The Horsehair-weaving Industry: John Miners, 14th February 2017
The multi-coloured samples of woven horse hair that John Miners brought along to the Society's meeting on 14th February were a long way removed from the bits of stuffing that some of us recalled from the inside of old sofas and in his detailed and well-illustrated talk John took us through the processes that turned this natural protein fibre into a versatile and immensely durable fabric. John is now a freelance textile consultant who began his career as an apprentice at Courtaulds; as a school leaver, whose family lived opposite the factory, he reasoned that a job there would allow him to minimise the time between getting out of bed and clocking in for work - but he moved on!
John Boyd Ltd is the only remaining weaver of horse hair in the UK and is based in Castle Cary in Somerset. John Boyd was the son of a Scottish merchant and he came to England in his early 20s as a travelling draper. He started his horse hair weaving business in 1837 in a chapel yard and by 1841 he employed about 30 weavers. By 1851 his enterprise had grown to 30 women, 9 men and 34 children involved in various operations. The children fed the horse tails into the looms and this had to be done in single strands- and alternately, because the hair is thicker at the top end of the tail, to ensure an even weave. With the coming of the 1870 Education Act, which forbade the employment of children under 13, mechanical feed machines were devised. At this time most of the hair used came from the local area where horse breeding was popular for agriculture and transport. Later in the century hair had to be imported because of increased mechanisation and nowadays most of the raw material comes from Mongolia. Before any hair gets near a loom it has to be washed - and conditioned -and sorted by hand (a process called hackling) to remove short, discoloured or brittle pieces. Hair never wears out and can be dyed any colour and the woven product is much in demand by antique restorers as well as modern furniture manufacturers for hotels, restaurants, shoes etc. In the weaving the hair is the weft - the horizontal strand (maximum length 26") - and this is combined with cotton, usually, as the vertical warp.
John Boyd did much for the town building cottages and terraces for his workers; at the turn of the century the company employed about 200 people such was the popularity of horse hair fabric.
John was warmly thanked by Secretary Clare Mathieson for a most interesting talk which generated many questions from the 22 members and guests present.
It was noted that John Geddes - member and past Treasurer - was seriously ill in hospital and best wishes for his speedy recovery were expressed.
Clare reminded members that the next meeting would be the AGM on 14th March - 7.30pm in Foxearth Village Hall -with cheese and wine. Please bring wedding photographs (yours, your parents, your grandparents?) and be prepared to be anecdotal!
Clare also pointed out that there were seats available on the trip to Harwich on July 11th (guided tour of the historic centre and the Redoubt Fort) and anyone wishing to be included should contact her without delay.