“Revival of Hand Spinning and Weaving in Westmoreland”, Albert Fleming, The Century, vol. 37, 1888, pp. 522-7
Back up to Coniston this week, researching for my upcoming talk, ‘A Handmade Tale’ at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, in December.
In this talk, and some upcoming articles, I’ll be looking at the (sometimes uncredited) women behind the story of the revival of linen handspinning and weaving in the Lake District – as the men involved, Ruskin and Fleming, often get all the attention.
Based at Elterwater, Westmorland, it was often called the Langdale Linen Industry.
By his own account, Fleming appears to have been its first spinner; he taught his housekeeper, Marian Twelves, and she passed spinning and later other textile art skills, on to the workers.
Fleming’s own account of how the Langdale Linen Industry started, was so fascinating to this spinner, that I guessed it might be of great interest to other textile folk; so today the focus is on Fleming, not the Langdale women. I thought I’d share his words, here.
Artist and art critic, John Ruskin and the middle class Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, inspired followers to try and live a more authentic life; appreciating nature and beauty; recreating a lost, pre-Industrial world. Ruskin’s ideas were essentially socialist – he believed in workers being valued, enjoying their work and sharing in the profits from them. There was also a ‘green’ side to the Arts and Crafts movement’s phiolosophy – challenging consumerism: buy fewer things and let them be well made. Langdale linen was so durable, it was thought it would last decades, unlike linen produced by machinery.
Ruskin lent his name to the production of handspun and woven fabrics – but the ideas initially belong to men like Albert Fleming in Elterwater, Egbert Rydings on the Isle of Man and Ruskin’s own Guild of St George which was also active in Sheffield and elsewhere.
Fleming realised that handspun and woven linen was sustainable – wealthier people could afford to pay for handcrafted textiles, keeping the sometime unemployed, more elderly villagers in work. He was right. Demand soon outstripped supply.
I wanted to search beyond the men who get all the credit and find the women who became spinners and teachers of spinning, weavers and embroiderers; reviving and refining craft skills from 1883 onwards. So whilst my talk won’t linger for too long on Fleming (a London solicitor, who lived at Neaum Crag, Langdale), I thought I’d share his words from an 1888 piece for an American magazine, here where they can find an appreciative audience.
I’m very conscious of that element of the linen industry revival, that seems similar to things like the late 19th century collectors of folk songs and folktales. The middle class ‘do-gooder’ was at work here and, of the women involved in the industry, those middle class women were much better documented than their workers (slightly ironic in the context of Ruskin’s proto socialism!) So I was hoping to track down the ordinary spinners. Or some of them. Which I have – that research is ongoing.
Fleming started his venture in 1883. Early reports of the first bolts of cloth produced, were not promising. But the spinners and weavers – starting from a point of total inexperience, in most cases – advanced in leaps and bounds. The Langdale Industry was intially run by Fleming’s housekeeper (he refers to as ‘a friend’, here), Marian Twelves and she was its driving force. I have tried to identify the elderly woman who first taught Fleming to spin, as well as some of the other spinners.
Ruskin’s Guild of St George financed buying a cottage in Elterwater which they named St. Martin’s Home. Here, they brought the 7 spinning wheels they’d scavenged from various remote places, had 15 new wheels made, and brought the elderly and poor women of the village to teach them to spin flax. Workers could take their wheel home with them as soon as they were judged competent spinners. An old loom was sourced from a basement in Kendal, and moved to an outhouse. No-one who assembled the loom had ever seen one before, and they had to figure it out from a remembered painting. Bleaching was done on the small lawn at St. Martin’s; finished cloth was stretched out and bleached by sun and dew.
Fleming’s housekeeper, Marian Twelves, (born Mary Ann Twelves, 1844), a Bermondsey-born schoolteacher, was, by the time Fleming wrote this piece, leaving to replicate her Langdale success at Keswick School of Industrial Art with Edith Rawnsley and villager, Elizabeth Pepper took over as Manageress at Elterwater.
Langdale spinners used flax imported from Ireland although the Lakes had previously been a flax-growing district. Later, spinners and weavers branched out into spinning silk and wool.
Here’s Fleming’s account of how the Langdale Linen Industry got started. Lots here for the spinners to enjoy!
“… In the corner of my dining room stands an old spinning-wheel. There it has stood for many years forgotten and useless, its bands broken, its wheel silent. On its distaff still stands a hank of flax, dusty and discoloured. Perhaps some fair Margery or Dorothy, long since with God, may have turned that wheel, singing with a light heart as she spun the thread… One day as I read my Wordsworth the book opened at the nineteenth and twentieth sonnets, in which the poet laments the dis-use of the spinning wheel in Westmoreland. In the first he enumerates the wheel’s many kindly and beautiful offices; how it comforts the sorrowful, soothes the throbbing pulse, and aids and deepens love. The second touches a higher level; he he sings of the ‘venerable art torn from the poor’. Lifting my eyes from the page, my old wheel seemed to say, ‘Bring me back to work and usefulness; let my dry bones live.’
