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Don’t be sheepish about wool

By rob taylor  |  Posted: November 12, 2012

Wolverhampton children in their woolies.

Wolverhampton children in their woolies.

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THERE were times when woollen clothes were expensive, valued, and had to be long-lasting, therefore a family’s wardrobe was far from extensive. Wool produces a unique material that keeps us far warmer than any modern day synthetic equivalent.

Did you notice when you were young that you were dressed, during the winter months, almost from top to toe in wool? This was because in the woollen trade not only were the short fibres from the sheep's fleece used, but all kinds of re-manufactured materials, and byproducts were utilised. These comprised "Roil", the short fiibres rejected in the combing operations for worsted yarn production, "mungo", the shreddings, "shoddy", also shreddings, but softer, and "flocks", the collection of fibre from machines. Everything was useful for our natty little outfits.

Possibly you would imagine not every item could have been made of wool, but even underwear, or your "indispensables" were woven in fine wool. Therefore, an optimistic local shopkeeper, Jesse Ainsbury, believed, way back in "twenties" she could offer a perpetual display of "woollen smalls" in her wool shop at 66/67 High Street, Dudley.

Perhaps she thought there would be a striking expansion in winter warmers as well as light spring woollens, therefore she went to the expense of having this advertising picture postcard (bottom right) printed. Now, two of her employees obviously thought "winter draws on" — consequently, with a little tongue in cheek, they used one of the cards to write to each other on October 18th. Unfortunately, the sender Alice Mills failed to write the year.

She sent this message to Miss Lily Davies, living at 3C, 2 House, King Edward Street, Dudley.

"Dear Lily, Don't forget to keep warm.

Your Shop Mate, Alice Mills" Did they both purchase, with staff discount, a woollen petticoat, and a few pairs of long johns for a little extra insulation, as these girls wouldn't have been too sheepish about weaviing practical undies? Jesse Ainsbury had chosen for her advertisement sheep with "dreadlocks", Wensleydales.

A perfect idea as their shaggy coats could have been woven into silky rolls of fine woollen fabric.

This type of woollen material was ideal for a woolly Liberty Bodice for a child or a pair of woolly combinations for grandpa. Maybe this beautiful bouncing baby boy (top right) had been taken along to see Jesse so that his mother could buy him a new woolly outfit for when he had this portrait taken at the Dudley studio of Horace Dudley. Even his pet toy sheep dog had been dressed in a jumper made from the distictive curlly fleece...was this also from Jesse's new winter collection? Sheep, of course, provided a return other than their meat, and in many ways the fleece was perhaps more important, consequently to the sheep farmer sheep shearing was a momentous ritual in the rural calendar. Before shearing could be done the sheep were washed to remove dirt and impurities from their woolly coats. In some cases, in days gone by, this meant nothing more than driving the sheep to swim across some local river. The streams, and their pools which flowed through our patch, were where men stood, washing each sheep as it was forced to dip into the water. Dipping was usually done early on a summer morning, so that the sheep would have the rest of the day to dry out. Usually a further week went by before the shearing operation was ready to begin.

Grazed The River Stour undoubtedly played an important role in this process and in the development of Old Swinford, which became a centre for producing woollen cloth. Sheep were grazed on the high ground at Pedmore, Wollescote and on the heath land lying towards Whittington. Of course, the River Stour continued its sinuous windings to Kinver where the farmers provided exceedingly good grazing for sheep at the Hyde.

The River Stour, these days with a sheepish whimper, only takes a gentle meander through the countryside. Unlike in the days of the woollen industry, when its tumultuous flow provided power for the mills where the cloth was produced.

There was nothing shoddy about this fine woollen cloth, as it was purchased by the mercers and clothiers in Stourbridge noted for their exquisite tailoring. Also we have a clear indication from the place names of "Washing Pool" and "Gigmill" that sheep fitted snuggly into our landscape. They were farmed for their fleeces and for their milk, instead of being farmed for meat. The old dog and stick method persisted, and shearing was done with a tool that looked like a pair of large scissors. The young shepherds at the Hyde would look at you blankly if you asked them about dosing sheep with turpentine for "fluke" salting their hay to prevent "the rot", grinding up hellebore for "scab", or chalk in milk for "scouring, and a glass of gin with ground pepper for “colic”.

These old remedies have been cast aside, and so has the need to produce wool at our modern day farms.

Although we tend to think of wool as just a fabric to keep us warm, wool held a special place in history. In the thirteenth century it was an over whelmingly important export, with half the country's wealth derived from it.

Many tons of wool was shipped abroad every year, nearly all to Flanders. At that time control of wool was a political weapon, even the Lord Chancellor sat on a wool sack. Consequently, livestock farming for raw wool spread through the countryside and reached a peak at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Wool was the making of this country, especially when wool began to be made into cloth rather than just an exported raw material. It also stimulated the growth of industry by the building of new "fulling" mills, worked by water power. In fact, it could be said, this was an early industrial revolution.

During the years of austerity in WW11 most clothes were scarce and could only be obtained with coupons. Luxury items were only for export, which made the winter months even colder. Some eager customers were not at all sheepish about buying on the black market, however most women obeyed the rules and found alternative methods of getting round the problem without entering the illicit trade. The clatter of knitting needles followed.

However, wool was precious because it cost more coupons than rayon or even silk, and it cost more because in an often fuelless world, it kept us warm. Knitting was something anyone could do in an air-raid shelter, where many items were produced in the dim light without really needing to see the stitches. A popular design was the " Victory Jumper", with a "Vneck", however, as you can see from this knitting pattern of the period, "Service Woollies" were also part of knitting for the troops, yet most families found themselves wearing balaclavas, gloves and socks designed for soldiers on active service.

Fashion Nevertheless, many women got really cross at having to unravel threadbare woollens and old peices of knitting to reknit into something that resembled the new seasons fashion. If you were extremely clever, old wool could be washed and home dyed with plant extracts.

Dandelions for a clear bright yellow, Elder leaves produced green, Marigold flowers shades of orange and of course there was a plentiful supply of Blackberries in August, green from shoots and pink from leaves and berries. If you were not a sheepish kind of girl, Hops produced a vivid red dye.

The war made the clothing of infants and children much more difficult to organise, every child at sometime experienced having to wear hand-me-downs, however this photograph far left illustrates that this threesomes' mother hadn't found it necessary. All in fine woollen knitwear. Nothing drab about their outfits, even though the wartime economy was probablly marching up the path of their house at 5, Skidmore Avenue, Birches Farm Estate, Wolverhampton.

These days woollen products are not especially cheap, that is if you can find them. In the mass produced acrylic world we live in, these photographs of woolly winter warmers are a durable reminder of a simpler way of life that many of us experienced. However, l didn't, as l'm allergic to wool!

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