What were the Quantocks like in Medieval times?

  • An upland ewe and her lamb on the heath.

How did sheep change the Quantocks?

In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries everyone wanted to buy English woollen cloth. The merchants who traded cloth abroad made big profits and became very powerful. If you owned land the best way to get rich was by keeping lots of sheep and selling the wool for cloth. Sometimes this was bad news for tenants: if arable land was enclosed for sheep, where could they grow their crops? Sometimes they had to move off the land and hope to find some other work. Some families were lucky, but others became homeless beggars.

The Quantocks has always been a good place for sheep, so the landowners did well out of the wool trade. For example, in 1499, Sir Hugh Luttrell had 668 sheep on his estate in East Quantoxhead.

There are lots of jobs involved in making cloth: shearing the sheep, washing the wool, dyeing and spinning the wool, weaving the cloth on looms, fulling it and finishing it. For some of the tasks you need a good water supply and the Quantocks Hills have plenty of fast flowing streams.

People made the cloth at home, and then brought the cloth to fulling (or tucking) mills to finish it off. These mills were water-powered. There were fulling mills in many places, like Crowcombe, Adscombe, Holford and Marsh Mills.

  • Most people know Marsh Mills as a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, but for centuries it was an important centre for the textile industry, first making woollen cloth and then making silk.
  • This is the old overgrown mill pond at Marsh Mills

Other places like East Quantoxhead and Nether Stowey had dye-houses.

Surnames like Fuller, Weaver, Dyer and Tucker show that many local people found work in the cloth industry.

How did they make the cloth?

This carved bench end at Spaxton church shows a medieval Quantock fuller at work.

  • Here a roll of fabric is wound round the warp beam. On the right is a weaving comb, for pushing up the weft to make a tight weave. The tool on the right might be a teasel handle, for raising the nap.
  • This is a Fuller, beating the wet cloth with a pair of mallets. On his right is a pair of cloth-shears, for finishing the cloth. They really were that big, and you needed a lot of skill to use them.

This 17th century poem names all the different jobs to do with cloth-making.

At first the Parter that doth neatly cull
The finer from the coarser sort of wool.
The Dyer then in order next doth stand,
With sweating brow, and a laborious hand.
With oil they then asperge it, which, being done,
The skilful hand of Mixers round it run.
The Stock-carder his arms doth hard employ…
Then the Knee-carder doth (without control)
Convert it to a lesser roll.
Which done the Spinster doth in hand it take,
And of two hundred rolls one thread doth make.
The Weaver next doth warp and weave the chain.
…and cries, come boy, with quills.
Being filled, the Brayer doth it mundify,
From oil and dirt that in the same doth lie.
The Burler then (yea, thousands in this place),
The thick-set weed with nimble hand doth case…
The Fuller then close by his stock doth stand,
And will not once shake Morpheus by the hand.
The Rover next his arms lifts up on high
And near him sings the Shearman merrily.
The Drawer last, that many faults doth hide,
(Whom Merchant nor the Weaver can abide),
Yet he is one in most cloths stops more holes
Than there be stairs to the top of Paul’s.

cull= separate out
mundify = purify
asperge = sprinkle
quill=a piece of hollow reed round which the weft (weaving thread) was wound.
Morpheus=god of sleep
Carder=someone who uses two cards (pieces of wood with metal teeth sticking out) which untangle the wool into a roll of fibres lying in the same direction.
Burler= someone who picked out moved tiny bits of twig, seed, grass etc still caught in the cloth
Rover= someone who draws out and slightly twists the fibres to make a ‘rove’.
Brayer(or scourer) = someone who cleans the newly woven cloth to get rid of oil and dirt.
Fuller= fulling was beating the wet cloth to shrink it and make it thicker. It used to be done by stamping on it, but later it was done with big hammers, powered by a water-wheel.
The cloth was ‘raised’ by brushing it with teasels which raised a ‘nap’.
Shearman = a skilled person who used big shears to cut off the unwanted nap from the cloth, making it smooth.
warp. = the arrangement of strong twisted threads hanging down from the warp-beam or roller. The weaver had to weave thinner threads (called weft) in and out of the warp. It was sometimes called a chain.