I had a slight case of textile mill overkill earlier in the spring. But after a few weekends spent stressing out over the weekend papers, the lure of the loom proved too much. Burnley’s Queen Street Mill was calling.
I’d no idea what to expect. I knew it was a working mill museum. I knew it was threatened with closure. I knew it was a sunny day and we were probably a bit bonkers, but off we went, leaving the garden, the coast and the new big wheel in Funland behind in favour of a chimney and a weaving shed.
Queen Street isn’t one of the older mills that ushered in the great transformation of the textile industry in the north of England. It was commissioned in 1894, in the boom years of industrialisation.
A stone building, served by a red brick chimney, at first sight it seems too tranquil to be working. But on second glance, a sly serpent of steam is curling from the chimney top.
The spring day is reflected, Matisse-like, in the mill pond or ‘lodge’, beside the entrance. Decorative though it looks, that’s not its purpose. The mill sits atop a hill with no river nor stream to feed it and relies entirely rainwater, whether falling from the sky and collected off the roof.
Inside, given we’re expecting the mill to be working, it’s eerily quiet.
But as we eat cake and sup tea, a rhythmic sound starts to filter through. The shafts above us are turning. And they’re powered by steam.
The engine, up a flight of stairs, is a gleaming picture in brass and paint. A boiler-suited guardian tends lovingly to her wants.
The engine has a name: ‘Peace’. Originally called ‘Prudence’, in 1918 she was renamed in honour of those fallen in World War I.
Despite the boiler-suit, there’s no sign here of the boiler, so we leave to search it out.
Behind an unprepossessing wooden door lurk two beauties, red and black, one working. Both made in Lancashire, with faces that seem to say, ‘how dare they shut us down?’.
How dare they indeed.
I love the look of engines – the governors, the wheels, the brass, the motion. But I’m not nerdy enough to be able to tell you much about them, so I hope you enjoy the pictures.
Inside the mill, Graeme, the weaver demonstrating the looms, is a mine of information.
He repeats a handy mnemonic we were given at Helmshore Mills. Which is the warp, which the weft? Easy – the weft goes from weft to right.
We watch him working a Dobby loom making tea towel fabric.
‘Dobby’ has nothing to do with elves, dear Potter fans. It’s a corruption of ‘draw boy’. A draw boy worked with the weaver on a hand loom to control the warp threads. The ‘Dobby’ does it mechanically. It can weave a simple pattern automatically.
Next we watch a Jacquard loom in operation. Jacquard looms enabled the automatic weaving of more intricately patterned fabrics.
For me, a Blackburn lass originally, it was great to hear that this particular ancestor of the computer (it operates on a binary system based on hole-punched cards) was made in my home town.
Here’s a Jacquard loom that could make tapestries. I think of Grayson Perry. A shame he had to go to Belgium to have his ‘Vanity of Small Differences’ tapestries made.
My final weaving revelation among the demonstration looms is Terry towelling.
Terry towelling takes its name from Turkey, the origin of the technique. As I understand it, the headles holding the warp hesitate for three passes of the shuttle so that there are three layers of weft where there would normally be one. When the weft is finally woven and pushed up against the previous one, the loops of cotton stand up.
At this point, when the fabric emerges, the loops are still loose and can be easily pulled and snagged. That’s why the fabric then has to be washed, so it shrinks and sets the loops in.
Well, I never!
Christy’s is the most famous name in towels in England, because in 1850 one Henry Christy came back from Constantinople, in Turkey, with a sample of this fabric.
In 1851 the ‘Terry’ towelling was shown at the Great Exhibition in London. Queen Victoria was presented with a set of the new towels and promptly ordered more. Christy’s name was made.
After a series of changes of ownership the company now makes its towels in India. Isn’t that ironic? The Lancashire cotton trade stole the market from India, only for India to claim it back.
Who knows what the future might bring …
Anyway, back to Queen Street.
So much to see.
I’m distracted by the aesthetics. Cogs, gears, threads, stripes, shuttles, pirns – there’s beauty in them all.
Then the siren blows.
I hurry to the weaving shed where ‘Peace’ has begun to drive 300 looms. In 1982, when the mill was closed down, it was only operating 400 but at its height was at once stage running over a thousand.
All the looms in the shed today – just over 300 of them – were locally made, by Pemberton & Co and Harling & Todd Ltd, both of Burnley. They were installed originally in 1894.
The noise is deafening, even though only two or three looms are actually weaving. I put on the ear protectors provided, but think of those poor souls who worked here day in day out all their working lives.
I find it mesmerising.
The rhythmic clack and clatter is somehow comforting, but the decibels are not. And I’m grateful I don’t have to breathe in a fug of tiny fibres that would soon have me coughing and wheezing, like the mill workers did.
Workers like John O’Neil.
A weaver, John O’Neil died, aged 66, in 1876, 18 years before Queen Street was built. In his lifetime, weaving had been transformed from a craft to an industry. Weavers from craftsmen to workers.
Workers lived in basic, sometimes wretched conditions, scraping a living in deafening, lung-scarring, limb-threatening mills, without holidays or sick pay. No wonder the century that saw the Peterloo Massacre also saw the growth of unions.
O’Neil, who kept a diary, loved to read newspapers. There he read about the Civil War in America that was to cost him and his comrades dear. The blockade of the southern states meant less cotton and of poorer quality was available, meaning less work and, at times, no income at all.
The weather, a constant preoccupation for our weaver, could make the difference between working and not. If the river supplying steam ran low, machines – and workers – could not function.
Here at Queen Street, with its lovely but limited ‘lodge’, I wonder how often work had to stop thanks to a long, hot summer.
Time to leave.
In the shop there’s a treasure trove of fabrics, aprons, tea towels and oven mitts on sale. And a cotton bag designed by a young artist who did a workshop at the mill.
I buy all sorts of things I didn’t need. Because I want to send a message.
We support you.
Because this is the heritage of our nation, of the world, not just of a small county in northern England.
There are word plays I could use, now, to finish off. Plenty from the world of cotton. Being on tenterhooks, for example.
But I haven’t the heart.
Instead, I’ll leave it to a group of men from Oldham, in Lancashire, to sing to you of why cotton was so important to Lancashire, to the nation, to the world.
Here they are, the joyous Oldham Tinkers singing success to the weavers
– the weavers forever, huzza!
I mention the Peterloo Massacre which I wrote about on my other blogging site: Fildes, infant, rode over by the cavalry
Helmshore Mills are also a treat and also under threat of closure in September. The link to the opening times and directions is below and this is my ‘polemic’ (as someone described it) from our visit in March: Not even a pot to piss in