textile industry were spun on the rock.

Yes, on a weighted stick.

By hand.

Whilst she got on with doing everything else as well. Hmm.

This got me curious about the time it might have taken and the quantities involved. So I did a very rough back of the envelope calculation. And please note this took about 10 minutes and I have very limited weaving knowledge. I would be really interested if anyone out there would like to put this to the test and work up some real data.

It’s easy for us to underestimate just how good the quality of English textiles being produced at that time were. We don’t have museum archives stuffed with bolts of cloth or clothing or household draperies to examine. But we are lucky that a few precious fragments have survived. These range in quality from coarse rough cloth woven from uneven yarns to very fine worsted that must have looked like silk.

So, M’lady wants a new dress.

Assuming she’s a bit of dandy and wants a reasonably priced good quality cloth and this cloth had an even number of warp and wefts [2]. Analysis of contemporary textile fragments show that the numbers of threads ranged from approximately 8 – 28 threads per cm[1].

So let’s assume our worsted cloth had a count of 20 threads for every cm. So, 1cm2 would need: 20 + 20 = 40cm of yarn. If our fabric was 1m wide, each meter of woven cloth would need: 0.40 x 10,000 = 4km of thread.

A women’s dress may have required between 3 -5 m of fabric, depending upon her status, size and cut. There would also have been wastage from the weaving process and shrinkage.

So if we assume 5m of cloth. This would require at least: 4 x 5 = 20km of yarn.

Geez! How long would that take to spin?

It is impossible to say how productive a medieval spinner was. She was likely to be very well practised and competent at her craft. I’m not a well-practiced spindler so I can’t really use my output for this. I do know that a competent spindler can spin between 35 – 50 m in 15 minutes competitively. I don’t think we’ve evolved much since the 12th Century so I think it is safe to assume this is a good match for your average medieval spinster. This output equates to between 140 to 200m an hour.

It would take over 20hours to make enough yarn to weave a single meter of fabric.

Therefore, to spin enough for m’ladies dress would take over 100 hours.

100 hours.

This is in addition to the time taken to wash and prepare the fleece before spinning.

In addition to all the other tasks the household required.

This goes some considerable way to understanding just how precious textiles were, given the amount of labour it took to produce them.

So there may well be a grain of truth in the  statement I keep coming across that it took seven spinners to keep one Worsted weaver going.  Without them Norfolks wealth and power would not have been possible. But these women made it happen. Sadly though, these women remain unrecorded, unrecognised and, mostly, invisible.

[1] Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F., & Staniland, K. (1992). Textiles and Clothing c. 1150—1450 [Volume 4 in Medieval Finds from Excavations in London].

[2] Warp threads are the threads the loom is dressed with and run vertically.  Weft threads are the threads the weaver inserts horizontally running over and under the warps)

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Me and The Norfolk Horn sheep

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Norfolk Horn Ewe. One of Olivers in Elsing, Norfolk (Image: J. Monahan)

Look at her, isn’t she magnificent.

She is a Norfolk Horn. Medium sized, hardy breed  with a distinctive black face. Long in the body and limb with alert, bright, inquisitive eyes. And those magnificent strong open spiral horns sweeping backwards found on both ewes and rams.

I have been developing something of an obsession with the Norfolk Horn.

Me and the Norfolk Horn have history. It was the first fleece I worked from start to finish. From scratch. It took a year. It was not a good year. It was the year I hit a wall and something inside me shattered and broke. I’m not going to dwell on why it happened, that is another story, but I guess some explanation is required. It occurred after a protracted period that began with the death of a parent after a period to watching them dissolve over Skype from Motor Neurons Disease, we emigrated to New Zealand, then came back again, picking up the old life as best we could, renovating a house whilst burying myself in work (over the subsequent three years I wrote my PhD thesis in 18 months, co-authored a book, started working as a lecturer as well as taking on three research contracts). I was sleeping 3- 4 hours a night. And then the crying started. My brain felt like it had literally broken. Snapped. I could barely string a sentence together. I could not work anymore. I was just functioning. Everything went monochrome and tasted like cardboard.

Working the small, dense, very greasy, crimpy fleece saved me. Is that too dramatic? Scouring it, carefully combing it and dizzing it into rovings. At this time I only had two dog combs and a vice with a button for a diz. Spinning it. Dyeing it. Designing a pattern and knitting it up. I think that through this slow, slow, oh so very slow process I was mending myself. I’m alright now, different, but doing ok.  This year I have rediscovered sleep.  Its wonderful.

Anyway…

Suffice to say, I have a deep personal affection for these mad looking wee beasties. The more I find out about them the more questions I seem to have. Their story is an extraordinary one that I can only summarise for you here.

Rare, now found mostly in or around East Anglia, the Norfolk’s story is one of abundance, decline to near extinction and, tenuously, back from the brink.

It is thought to be one of the oldest breeds in Britain. It is currently thought that they came to Britain with the Saxons. It can trace its ancestry back to the Saxon Black faced heath sheep that once roamed over Northern Europe from the Netherlands to Russia.[1].

