antique textiles History Textile Arts wool

“Don’t know where the snow falls from”

Bridget made buttons. I’ll never quite look at 19thC buttons again in the same way, having read her – and others’ – testimony.

Let’s step outside the 1940s stuff, today and talk about something else. Am about to raise some money to publish the new book (I will go on about it here and on social media,  when the Kickstarter is live, hopefully in the next week).

If reaction at the barnstorming talk about it we did last week at the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers is anything to go by – this book is going to do just fine.   The book will be called ‘Their Darkest Materials’ and is about the seamier (geddit?) side of material culture and textile history.

One of the things I’m covering in my book is child labour.  In the nineteenth century, there were quite a few parliamentary commissions into poverty and child labour.  Here’s one young woman who had worked from early childhood – and children in textile and related industries often worked a 70 – 80 hour week, from an early age.

The politicians were trying to get a sense of the real impact of child labour. (Often ignoring or minimising evidence after they received it – plus ca change).

Here, was one witness called before the committee, and her testimony paraphrased:


Bridget Fry, age 17. — Cannot tell any letters, or tell you what London is; it is a town in England, but I have not heard whether it is big or little.

Don’t know where rivers run into. Have crossed the sea coming from Ireland. A mountain would be on the water, I should think. Don’t know where the snow falls from, or whether it comes from the clouds, or sky, or where…

[First Report of the Commissioners, Children’s Employment Commission, 1862].

I also found some information about card setters – the women and children who set the teeth in hand cards in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Repro old carders and on right, you can just catch a glimpse of my ‘modern’ Schacht ones (bought in the mid 1990s and still going very strong). Left: Hand-carders from ‘The Mulberry Dyer’. 

Hand carding was the last aspect of clothmaking to be mechanised. Hand card-making only died out as an industry in the 1870s. Before that, Halifax and its environs, were where cardmaking was centred.

An elderly man described being a doffer at Copley Worsted Mills and also he had made hand cards, or rather, set the teeth in them, in the 1840s, as an eight year old.

It took women and children several hours to set 1400 teeth for which they were paid half a penny per card. He reported:  “‘…the work was hard, and rather than do it any boy would gladly go a mile to fetch water at the well…'”  [Quoted in ‘Hand Card Making’, Bankfield Museum Notes, H. Ling Roth, 1912].

The card-makers were outworkers, spread across the countryside. A middleman from the mill would visit them with a set weight of metal teeth, carried in his saddle-bag, and would return to pick up the completed cards.  Women and children could earn 8 or 9 pence per day  (4p). Women often worked at eachothers’ houses.  Just as Dales knitters liked to “gang a sittin'”  (knitting bees held alternately at various neighbours’ homes), the card setters would move from house to house, working in rows on low stools they carried with them for the purpose.

Children got sent to ‘settin’ schools’ – a bit like the informal, farm-based knitting schools, as Southey described famously in ‘The Terrible Knitters ‘E Dent’. The locations of the setting schools, like the knitting schools, is largely lost  (although my book does reflect some new research where I have tracked down one more previously unknown knitting school site).  But Ling Roth’s monograph mentioned a school “kept by an old woman at Salterhebble” and another at Ellenroyde, “kept by a man who…used to ‘leather’ the children if they didn’t work fast enough”.

Child labour is just one grim aspect of textile history.  Sadly, there’s plenty more where that came from.


3 replies on ““Don’t know where the snow falls from””

Hi. this comment has nothing to do with carders, but I thought that you would see it here easier than on an older post. IrelandXO has an interesting article on “Flax Spinners” in Ireland and finding your ancestors through flax spinner lists. [] After reading your excellent post in 2014 about the difference between Great Wheels and Flax Wheels I thought this was something that you should see. Thanks for your blog it has taken me down the rabbit hole of textile history!
Sue in Seattle, WA


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.