British made and impeccable quality: the history of British knitwear and textiles

 

The British knitwear and textile industry has an incredible, vibrant history

Centuries of skill and craftsmanship

As a British knitwear designer I’m part of an industry that spans centuries of skill and craftsmanship. British knitwear and textiles have a vibrant history which dates back centuries before the industrial revolution.

 
 British made knitwear and textiles have an incredible vibrant history - Susan Holton Knitwear
 

Fortunately, today many people still choose to invest in our fine quality British-made knitwear, clothing and textiles; and as a result they wear world-renowned quality and beautifully designed clothing, while supporting British designer-makers and manufacturers. My customers buy my handmade knitwear because of its quality, individuality, and longevity. But I suspect that many people give little thought to where and how their clothes are made, who made them and how long each piece will last. Many people aren’t familiar with our fine British knitwear and textiles design and production heritage, and many people think ‘you knit with wool and you sew with cotton’… it’s not quite that simple!

This is a big subject… I will revisit it in the future in more detail - but I hope you’ll find the following an interesting overview…


Britain has a proud wool tradition, going back centuries

Wool was the principal source of wealth in the Medieval English economy

Wool was the backbone, driving force, and principal source of wealth of the medieval English economy. Demand for raw and finished wool was huge and anyone with land who could raise sheep, did.

 
 Sheep pen with shepherds from the Luttrell Psalter, c1325

Sheep pen with shepherds from the Luttrell Psalter, c1325

 
Since the 14th century, the seat on which the Lord High Chancellor sits in the House of Lords has been a large square bag of wool, called the ‘woolsack’.

English wools were highly prized in medieval Europe

The British climate was (and is) excellent for grazing sheep and the production of wool. English wools, especially from the Welsh Marches, the South West, and East Anglia, were highly prized in medieval Europe, and English raw or untreated wool was exported to France, Italy and the Low Countries to be spun and woven.

Over time, more finished cloth of a high quality began to be produced in Britain and this was exported instead of the raw wool.

Wool is a lovely fibre to knit with and it has excellent qualities which make it good to wear: it’s a good insulator so it’s warm, and it resists creases better than cotton, viscose or silk. However, a substantial minority of people are at least mildly allergic to wool which feels itchy and uncomfortable to them. I’m in that minority, so when I knit with wool I select it very carefully and often knit it in a mix with other fibres, such as silk and cotton.

Under Elizabeth 1 a law was passed which obliged all Englishmen except nobles to wear a woollen cap to church on Sundays as part of a plan to support the wool industry.

Silk: a luxury fibre

Wool and cotton were accessible to everyone, silk was a luxury fibre

Those who know me well know that I love to knit with silk, and I use it a lot in my knitwear. It is lovely to wear, dyes and drapes beautifully. It’s certainly not cheap to buy but if you look after it it will last for years so it can be highly cost-effective on a per-wear basis. Historically, silk was a luxury fibre, unaffordable to the majority and worn by only the highest echelons of society. Originally produced in China and the Far East, it’s thought that silk production came to Western Europe with the Crusades.

Spitalfields silk and the Huguenots

The biggest influence on the British silk industry was probably the influx of highly skilled Huguenot (ie French Protestant) silk weavers who came to Britain after 1685 to escape religious persecution in France. Many settled in Spitalfields in London. They brought skills and technology previously unknown in Britain and the British silk industry bloomed. The industry declined in the 19th century because both the silkworms and the mulberry trees they ate were affected by disease. It declined further with the invention of ‘artificial silk’ - or viscose - as well as synthetic fibres such as polyester and acrylic, in the 20th century.

If you would like to know more about the silk weavers of Spitalfields, I can recommend a wonderful blog called ‘Spitalfields Life’. The author (‘The Gentle Author’) has written about the silk weavers in his blog on many occasions, but I think this piece is a good starting point.

