2 September 1933
Months ago, when spring was late and it wouldn’t stop raining, my good friend Mrs Bow and I planned a trip to Quarry Bank. Ever since reading Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, I’ve longed to visit a northern cotton mill, see the machinery in action and learn more about the workers’ lives. Fliss read the novel this summer and fell in love with the unromantic town of Milton (as well as, I suspect, the very romantic Mr Thornton), and Seb, Ilse and Mandy Bow will all be learning about the industrial revolution in their history lessons soon. More than any of that though, Mrs Bow and I decided that we were in need of a good day out, and so plotted this little field trip for the end of the summer holidays.
Of course, the mill is still a working factory, but on Tuesday some of the longer-standing members of the workforce were holding demonstrations of cotton processing through the ages. Although the children seemed to find the cottager hand-carding and -spinning the raw fibres a little mundane (apparently spinning is so everyday) I had to resist climbing over the baskets and having a go myself. Cotton must be more difficult to spin than wool, and the woman was using a small version of a great wheel, which she spun from while seated. Most wheels nowadays have a treadle to drive the mechanism, which leaves both hands free to draft and spin the fibres. On a great wheel, you use one hand to turn the wheel and the other to draw the fibres back as the twist runs into them. The woman was quite skilful, and I was impressed by the fineness and evenness of the thread she produced.
If I’m honest, there wasn’t much about the cottage industries of carding, spinning or even weaving that we didn’t already know, as we’ve read a lot about this over the past couple of years. Nor was the operation of the spinning mules a mystery; we saw some in action in Wales last year. What I didn’t know was how cotton was spun nowadays, and when I asked I was sent up to the top floor where the modern machines were in action.
It turns out that the iconic spinning mules, with children crawling forwards and backwards to clear and reuse the waste cotton beneath, were superseded fairly quickly by the American invention of the ring spinner. Yet because British mills had already invested in expensive mules – of such quality that they are still in operation today – works such as Quarry Bank have only invested in ring spinners in the past fifteen to twenty years. The quality of the cotton produced is much the same, but the ring spinner is much faster and, more importantly, requires far fewer people to operate. Suddenly we have a machine which, despite rising standards of living for the workers, is still cheaper to produce than it was last century. No wonder cloth is more easily available than ever.
With the memory of the Great War still fresh in our minds, we are in little danger of taking cheap cloth for granted. Clothes are still too expensive, whether ready made or home sewn, for people to discard them on a whim. Most people I know will still make things over, and mend them, rather than buy new. But the bolts of bright cottons in the shops in York are very tempting, and we are well enough off for me to indulge the girls when they ask very nicely for a new summer frock even if they haven’t quite outgrown their old ones. Looking at the whole process under one roof, from the bales of fluff shipped in from around the globe, to the smooth and colourful finished article, makes it seem like an awful lot of resource to spend on something new to wear. Never mind the historical human cost: the children scrambling to get away from the heavy iron in time, the fluff on the lungs, the Indians who lost their fingers to the cruel British stranglehold on the industry – there must be other human costs that we don’t or won’t see even today.
All in all, our visit to the mill left me better educated and resolved to stick to my self-imposed rules about fabric. As someone who sews, it would be so easy to have a whole cupboard full of lovely prints and textures at my disposal. Instead, I try my hardest to buy new only when I really need to, and from a trusted source, and to make every purchase something so beautiful and so special that I’ll treasure it until the last scrap has been sewn into the most kaleidoscopic of quilts. Having said that though, I did buy a little pack of their fabrics to sew into the quilt I have planned for this winter. If nothing else, it’ll remind me of our visit to the mill and what I came away thinking.