Page from a pattern book
Page from a pattern book

In these times of service industries and internet shopping, it is difficult to imagine an age when the manufacture of cotton was a major source of employment and generator of profit in Great Britain. Quilters love cotton fabric, we all hoard it, and yet still shop for more. To most of us, cotton is a component of our hobby, not our working lives, but this fabric was incredibly important in the recent past and many people depended on it. Just two generations ago, my Granddad was a clog shod labourer in a huge cotton mill in Bury, Lancashire, and all over the North West of England, we can see evidence of this Victorian industry. Many towns around the Manchester area were dependent on the manufacture of cotton cloth, and some were home to more than one cotton mill. In 1900 Oldham was the most important cotton spinning town in the world. The mills in Oldham imported cotton from the USA, and exported machinery and mill technologies to places as far flung as India and Japan. 70% of girls and 50% of boys who left school at 14 immediately went to work in the mills. Quilters love their fabric, but try to imagine living a life where cotton was vital to your existence! The Cops and Bobbins exhibition at Gallery Oldham this winter endeavoured to bring this home to visitors with a fascinating display of social history and manufacturing artefacts.

The Language of Cotton

We know that quilters tend towards a language of their own, with our Fat Quarters, Sashing, UFO's and Sandwiching. The cotton industry was just as filled with jargon, some of which survives today. Certainly in my part of the world, which although in the North West, doesn't have a cotton heritage, it's not unusual to hear phrases like these. "What a load of bobbins!" means "What rubbish!", "Keep your end up" refers to not letting the thread drag whilst spinning, and means "do what you are expected to do". "Carry the can" invokes the man responsible for taking the finished thread to the customer, and is used either as an expression of responsibility or acceptance of blame. There are cotton based phrases for praising intellect, "You cotton on quickly", and even when someone's distracted, we say "Don't lose your thread".

A wonderful array of patterns
A wonderful array of patterns


The pages shown here are from factory pattern books from Wallshaw Mills, Oldham 1829 – 1837. The books were used to keep track of orders for different fabrics. I was amazed at how small some of the samples were. Only the tiniest slivers were used to indentify different patterns of cloth. A scrap didn't show a full repeat of a pattern, for example. Sample bobbins of each thread were also kept, and the quality of each sample was used to determine the factory workers’ wages.

Oldham Card Room Association - Be United
Oldham Card Room Association
- Be United

Workers and the Slave Trade

The cotton mills were highly organised and mechanised but had huge labour forces. The workers were employed in varying conditions, this was a period of great change and Trade Unions and Worker's Rights movements were soon to become powerful within cotton. The mill owners were aware of the suffering of their workers, and even used this to rationalise the role of cotton in the slave trade. Oldham MP William Cobbett claimed "The blacks, when carried to the West Indies, are put into a paradise compared with the situation of these poor white creatures in Lancashire, and other factories of the North". There is no getting away from the fact that the whole process was underpinned by the slave ships from Africa, and the plantations in the USA. I wonder if the factory workers felt any kinship with the slaves contributing to the cotton trade with their lives on the other side of the world.

The advent of the unions had a side effect which is of interest to quilters - Banners! Each union or workers association usually had an impressive banner depicting the role of particular organisation. These banners belonged to the Oldham Card Room Association, which would represent the workers involved in the carding stage of the spinning process. They are huge pieces of work, usually one large central painted panel with contrasting borders. They are beautifully ornate in parts, but also accurately depict the machinery and factory setting. Some banners were made by sign-writers or union members, but the most successful unions commissioned oil painted banners from specialist firms such as George Tutil's, which still operates in Buckinghamshire today.

Oldham Card Room Association
Oldham Card Room Association

Educating the workers

The union movement was instrumental in improving the education of the cotton mill labourers. The Oldham Municipal Technical School offered courses in subjects such as Cotton Spinning and Mill Secretaries Work. These courses were ancestors of our modern City & Guilds qualifications, practical, vocational qualifications provided through evening classes to encourage "self-improvement" for the workers. In 1926, to pass third year Cotton Spinning, you would be required to complete modules in Cotton Spinning, Textile Drawing and Textile Mechanics. To gain a qualification in Mill Secretaries Work, you would undertake courses in Secretarial work, Commercial Law, Cotton Manufacture, Book Keeping, Theory & Practice of Commerce, and Commercial Arithmetic. It doesn't sound like as much fun as City and Guilds in Patchwork and Quilting does it?

Queenetta Fabric - As made by Britain's Cotton Queen, Miss Frances Lockett
Queenetta Fabric - As made by Britain's
Cotton Queen, Miss Frances Lockett

Cotton Queens

There was another interesting facet of the cotton industry, the 1930s Cotton Queen beauty pageants! The industry was promoted throughout the world using the Cotton Queens, who were originally selected from mill workers in each mill town. The Cotton Queen competition was organised by the Daily Dispatch newspaper, regional heats were held, culminating in a grand final in Blackpool. The winner of the contest would then spend a year touring the country, appearing at county shows and other occasions, promoting the cotton industry.

The Gallery Oldham exhibition tells of the 1935 final, when an Oldham mill girl, Edna Taylor from Belgrave Mills, won the title. 50,000 townspeople waited at the Town Hall for her triumphant return to the town. At midnight, there were still thousands singing “She’s a lassie from Lancashire”.

Sharples' Warehouses handkerchief
Sharples' Warehouses handkerchief

Peak and decline

In 1931, The British Cotton Fair proved just how much the cotton industry was based in the North West. The majority of the representatives were from the Lancashire area. When the railway came to Oldham, the town really began to dominate. The damp climate was ideal as it made spinning cotton easier. Most mills in Oldham were built during three boom periods, the late 1860s, 1873-5 and 1904-8. By 1866 Oldham had more spindles than any town in the world, 17.8 million spindles at its peak. The mill designers and architects began to export factory machinery all over the world. Architects such as Joseph Stott, built mills in England, Germany, and India.

Decline was to follow the First World War. The mills suffered from a lack of investment in new machinery, and local trade unions became very powerful. The Government formed the Cotton Spindles Board in 1930s and consolidated failing firms. After the Second World War, the mills suffered further setbacks. Workers were no longer willing to accept low wages and long nightshifts. Oldham became a centre for immigration, and by the late 19th century there were 50,000 immigrant workers in the town, mostly from Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth. The textile industry still matters in the North West, there are still many garment manufacturers, a large immigrant workforce and much textile research happens here, but cotton is no longer king.

For further information on the British Cotton industry, visit Spinning the Web. For details of other exhibitions at Gallery Oldham visit their website, Gallery Oldham. All images courtesy of and copyright Gallery Oldham.