Sheep have always been an important part of the farming economy of the upland areas of the Yorkshire Dales. The evidence is all around in the form of sheep houses, sheep creeps, washdubs and folds. Locally bred varieties do well in the harsh winters of the area. Artefacts associated with spinning and weaving are occasionally found during excavations of early sites in the Dales such as the long handled comb found near Kettlewell, the woollen cloth produced would have been for domestic use mainly. By the medieval period, sheep’s wool had become a valuable commodity, traded on the international market. The sheep farms operated by Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory in the Dales generated huge sums of money which were spent on the buildings of the monasteries. The monks started by selling raw wool, but by the 14th century had changed over to producing woollen textiles instead. Several medieval monastic fulling mills are recorded on their Dales estates such as the one at Conistone, near to Fountains Abbey’s grange at Kilnsey. The wool cloth was beaten and washed in the fulling mill in order to produce a hard wearing felted surface.
Wool was also the foundation of a long-lived knitting industry in the Dales. Adam Sedgwick vividly describes the cottage industry in 18th century Dentdale where women gathered in the evenings at each other’s houses and knitted in a peculiar rocking style known as ‘swaving’. They were known as the ‘terrible knitters of Dent’ because they were terribly good. Children learnt the skill at an early age and went on knitting all their lives. Men and women both knitted. The use of a knitting stick or sheath tucked into a belt around their waist meant that they could knit while on the move and they fitted in a few rows wherever they could.
A fine collection of knitting sticks and other related artefacts can be seen at the Dales Countryside Museum. The wool used was a thick greasy variety known as bump and was used to make hard-wearing stockings as well as caps, jumpers and gloves. By the 19th century, woollen yarn was being brought in by a middleman known as the ‘bump master’. Parts of Swaledale and Wensleydale also specialising in knitting and Gayle Mill supplied wool yarn to large numbers of knitters in Gayle and Hawes. The tradition of knitting socks and other items is continued as a commercial enterprise by Swaledale Woollens, based in Muker.
The complicated process of knitting wool meant that while many parts of the process of producing the yarn became industrialised in the 18th and 19th centuries, the out worker continued to knit at home until well on into the 19th century. Joseph Dover at Farfield Mill carded and spun wool in his mill, but the yarn was sent out to be knitted. The completed items were then sent back to the mill to be dyed and fulled.
During the late 18th century, the profits to be made in the cotton trade and the fast flowing streams of the Dales tempted local entrepreneurs to set up cotton mills in almost every village in the area. They either built new or convert old water mills into their new industrial enterprises. One of the earliest in the Dales was Gayle Mill built in 1784 to spin cotton. Unfortunately, few of these village mills survived for very long with competition from Lancashire mills proving to be too great to surmount the problems of transport and unreliable water supplies. Gayle went on to become a woollen and flax mill while others, like Linton Mill were eventually used to spin man-made fibres such as rayon. One cotton mill that did manage to survive was Langcliffe High Mill. This was one of Yorkshire’s earliest and largest cotton spinning mills. It was built in 1783 and remained in production until the mid-1950s. Farfield Mill in Sedbergh while continuing to produce knitted goods, also brought in looms on which woollen cloth was woven. By the end of the 19th century the mill was specialising in producing horse blankets and plaid cloth used for lining horse collars. The decline in the use of horses and import tariffs saw the end of Dover’s company around 1937.
Locally grown flax was processed and woven into linen cloth on a domestic scale throughout the Dales from medieval times onwards and several 18th century cotton mills were converted into flax mills in the early 19th century. An example can be found in Askrigg. The village of Linton preserves in its name the fact that flax was grown nearby and possibly also processed into linen. The nearest identified flax processing (retting) site is just outside the National Park, at Draughton near Skipton. The site known as ‘Lillands’ or ‘Lyndlandes’ was given to Bolton Priory in the 12th century. Many of the outdoor spinning galleries recorded in the Dales such as the sole surviving example at Railton Yard in Sedbergh, were specifically designed for spinning flax because the fibre needs to be kept damp while being worked. References to several Hemp Closes attached to properties in medieval and later documents indicate that hemp was also being grown in the Dales on a domestic scale from medieval times, and textiles were produced from this plant in much the same way as flax. More specialist textile production in the Dales is represented by unusual 19th century silk mills at Countersett and Burtersett.
Textiles such as felt, linen and silk are still being produced in the Yorkshire Dales although today by artists and craftspeople rather than mill workers. Farfield Mill has been saved from dereliction along with two of its Dobcross looms. Once again, woollen blankets woven at the mill can be bought in local shops.
Fieldhouse, R & Jennings, B (1978) A History of Richmond and Swaledale London: Phillimore [‘The Richmond knitting trade’ pp177-183]
Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (2001) The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales Clapham: Dalesman
Higham, Mary C (1989) ‘Some evidence for 12th- and 13th-century linen and woollen textile processing’ Medieval Archaeology Vol 33 pp38-52
Higham, M C (1992) ‘Lin in the Landscape’ Nomina No 15 pp61-69
Hollett, C G (1983) ‘The Woollen Industry in Sedbergh’ SDHS Occ Newsletter No 6 pp24-26
King, Alan (1970) Early Pennine Settlement Clapham: Dalesman
Raistrick, Arthur (1976) Monks and Shepherds and the Yorkshire Dales Bainbridge: Yorkshire Dales National Park Committee
Raistrick, Arthur (1947) Malham & Malham Moor Clapham: Dalesman
Sedgwick, Adam (1984) Adam Sedgwick’s Dent Sedbergh/Dent: R F G Hollett and Son/David Boulton
White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books [‘Textiles’ pp95-98]