The Story of Cotton: Part 1: The Weaver

In this post, Debra explores the works by Ford Madox Brown, and links them to the development of weaving within Manchester, and its important role in the history of the city.

In the current exhibition Standardization and Deviation there is a work by Ford Madox Brown called ‘The Weaver’.  As a weaver myself its historical nature fascinated me, because I recognised it depicted a domestic / cottage weaver. The drawing was produced in 1887 and by then, small- scale domestic weaving would not have been as common place as it once was, largely because of competition from industrialisation of weaving, due to the invention of the power loom. 

Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893 The Weaver, 1887, h:754 w:645 mm Red, black and white chalk over pencil

First a little bit about the artist Ford Madox Brown. He was born in Calais, France to British parents in 1821. He is often associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. He was never a ‘true’ member but he was the first to look backwards before the brotherhood started to and was a mentor to them; working for the most part in bright colours, with naturalistic and detailed work.  

He studied art in Bruges and Antwerp in the 1830s, then in Paris in the 1840s; his art training provided him with the skills to be ambitious and complex with large-scale compositions. Drawing was an important part of his practice and he was very skilled in this medium. He had been taught to make sketches and preliminary studies of groups of ideas before painting a work, though he was later a fan of painting straight from nature and made fewer drawings later in life. He was a proponent of Ruskin’s idea of ‘truth to nature’, and these Ruskinian ideals were also adopted by the Pre-Raphaelite group. 

 ‘The Weaver’ is one of 8 preparatory designs which Madox Brown produced when he was commissioned to create decorative panels for the Royal Jubilee Exhibition in Old Trafford, Manchester in 1887. The Exhibition was to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and was a showcase of art, science and industry. 

The final panels were for each section of the Great Dome of the central hall, and represented a Lancashire worker and ‘industries of the county’ and each one was accompanied by a ‘winged spirit’. They were painted in reddish coloured oil paint, on a gold background surrounded by ultramarine and white lilies. Out of 8 panels, 2 of the figures are female, including ‘Spinning’ shown below. In total The Whitworth owns 9 of the preparatory drawings which were completed in chalk and pencil.

Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) Spinning, 1887, h:751 w:546 mm Pencil; Chalk (Red); Chalk (Black)

‘Spinning’ (not currently on display) depicts a female homeworker and reflects the gendered textiles roles common in the pre-industrial age; it was mainly women who spun yarn and men wove the cloth. In the drawing the woman uses a drop spindle to spin the fibres in her right hand and the larger object is a distaff, which holds the raw fibres of cotton. Spinning was something women could stop and start and fit around childcare and the other household duties that mainly fell on them to do. It’s where the pejorative word ‘spinster’ comes from to denote an old unmarried women, a term that was still used officially on documents up until 2005.

Madox Brown is seen as an important Manchester cultural figure, contributing to the social and radical political movements of the time through his art and philanthropic work. During the few years he lived in Manchester (1881 – 1887) he worked on an important and ambitious commission to create murals for the new Town Hall designed by Architect Alfred Waterhouse. There are 12 murals in total and they depict idealised versions of Manchester’s commercial, scientific and political events starting from the foundation of Manchester’s origins with ‘The Romans Building the Fort at Mancenion. AD 60’ and moving through time up to the 19th Century. He began work on them when he was still living in London but found it necessary to live in Manchester for a time, living in both Crumpsall and Victoria Park.

Early Manchester Weaving 

“The Establishment of Flemish Weavers in Manchester A.D. 1363” by Ford Madox Brown, 1882, Manchester Town Hall. 

In his biography written by his grandson Ford Madox Ford, Madox Brown states “This subject commemorates the foundation of Lancashire supremacy in textile manufactures.” Note that the older weaver on the right sits next to an apprentice weaver. Madox Brown copied this figure for the later ‘The Weaver’ drawing and his name on the green woven cloth, is Jan Van Brugge, a Flemish name.

Many people are familiar with the history of Manchester’s wealth built on the cotton industry, though its weaving past begins hundreds of years before then, when Manchester was only a village. Weaving was said to have been brought to Manchester by Flemish weavers in the 14th Century, making cloth in wool and linen. In his mural ‘The Establishment of Flemish Weavers in Manchester A.D. 1363’ Madox Brown uses some artistic licence and creates an idyllic scene with a visit from Queen Phillipa of Hainault, wife of Edward III. At this time Manchester was part of land which belonged to her son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and she was said to have been the reason for the introduction of Flemish weavers to England.

