Bristol is a vibrant, alternative city. Winning the accolade of European Green Capital in 2015 was a nod to its remarkable ecological prowess. Already a centre for organic agriculture (the Soil Association) and sustainable transport (Sustrans), Bristol is emerging as a hub for new, sustainable textile activity. But how did it all begin?
1,000 years ago, Bristol was England’s primary port, with London its sole rival. A safe harbour near the exceptional sheep-rearing areas of the West Country, it cornered the medieval wool trade, then responsible for half the nation’s wealth.
Fulling had been banned from Bristol’s city centre when the tang of urine, used to cleanse and soften wool, got up locals’ noses. So the developing cloth industry concentrated instead in the new industrial suburb of Redcliffe, just across the River Avon. Here, tireless weaving looms turned wool from the surrounding area into cloth: fullers pounded it and dyers dipped it before stretching it on great tenter frames to dry. And then West Country cloth flowed out from Bristol to an eager world.
Wool shipped out of Bristol westward, heading for the exceptional cloth-producing areas of Flanders and Tuscany (Italian wool merchants revered the finest quality wool from ‘Ghondisqualdo’ – the Cotswolds) to be woven into woollen textiles, which England then re-imported. But in the late Middle Ages, from around 1400, Bristol went through an industrial revolution that saw the wool trade become the weaving trade; the process of fulling (beating and shrinking cloth to increase its density and thickness) was mechanised, thanks to the advent of water-power. Soon, the wooden hammers of West Country fulling mills replaced the arduous process of trampling cloth underfoot.
And a new breed, the clothier, emerged, amassing great wealth by creating a dense broadcloth which, thanks to Bristol’s merchant venturers and new trading bodies such as the Hudson’s Bay and East India companies, soon reached all corners of the globe.
If you wander down Thomas Street, Redcliffe today, you can see Wool Hall, an 1830 building that housed the wool market – as the previous one at Bristol bridge had become too congested to continue. But the building wasn’t a success, being too far from the location of the sheep market at Temple Meads. Unlike many of its older 17th century neighbours, it survived the Blitz, and in 1982 became a performance venue named ‘The Fleece’, which is still going strong today..... To read the full article click on the Selvedge Articles icon below from issue 84.