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Why Witney?

The Witney area has been linked to the wool and cloth making trade for over 900 years, going back to at least the 12th century. Many reasons have been put forward as to why a blanket trade centred on Witney developed and why it was so successful for so long: below are some of the possible explanations.

Why did a wool industry develop in Witney?

A Cotswold breed ewe.
A Cotswold breed ewe.
The sheep themselves - the 'local' Cotswold breed developed over the centuries from animals that were a cross between native Iron Age sheep and a breed that the Romans introduced to Britain. The Cotswold sheep produced a long, fine wool that was much in demand from the early Medieval period, especially for export.

Witney was also blessed because it lies close to the Cotswold Hills, whose dry, open pastures provide lots of excellent land for the farming of these sheep. There is evidence that wool production was widespread in the county from a very early period, so you could ask why not Witney?

The River Windrush looking downstream from Witney bridge.
The River Windrush looking downstream from Witney bridge.
The River Windrush supplied the large volumes of water necessary for many cloth-making processes such as dyeing and fulling. Importantly, the water would have been relatively clean because Witney is the first town on the river. The Windrush also provided a good millstream to power the fulling mills where woven cloth was cleaned and processed.

The Bishops of Winchester, who developed Witney, encouraged the growth of the wool trade in the town. They had vast estates of land on which they farmed many flocks of sheep, and their manor house (the 'Bishop's Palace') was a centre for the collection of wool from surrounding areas. They also built three fulling mills in the area by as early as 1223 [1].

What helped Witney's wool and blanket trade to grow?

The tomb of Richard Wenman, wool merchant, in St Mary's church, Witney.
The tomb of Richard Wenman, wool merchant, in St Mary's church, Witney.
The availability of good sheep-raising land and the expansion of the export trade in the 15th and 16th centuries helped to attract wealthy merchants and producers to the area. The Cotswolds were the prime wool centre of England, which had its heart at Lechlade in Gloucestershire. Affluent wool merchants' families were able to advertise their power and status by building great houses and churches, marrying into the aristocracy and erecting impressive monuments to themselves which can still be seen in many local churches.

Like all trades, the wool and cloth industry in Witney suffered its share of depressions and hard times over the years, but the town established a growing reputation for cloth production as early as the 15th century. By the 17th century it was famed specifically for making high quality blanketing material and blankets.

The seal matrix (stamp) of the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company. The word 'Wavers' is the Witney dialect pronunciation of weavers.
The seal matrix (stamp) of the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company. The word 'Wavers' is the Witney dialect pronunciation of weavers.
Most British cloth producing areas had trade guilds regulating their work and products during Medieval times but Witney had no guild until very late, when the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company was formed in 1711. This absence of restrictions on its business may have benefited the industry by attracting master weavers from other areas and providing an atmosphere of relative freedom in which broadcloth weaving could develop. When the guild finally came into existence, however, it helped protect and promote the good reputation of Witney blankets by maintaining high standards. All local blanket makers had to belong to the Company and were fined if they did not reach the desired quality. The idea of a Witney 'brand' recognised for its quality had begun to be established.

Geography and transport links were important factors. Witney was only about 70 miles from each of the major ports of London, Bristol and Southampton, all of which could be reached over good roads; these roads were improved by new bridges in the 15th century [2]. Most wool for export in the Middle Ages, especially the best quality which came from the Cotswolds, went via London to Calais so that the State could collect duty on it and regulate the flow of these valuable goods, and London was a major market in its own right.

A new boiler being taken through the streets to Witney Mill at the end of the 19th century.
A new boiler being taken through the streets to Witney Mill at the end of the 19th century.
The transformation of blanket making from a cottage industry into a factory-based operation during the 19th century was key to Witney's success. Having already gained a strong reputation and established sound trading links, Witney was able to emerge as a competitive force in the new industrialised Britain. Blanket making was now in the control of a small handful of people who had enough entrepreneurial spirit, business sense and luck to develop their companies from small family-run concerns to large mills employing hundreds of people.

