BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 26th February 1996 (p.unknown), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: THE VELVET AND FUSTIAN CUTTERS

Soft and plush, velvet has always been favoured as one of the more luxurious fabrics. Manufacture used to be particularly labour intensive, making it far more expensive than coarser fabrics like wool and linen.

The early use of velvet was almost exclusively confined to robes for royalty and the wealthiest of the nobility, also for religious vestments. An inventory of 1295 refers to chasubles (sleeveless garments) of velvet at St Paul’s in London. One of the oldest surviving examples of velvet in Britain is also related to religious ceremonial, being part of a 14th-century cape belonging to the College of Mount St Mary in Chesterfield.

Dyed in rich colours, velvet garments were worn on occasions of state, from coronations to funerals. Mary, Queen of Scots, made her final appearance in a gown of black satin and a petticoat of red velvet, worn to her execution in 1587. A few years later Bess of Hardwick, the wife of Mary’s former gaoler, the Earl of Shrewsbury, spent some of her immense wealth on a litter to carry her back to Hardwick from London. Drawn by four horses, the litter was upholstered in velvet and had windows of gold parchment.

As velvet became less exclusive it was used to add an expensive touch to clothing; the supple ‘collar velvet’, for instance, was much in demand for gentlemen’s overcoats.

TIDESWELL VELVETEEN

True velvet is woven from silk with a short, smooth pile created by severing certain warp threads so that they stand erect. A fabric closely resembling true velvet is produced by using a foundation texture of either silk warp and cotton weft or entirely cotton. One such example, velveteen, is a variety of fustian, as are the more durable corduroy, moleskin and imperial sateen. These fabrics became affordable when duty on fustian was lifted in 1785.

Velvet was originally woven on handlooms and the depth of pile depended on the ratio of pile-warp threads to foundation-warp threads. During weaving, the pile-warp threads were raised to form a row of loops, called a ‘shed’, across the width of the fabric. Thin steel wires with a narrow groove on the upper surface were inserted through the shed to support the loops as they were cut open with a fine knife, the blade guided along the groove by a special frame. This produced close rows of uniform tufts - the pile.

Velvet cutting was not widely carried out in the Peak. From descriptions of the Rising Sun ‘velvet’ factory in Tideswell, it seems clear that the fabric produced was actually velveteen. This former cotton factory had changed to fustian and velvet cutting around 1890 and the business was for many years in the hands of John William Smith, employing some 30 women on piece work for about 15 shillings (75p) a week. By the 1920s his sons, John Wilfred and Arnold, were in charge.

The basic fustian was woven in Oldham and sent by rail to Miller’s Dale station to await collection from Tideswell. When it reached the factory, the fustian, a thick unbleached material, was stiffened with lime and stretched taut on a frame ten yards (9 m) long. Women walked from one end of the frame to the other, cutting through the loops row by row with a keen blade made from a watch spring, sharpened to a fine point on a whetstone. It was said that during one day’s work the women walked almost as far as Manchester. Finally, the pile was fluffed up with a wire brush and the ‘velvet’ was returned to Oldham to be dyed ready for sale.

A later velvet factory was established at Tideswell in a small former silk mill on Lower Terrace Road. Like the Rising Sun, it closed in 1933.

WIRKSWORTH VELVET

Wirksworth Heritage Centre occupies a former silk and velvet mill in Crown Yard, an alley just off the market place. The mill was established by Samuel Evans and continued under his son, also Samuel; he was a cousin of the novelist George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans. Few detailed records of the venture survive, but as silk was involved it is almost certain that true velvet was produced rather than velveteen. Work flourished from the late 1840s to 1870s, at one time employing nearly 30 workers. The property was mortgaged in 1868 when the occupants were Stephen Mason, druggist, and Messrs J. and T. Robinson of Sachaverel Street, Derby and Cheapside, London.

Ten years later a general depression closed the mill, throwing a number of people out of work. Pieces of fabric manufactured in the building are on display in Wirksworth Heritage Centre, where a rope still in place around one of the beams was probably used as leverage by a worker using foot treadle machines.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 26th February 1996;
Updated 18th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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