What kinds of blankets were made in Witney?
The life of the Oxfordshire town of Witney became dominated by the business of cloth and blanket making from the early 16th century; through many changes and varying fortunes, that trade was to continue until 2002. During those four hundred years many different types of blankets were made there in an astonishing array of sizes, weights, qualities, colours, patterns and uses. They also differed according to which blanket makers or firms produced them, what type of process they were made by and what the buyers' requirements were.
Pure Merino wool blanket made by Smith and Philips' for a small
chain of department stores.
Here are some of the types of blankets that were important products of the Witney industry:
All-wool woven blankets
Originally made on hand looms, then power looms when they came along, these traditional plain weave blankets in a range of sizes and weights were the mainstay of all the Witney companies until the 1960s.
'Earlywarm' brand blanket made by Charles Early and Co. Ltd,
The majority of blankets varied from off-white to cream depending on whether they had been bleached or not; often they were made with coloured stripes or headings inserted at each end. A certain amount of one-colour dyed blankets were also produced in the 19th century, becoming much more common in the 20th century. The blanket stitch finishing (known as whipping) on the cut ends of each blanket might also be coloured, though some were bound with satin or synthetic material instead. After the Second World War the output of dyed blankets increased.
A high proportion of these blankets were sold for domestic use in Britain and abroad. Some blankets were labelled only with the name of the company that placed the order for them (often a department store or retailer) and do not show which Witney blanket company manufactured them, but nearly all will have the all important word 'Witney' somewhere on the label.
Point blankets were one of the best known of Witney's products, being famously traded in exchange for beaver pelts with native North American peoples. These blankets were made in Witney since at least 1779 when an order for 500 pairs of 'pointed blankets' was received by the firm of Thomas Empson from The Hudson's Bay Company .
Three and a half point Witney point blanket.
Point blankets were always made from wool and had one or more 'headings' or bands of colour at either end, but most importantly had several short lines known as 'points' sewn or woven into one corner; the number of points on a blanket indicated its size and therefore its value . Aside from these essentials they were made in a variety of colours and patterns over the years; a white background with indigo, red, green, and yellow bands was to become one of the best known or 'classic' point designs.
Victorian and 20th century point blankets often have labels which identify them as a 'Witney Point Blanket' and Early's adopted a trademark of an Native American wearing a feather headdress which they used on their points for much of the 20th century. Smith and Philips' of Bridge Street also made points; their trademark was a globe with the words 'Witnedown Blankets Cover the World'.
Cellular blankets have an open weave with thousands of small holes worked into the cloth. This enables them to trap pockets of insulating air when they are used under or between other blankets, making them very light but also very warm.
Early's 'Abingdon' brand woollen cellular blanket.
Early's experimented with making cellular blankets in 1952, becoming the one of the first companies to reduce the price of these goods to an affordable level. By 1955 they were making large quantities in both cotton and wool. White cotton cellular blankets were much in demand by hospitals because they could stand up to the high temperature washing needed to prevent the spread of infection. Woollen mixture cellular blankets were produced in a range of colours by several Witney firms and sold internationally. Cellular blankets were also a popular choice for cot blankets.
These started to be made in Witney in the mid-1960s. The process was invented in America by the Chatham Manufacturing Company; it was based on a principle of looping and matting together a web of fibres to form a fabric. Banks of barbed needles were repeatedly thrust through several layers of webbing to create a thick, springy, felt-like fabric which was warm and fairly lightweight. The first two Fiberweaving machines to be used in Witney replaced more than a hundred conventional looms and increased Charles Early and Marriott's annual output of blankets by 50 per cent, making them relatively cheap to produce and to buy; Smith and Philips' adopted similar needlepunch technology soon after.
A brightly patterned Fiberwoven blanket.
Fiberweavers would not work well with pure wool so Fiberwoven blankets were either 100% synthetic or had a high proportion of synthetic fibres. They were produced in many colours and patterns and could also be screen printed: floral motifs, cartoon characters and pop stars including The Beatles all appeared on them. Their introduction coincided with a renewed wave of interest in home decoration and design in the 1960s and 1970s and they became much more of a fashion item than the traditional wool blankets, often bought to match the decorative scheme of a room. Airlines, shipping companies, hotels and other mass consumers of blankets were regular purchasers of Fiberwoven goods.
When Courtaulds acquired shares in Early and Marriott in the early 1960s they brought with them knowledge of new types of fibres and encouraged the production of knitted blankets. Raschel knitting machines from Germany were introduced to Mount Mills in 1966, and more machines followed soon after. The machines were about four times faster than conventional looms. The first knitted blankets were made from nylon and 'Celon' and were sold under the 'Night Star' trade name. These looms produced a fabric with a lace-like openwork structure.
Government order, military and hospital blankets
Wars and natural disasters have always created sudden demands for large quantities of blankets and Witney manufacturers received many Government orders over the years. The Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars and two World Wars all brought blanket booms to the town, although some were very short lived. Cabin blankets for use at sea were first made in the early 18th century . Many of these blankets would not have been of the best quality and were plain unbleached or dyed grey or olive.
Blanket with 'CC41' Utility mark logo, made in or just after the
Second World War to a lower specification than blankets made
before the War.
Hospital blankets had long been a Witney product even before the introduction of cotton cellular blankets in the 1950s. In 1823 the Steward of St Thomas' Hospital, London, placed an order for 50 pairs of blankets, 'of similar quality and weight as those manufactured for Guy's Hospital' .
Horse blankets were made in Witney by some companies. They were used for stabling and grazing during the winter as an extra layer of warmth along the horse's back under a horse rug. A yellow background with stripes of red and black were traditional colours. The texture of these blankets tended to be thick and springy but coarser than domestic blankets.
Replica of one of the pair of horse blankets made as a wedding
present for Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.
In 1957 Early's made the first electric Witney blanket at the old factory at 55-56 West End and in 1967 set up an Electric Blanket Department at Mount Mills . These were not one of their most successful lines, however. Smith and Philips' also made shells for electric blankets, but unlike Early's did not install the heating elements.