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The Norfolk Sheep – a portrait P Nursey 1846 (image courtesy of Norfolk Museum Collection service)

It was the breed that was found everywhere across East Anglia from the Anglo-Saxon period through to the C18th. The Norfolk was a tough hardy breed. Small, feral and deer like, well suited to life ranging on the relatively poor Heathlands found in the region. It thrived on the poor sandy soils in the Brecklands and North-West Norfolk. Excelling at converting the low-grade heath pastures into milk, wool, manure and meat under the fold-course agricultural system unique to East Anglia [2].

SALLE CHURCH. NORFOLK, UK.    PICTURE: JAMES BASS PHOTOGRAPHY
St Peter and St Paul Church, Salle, Norfolk. My favourite church and a fine example of a Wool Church, built to impress by merchants grown very rich indeed on the proceeds of wool.

 

Its wool is said to be the wool that created the wealth that built Norfolk’s numerous and ostentatiously over-large wool churches that pepper the county. It produced the wool that was exclusively used in the famous worsted yarns upon which Norwich’s medieval worsted textile industry was founded.

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Thomas William Coke of Norfolk Inspecting his Southdown Sheep, 1808 (Thomas Weaver). Thomas Coke, the 1st Earl of Leicester at Holkham, a keen advocate of agricultural modernisation.

Later, the Norfolk Horn found itself at the heart of the modernisation of livestock breeding during the C18th. Ironically, acting as the agent of its own demise. It was the crossing of The Norfolk Horn with the Southdown during the 18th Century that produced the Suffolk. Why is this important? Today, the Suffolk is the ram most used to produce the British Lamb that you will find on your plate.

By the mid C19th the Norfolk Horn was deeply unfashionable, considered a poor and troublesome breed by the Agricultural reformers. Their feisty, wild nature and inability to remain where they were put – leaping fences to keep roaming – made them ‘difficult’ to manage. They were replaced by these heavier docile Norfolk/Southdown crosses which were held as superior in every way. The number of Norfolk Horns declined.

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Prince Frederick Duleep Singh

There was a small Antiquarian revival lead by gentleman farmers such as Prince Duleep Singh at Old Buckenham, and (another ironic twist) Lord Leicester at Holkham. But this was over by the start of the First World War. By 1917 there were no Norfolk’s left in Norfolk and just one flock remained.

The survival of the breed is down to one man, Mr J. D. Sayer. JD Sayer kept the only flock known in existence from 1895 until 1947. At this time the flock of 13 surviving Norfolk’s were moved to the Cambridge Animal Research station, later the remnants of this flock became the nucleus of what would become the Gene Bank at Whipsnade Zoo. Over the next 20 years The Norfolk’s situation went from bad to disastrous. By the late 1960s all that remained of the breed were 14 badly interbred individuals. The breed was on the brink of extinction.

The last Norfolk ram died in November 1971. This has me welling up, it is so sad.

It isn’t the end though, clearly.

In yet another ironic twist of fate, to preserve what was left of the Norfolk’s genetics and to increase the genetic diversity of the breed, Joe Henson and his daughter Libby at their then recently opened Cotswold Farm Park in 1969 and in subsequent years, in an extraordinary act of foresight outcrossed one of the final surviving Norfolk rams with some of their Suffolk’s. Outcrossing with the Suffolk was continued in the early 1970s ensuring the survival of the breed.

It is at this point in the Norfolk’s story that it finds itself at the centre of the fledgling Rare Breeds Movement story as the Gene Bank Project was closed down in the late 1960’s. It was the desperate situation of the Norfolk Horn breed that led to the awareness of the need for genetic conservation of traditional farm animals. The Norfolk was the most at risk of all the breeds identified at the formation of the Rare Breed Survival Trust in 1973.

Through dedicated and careful stewardship by a number of people the breed survived and by 1994 The Norfolk Horn Breeders Group was established. By this time were less than 300 registered breeding ewes. By 2005 RBST moved the breed to Category 4 ‘At risk ‘on their watch list.

Today, there are more than 2500 sheep dispersed between 79 flocks, predominantly in its ancestral home of Norfolk. The Norfolk Horn is now off the critical list and is a Category 5 – minority on the RBST watch list.

I don’t know how the modern Norfolk Horn compares with the Old Norfolk. They look stockier, less agile and less wild. But they have a certain way about them, in the same way that Irish Wolf Hounds do. A rough raggedy regalness in the way they carry themselves. And I love them for it.

If you want to know more about the Norfolk Horn story the best reference I have found is Peter Wade Martins book. Black Faces: A History of East Anglian Sheep Breeds.

In the next post I will blog about the fleecey aspects and talk about the fibre side of life.

[1] Ryder, M. L. (1983). Sheep and man. Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. . Wade-Martins, P., & Martins, S. W. (1993). Black Faces: A History of East Anglian Sheep Breeds. Norfolk Museums Service.

[2] Fold-course or Sheep-Corn system is unique to East Anglia. Under this distinctive form of agricultural management flocks were run on the open heaths during the day time and then folded (penned) on a set field area overnight to tathe (manure) the fields and feed on the crop residues.  See Allison, K. J. (1955). The wool supply and the worsted cloth industry in Norfolk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Doctoral dissertation, University of Leeds).