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The English woollen industry was the principle basis of the country's economy from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century and, by the mid-fifteenth century, woollen cloth was England's major export.

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Because of greater profits, less labour-intensive sheep grazing started to replace agriculture at about the time of the black death.

Wool was the staple industry of England from the 12th century onwards. Production of good quality woollen cloth for the domestic market began to expand in the 14th century; the industry was brought to its prominent position in the English economy by King Edward II (1307-1327) who encouraged Flemmish weavers, dyers and fullers to improve the quality of the product.


Fulling is a vital process int he production of cloth; the loosely woven fabric is converted to a relatively close-knit one by pounding it in fresh, clean water with fuller's earth.

This was originally done by foot, much like the pressing of grapes. The expansion of the English woollen idustry was gretly facilitated by the introduction of fulling stocks which replaced the power of human feet. Heavy oak hammers, designed so as to turn the cloth on each impact to prevent damage, were driven by water-wheels, saving much labour and increasing efficiency.

Many watermills were converted to fulling in the Middle Ages.

The cloth was washed with potash before fulling; fuller�s earth, pig dung and stale urine were widely used as a more economical alternative.  

15th Century

King Henry VI paid Adam Moleyns, Lord Privy Seal and Bishop of Chichester, £1,000 to cancel a patent which authorized him to ship wool anywhere that he pleased.

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While the Dissolution of the Monasteries had made King Henry VIII one of the richest kings in Christendom, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was, by comparisson, very much an impoverished monarch and was keen to foster the wool trade which provided a major source of royal revenue with such measures as "Burial in Woollen".

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The 18th Century

The wollen industry produced great wealth such that, writing about the woollen industry 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote (about Gloucestrshire) "it was no extraordinary thing to have clothiers in that county worth from ten thousand to forty thousand pounds a man, and many of the great families who now pass for gentry in these counties have been originally raised from and built up by this truly noble manufacture."

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1433Poole made a wool staple

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Coldharbour Mill Working Wool Museum

The sights and sounds of a Victorian mill - all the stages that a sheeps fleece goes through to make the finished wool. Some of the range of machinery, from the Victorian era to recent times, is demonstrated on guided tours.
Opening: April-October: 10.00am-5.00pm
Coldharbour Mill Working Wool Museum,
Uffculme, Cullompton, Devon EX15 3EE
tel:   01884 840960
email:   coldharbour@devonmuseums.net
web-site:   www.devonmuseums.net/frameset.asp?No=147

Trowbridge Museum

The museum is housed in Salters Mill, the last working woollen mill in the town. The large collection of machinery tells the story of the towns wool industry and includes possibly the best surviving of a Spinning Jenny. There is also a reconstruction of a Weavers Cottage and several working looms (demonstrated on most Saturdays). There are also regular temporary exhibitions.
Trowbridge Museum, The Shires Shopping Centre,
Court Street, Trowbridge, Wilts. BA14 8AT
tel:   +44 (0)1225 751339
web-site:   www.wiltshire-web.co.uk/history/darren.htm


see also:   West Country Museums

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The Cistercian monks were renowned in medieval times for sheep farming as at Buckfast Abbey in Devon on the edge of Dartmoor. At the turn of the 14th century, the Abbey was a major wool exporter to Italy.


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