“There too, within six miles of my house, under the shade of his hills and woods, lived Mr. Ruskin, and often had my heart burned within me, as I read his fiery words calling on the men and women of England to spin and weave as in the days of old. Still I paused, waiting for the living word to lift me into action. It came to me one quiet autumn day in a cottage on Loughrigg Fell. That very week I had been troubled in mind about three old friends living out on the hillsides. They were old and feeble, too blind to sew, and too weak to go out for work, and ‘it’s but little call there is for knitting’… The answer came as I sat and talked to a thorough Westmoreland dame in her house-place that quiet autumn day. You may see her portrait drawn with absolute fidelity as the center figure in the illustration of ‘The Three Fates’ on page 523. The talk ran on to spinning. ‘In mother’d day,’ said my old friend, ‘every woman spun but when t’wheels died out the gude times went too; m’appen they’d come back if t’wheels did.’ Then and there I determined that the wheels should come back. ‘The venerable art torn from the poor’, should, God helping us, be given back to them.
“Now, at the foot of the hill on which my house stands, lives an old woman of eighty-six, of a type now, alas! nearly extinct, strong and masterful in her youth, silent and clear-headed in her old age. She is the left-hand figure in the drawing of ‘The Three Fates’. I took my wheel to her, and she welcomed it as an old friend, for she had spun all her young days. I had it mended and put into good working order, and soon I sat down to my first lesson. Desperately disheartening work I found it; her old, rheumatic fingers made a beautiful thread, but my clumsy, modern ones, produced a dreadful, gouty string, allt angled lumps and knots. Everything went wrong: the wheel reversed, the thread broke, and the flax twisted itself up into inconceivable bewilderments, but when I lost patience, Grannie would say in her quiet, resolute way, ‘Aye, but thou maun do it; so I perservered for three days till I could and did do it. A week’s practice completed my education, and I felt that I could now teach others…
… Then came the first practical question, where to get wheels. I advertised, wrote to all kinds of people, and scoured the countryside. Now and then a daleswoman would drop in to report that she had heard tell of some wheel in a remote valley. Then off we started, keen as hounds when the scent lies well, but very seldom succeeded in running the prize to earth. Generally the wheels had long since been ‘broken down’, or, if existing, were too fragile and shattered to be of any use. We labored on, but after all my efforts I could only secure seven wheels, all more or less weak. So at last the village carpenter was interviewed, and after due consideration, he took for fifty shillings a wheel to make me fifteen wheels exactly similar to the best of my old wheels, which I gave him as a model. The next two months was a period of great anxiety; many an hour did I spend in the village workshop. Difficulties beset us on every side; patterns of the ironwork were sent to two of the largest Birmingham firms, but Birmingham sent back word that she did not know the use of such things and would not or could not make them. Then questions occurred as to balance of the wheels, the adjustment of the bearings, and other knotty points. Luckily, our carpenter was a man of infinite resource, and at last our first wheel was completed, and, to our great delight, it worked well. We next formed classes for the women, and a kind friend undertook the pleasant but arduous labor of instruction [Marian Twelves]
“I remember seeing somewhere a print of a class in the old days – all the girls sat with their wheels round the mistress, who presided in their midst with a long wand in her hand. The wand was freely applied to the shoulders of any neglectful pupil. Even with this advantage three years’ apprenticeship was required before a girl was considered a good spinster. We had to take our pupils in hand when they were old and weary, and could only give three weeks’ practice instead of three years.
“[Describes setting up St Martin’s Home – with outside space for the loom and small lawn for bleaching] …One by one the women learned the new art which is indeed so old. When any woman could produce a good thread I let her take her wheel home, and supplied her with flax, buying back her thread, when spun, at the rate of two shillings a pound. Two of my best spinsters once spun a whole pound of thread in one day; but that was a tour de force not readily to be repeated, and only undertaken because there is a tradition that in the old days a good spinsters could spin a pound of flax in a day, and they were determined to convince me that women could do now what they could do then.
“And now before me rose the vast difficulty of weaving…
…Last night I looked from my windows over three Westmoreland dales sleeping quietly beneath the white stars. I was glad to think that in those three valleys we had been able to add the sweet murmur of the wheels by the fireside to the cry of the sheep on the hill and the song of the birds by the mere…
‘Ruskin Lace and Linen Work’, Elizabeth Prickett, Batsford, 1987
The Century magazine
Songs of the Spindle and Legends of the Loom, H.H. Warner, Powell, 1889