In the 19th century, competition from Yorkshire also spurred Witney manufacturers to make important innovations, such as changing products to meet new demands, installing new machinery in their mills and campaigning for a railway to be built to the town so that the coal for running steam engines could be brought in and blankets sent out more cheaply.

Why did Witney specialise in broadcloth and blanket making?
Broadcloth is versatile, with many uses ranging from bed-coverings to clothing, hammocks, horse cloths and waggon tilts. This would have given manufacturers the flexibility to produce alternative products when sales of their main goods fell. Producing different kinds of broadcloth would have meant that Witney already had skilled labour, plenty of loom capacity and potential markets in place, allowing the specialisation in blankets to develop.

Witney became known especially for blanket making in the early 17th century: this may have been because weavers diversified their products when export markets for undyed broadcloth collapsed at that time. By 1677 Dr Plot was already able to record that the town was 'the most eminent in England' for blanket making, which he attributed in part to the special qualities of the waters of the River Windrush and the local inhabitants' 'peculiar loose way of spinning' [3]. A soft thread produced by loose spinning would help to produce a softer, fluffier blanket, so this may have been an important reason. The idea that the special properties of Windrush contributed to the quality of the finished product is much more debatable!

Witney's nearness to London may also have been important. High quality blankets need a skilful blend of different types of wool, but the best wool is found only in small quantities on each sheep. London meat markets such as Smithfield would have been able to supply huge quantities of sheepskins and fell wool from all over England. In the early 17th century it was recorded that Witney carriers arrived in London every Wednesday and by 1677 Witney waggons were taking finished duffields and blankets to London for sale and returning laden with fell wool [4].

Finally, Witney would have been much closer to London compared to rival industries in Yorkshire, the West of England and much of East Anglia. This may have made blankets, which compared to finer cloth are too large and bulky to transport long distances by road, more economically viable for the Witney merchants to transport and sell.

What enabled the industry to last for over 300 years?

1920s or 1930s advertising sign from Charles Early and Co.
1920s or 1930s advertising sign from Charles Early and Co.
Even with constant use, woven wool blankets can last for many decades and they also feel and look appealing, so they are excellent adverts for themselves! By rigorous quality control and self-promotion, Witney blanket makers soon established a high quality reputation which they later reinforced with advertising trading on this. They also protected their product's name: a case brought by two of the leading makers in 1908 ensured in law that only those blankets actually made in the town could be called 'Witney blankets' [5].

The working environment was important: Witney had a ready local labour force with a lot of expertise in the business and good working conditions attracted people in to work from other areas. The family-run businesses in Witney all seem to have maintained a good reputation for the caring and respectful treatment of their workers.

Witney blanket makers developed a good export market, particularly in North America and Africa. A strong and long lasting trade was maintained with the Hudson Bay Company, which traded dyed blankets with Native Americans for beaver skins. Dr Plot mentions improvements in dye fixing, invented by a Witney inhabitant, that may have been significant in helping establish this trade [6]. The Witney manufacturers also regularly supplied orders to other big customers such as the army and navy, especially at times of war.

Witney blanket makers had an informal but strong system of mutual support, especially before industrialisation was fully developed [7]. The different makers shared orders, storage and transport when necessary. When weaving was carried out on handlooms, this gave them a good degree of competitive flexibility and ensured that they could meet orders and deadlines, even when the individual firms might not have had the capacity to do so by themselves.

Finally, the Witney blanket industry proved itself to be adaptable throughout its history. Although in the early 19th century the blanket makers were slow to adopt new technology compared with other areas such as Yorkshire, they eventually came to bring many innovations to their industry, right down to Fiberweaving in the 1960s. This allowed them to compete successfully with rival producers throughout Britain and the World.

[1] Townley 2004: p76
[2] Townley 2004: p76
[3] Plot 1677: p278-280
[4] Plot 1677: p278-280
[5] Plummer and Early 1969: p107
[6] Plot 1677: p278-280
[7] Plummer and Early 1969: p68