 
 Sericulture, placing silkworms on trays with mulberry leaves, c1200s

Sericulture, placing silkworms on trays with mulberry leaves, c1200s

 
 
 

Cotton: a fibre for everyman

Cotton is a wonderful fibre, which I use in my knitwear, and wear, a lot. It has many excellent characteristics for knitwear and other textiles; it’s breathable and absorbent which makes it comfortable to wear, it can be naturally hypoallergenic so it’s not itchy, it combines well with other fibres such as silk and linen, and is cheaper to produce than silk. Cotton creases more easily than wool, and has major disadvantages such as the amount of land and other resources such as water and fertiliser which are required to grow it successfully. This is another big topic, which I have touched on in another blog post which you can read here. The lower price of cotton made it more accessible than silk or wool to the general public for clothing and homewares, and the cotton industry thrived during and after the industrial revolution. The countries of the British Empire and the Americas supplied raw cotton to the new factories of the north of England, and the spun and woven cloth coming from those factories helped to supply the demand for affordable cotton cloth from a growing population.

 
 Cotton bolls on a cotton plant, by Marianne Krohn on Unsplash

Cotton bolls on a cotton plant, by Marianne Krohn on Unsplash

 

Dark Satanic Mills

British textiles and the industrial revolution

The industrial revolution led to hand methods and cottage industry production changing to mechanised production and the factory system. The industrial revolution began in Britain, and textiles played a central role.

Textiles and cloth trades were centred in the north of England (Leeds has been described as ‘a city built on cloth’), and the mechanised mills of Leeds are thought to have been the largest the world has seen, fed with raw materials from the expanding British Empire in the 19th century.

In the 19th and first half of the 20th century British textiles and knitwear manufacturing were the envy of the world.

British textile mills began to fall silent in the 20th century

The British textiles industry thrived into the 20th century; the textile mills of Britain only began to fall silent as cheaper imports from the Far East flooded into Britain in the second half of the 20th century.

 
 Spinning, by Janko Ferlic on Unsplash

Spinning, by Janko Ferlic on Unsplash

 

These days Britain has only a small number of specialist weaving and knitted cloth manufacturers, and those which are still operating are trying hard to maintain standards. Their prices may exceed Far East mass manufacturing but their quality is still high.

Harris tweed : High quality cloth is still woven in Britain

Harris Tweed is an example of high quality cloth which is still woven in the British Isles. It is handwoven by the Scottish islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra in their homes; and three remaining Harris Tweed Mills in the Outer Hebrides (Scotland) spin and dye the pure virgin wool used by the Harris Tweed weavers.

If you’d like to know more about Harris Tweed this great website from the Harris Tweed Authority is packed with information and pictures.

Britain’s textile heritage in the 21st century

As a modern British knitwear designer I am proud to carry Britain's textile traditions into the 21st century. As you will have seen from my collection of contemporary handmade knitwear I use a wide range of natural materials for the garments that I design and knit, especially cotton, linen, viscose and silk.

Heirloom quality to last a lifetime

These fibres are soft and luxurious to wear but they are also strong and long lasting; this means that I can create knitwear with them which is ‘heirloom quality’ and will last a lifetime.

I don’t believe in ‘throw-away’ fashion

…and waste makes me angry. Sustainability is another huge topic which I have already touched on in an earlier blog post, and will return to in the future. The creation of classic styles which don’t date, and long-lasting clothing - should be as relevant today as it has been for centuries.

Please check out my online shop to see my long-lasting, non-throw-away, slow fashion. And don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you would like to know more.

Places to visit

If you would like to find out more about the incredible textiles history of the British Isles, there are some wonderful historic mills and factories that are open to the public. The following is a very small selection to get you started, and in each case I’ve linked to their websites so you can find out more…

  • Derwent Valley Mills is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the birthplace of the factory system (East Midlands)

  • Macclesfield Silk Museum is a fascinating silk museum (Cheshire)

  • Saltaire is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes the impressive Salts Mill (West Yorkshire)

  • Quarry Bank is a 19th century cotton mill owned and supported by the National Trust (Cheshire)

  • Trefriw Woollen Mill is a family owned working 19th century woollen mill weaving traditional Welsh bedspreads and blankets (North Wales).

Don't hesitate to get in touch with me if you would like to know more.

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