Weaving of cotton in Lancashire did not begin until the 1600’s, using raw cotton imported by the East India Company, which was set up during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to compete with Dutch traders in East Asia. Although at this stage pure cotton fabric could not be woven in this country because domestic spinning methods were not sophisticated enough to spin cotton of the right quality and strength to be used for the warp yarn (because the warp has to be stretched taught on a loom for weaving). Cotton was woven as weft on a linen (flax) warp because linen was very strong and this type of fabric is normally referred to as ‘fustian.’ It is a heavyweight coarse cotton fabric often used for menswear, notably later in the 19th century political radicals wore fustian jackets as a symbol of working-class solidarity; particularly those that were involved in the Chartist movement in the 1840s.

In the mid 18th century Manchester was still a relatively small town, though it was during this period when handloom weaving was on the rise. Mechanised spinning inventions in the 1760’s allowed plentiful and cheaper yarn which helped with increased demand. This complemented the invention of the fly shuttle in 1733 by John Kay from Bury, which allowed handweavers to weave much faster and so produce more cloth as well as weave wider cloth with much more ease. The late 18th century became a ‘golden period’ for handweavers, with tens of thousands of people employed, with decent rates of pay. 

Being from West Yorkshire, I am familiar with quaint stone-built weaver’s cottages with their particular vernacular which some of my ancestors lived in and wove ‘fancy cloth’. They are recognisable by a long rung of windows on the top floor, to allow as much light into the room for weaving. Evidence can still be found around Manchester city centre of urban versions of weaver’s cottages from the Georgian era, identified by similar distinctive shaped top floor windows. They are a rare find of this period and controversially this history is steadily being lost to make way for modern development. If you fancy going on a hunt for them around Manchester city centre, look for them in the Northern Quarter in drastically different states of conservation around Tib Street, Turner Street and Thomas Street; and around other parts of the city on Liverpool Road, and Portland Street.

Well preserved weaver’s dwellings, Tib Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester 2020. 

The beginning of the 19th Century was the start of the decline of handweaving due partly to recession caused by the Napoleonic wars, which led to petitioning for a minimum wage as weavers had faced a massive cut in wages and were struggling on the breadline. Interesting to note that many Lancashire soldiers who had fought in the French wars had turned to handweaving as means of income upon their return.  

Alongside this they faced increasing competition from an emerging factory system due to the expansion of power looms invented in the 1780s. In 1812 the government made ‘machine breaking’ a capital offence in response to Luddite attacks on machines and factory owners and over the next few years, as protests continued in different forms, they began to clamp down in the form of government acts (e.g. Six Acts 1819) on workers organising and fighting for reform by means of trade unionism, meetings, radical publishing and protests.

Madox Brown also includes in his mural series the story of John Kay of Bury’s invention of the flying shuttle. This mural was a celebration of Lancashire inventions contributing to the Industrial Revolution and Manchester’s textile story. According to Julian Treuherz, “it was an ambiguous way of introducing the Industrial Revolution to the story’’. Although the flying shuttle it is seen as key part of the move to industrialisation of weaving and loom design, as it led to the development in design and the dominance of power looms, this invention had caused concern and anger amongst handweavers across the country. They worried that increasing mechanisations would harm their livelihoods. It is, however, said to be a myth that Kay was physically attacked in his home as the mural implies. As well as the flying shuttle, Kay also designed and invented many other improvements to looms and weaving.

John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle. AD 1753. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Completed 1888. Manchester Town Hall, Oil on canvas

 “The evils of multiplying power looms, by first ruining half a million who depend on manual weaving, and especially those unhappy young people they now employ, are such as no human being can think are counterbalanced by any good expected from them.” The Committee of Manchester Weavers.

Many of those domestic weavers affected by creeping industrialisation of their trade were amongst those who protested their poverty and injustice of their working life at Peterloo in 1819 (many who marched were weavers and they included many of the injured). Madox Brown had wanted to depict as his final murals the Peterloo massacre as well as the Lancashire cotton famine which occurred in the 1860s, but they were deemed too controversial and sensitive a subject matter. 

A coloured print of Peterloo Massacre, published by Richard Carlile, St Peters Field Manchester, 16th August 1819, Deaths 18, Injured 400-700

The weaving of cloth and the cotton industry was important to Manchester and Lancashire for more than a couple of centuries. It created Manchester as the first modern industrialised city and Britain as the first industrialised country, and weaving and textile related occupations dominated people’s family trees for decades. Although, I am very conscious of the fact that it’s very difficult and also wrong to look at this history without acknowledging our Imperial past, because it was central to the wealth of Manchester and our Nation.

In part 2 I will be looking more in depth at Manchester’s Cotton history and its links with slavery, Empire and mercantilism.

Further Reading: 

Ford Maddox Brown, Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer – Julian Treuherz, Philip Wilson Publishers in association with Manchester Art Gallery

Ford Madox Brown : a record of his life and work by Ford, Ford Madox, 1873-1939

Geoffrey Timmins,  The Last Shift: The Decline of Handloom Weaving in Nineteenth-century Lancashire, (Manchester University Press, 1993).

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