Category Archives: History

Bo-Peep and The Owlers

Wool may not have been high on my list of priorities when I holidayed in Hastings last week – my focus was more botanical, exploring plants of the coast – but my discoveries were to include wool after all!

Best known for the events of 1066, Hastings is also famous for its links with historical smuggling. As I found out at a popular visitor attraction, The Smuggler’s Caves, wool was one of those commodities subject to illicit handling and movement. The activity was originally a shifting of illegal exports (rather than imports). Wool was smuggled out of the country  as early as the 13th century when it was a luxury item, and King John had stamped an Export Duty on wool in 1203. This covert transportation of wool became known as owling due to participants’ use of the owl hoot as an alarm call. The Owlers plied their illegal trade for several centuries and by 1700, approximately 150,000 packs of wool were smuggled from the Sussex and Kent shore alone.


In the 1800s, when the Napoleonic Wars raged, circular forts known as Martello Towers were built along the coastline. Their primary function was defence but they were also used to incarcerate smugglers caught by the Preventive Services. A mile or two from Hastings Old Town stood Bo-Peep Martello Tower. Within an innocent-sounding nursery rhyme about a shepherdess of the same name as the tower lurks a darker story:

Little Bo-Peep (Preventive Men)

Has lost her sheep, (smugglers)

And doesn’t know where to find them.

Leave them alone 

And they’ll come home,

Dragging their tails (tubs*) behind them.

I wonder which came first – an innocuous children’s rhyme reappropriated by criminals? Or the smugglers’ tale hidden in the rhyme, a jibe against the law enforcers? I’m don’t why that particular Martello was known as Bo-Peep – I’ve noticed there is now a pub of that name, and the rail tunnel next to the station of St Leonard’s: Warrior Square is called Bo-Peep Tunnel.

The other unexpected woolly discovery was to be found on the new Hastings pier:


Very typical of British seaside resorts – except they’re normally painted, not knitted. Of course I had a photo take with my mush in the face slot.. but I won’t be sharing that pic!


* Tubs: Booty was hidden in barrels or tubs, and the locals employed to carry them from the beaches to their hiding places were called Tubmen.


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A Wet ‘n’ Woolly Sunday

Sunny days are for exploring gardens; rainy days for museums.While visiting friends in west Wales this summer, one such soggy Sunday endeared to us the idea of a trip to a historical establishment. So off we went to Dre-Fach Felindre to nosey around the National Wool Museum. Giving an insight into the traditional and industrial processes of converting fleece into yarn and cloth, this museum also documents the history of the wool trade in Wales.

It all starts, of course, with sheep. Different breeds have adapted to cope with their contrasting environs, and the texture of their fleece reflects this. For example, the hardy Welsh Mountain sheep gives us a coarse wool, whereas the Llanwenog (a lowland breed typical of the Teifi valley) has a soft, fine wool. Prior to shearing, sheep were washed in streams, rivers or the sea, as this was thought to make hand-shearing easier. Men would take to coracles to guide any stray sheep or those getting into trouble in the water. I love the unusual image of sheep-herding in coracles!



Though shearing was the most typical way of removing wool from a sheep’s back, there were other ways. ‘Slipe wool’ was obtained from dead sheep purchased from slaughterhouses which gave cheap, low-grade wool. Fleece was detached from the carcasses by throwing them into lime pits, and the skin and lime later separated from the wool in a large revolving drum.

A less gruesome method was the old Welsh custom of gwlana. This involved women traipsing along the drover’s roads known as llwybrau gwlan, or woollen paths, retrieving oddments of wool caught up in hedgerows. This was no pleasant stroll in the country – these women would have been up at daybreak and, come sun down, would have trundled many miles in every weather, hefting home heavy sacks of wool gathered by stooping and bending much of the day. Even so, gwlana was a social experience and something different from the drudgery of everyday life. The wool that was collected was cleaned and spun by hand, to be knitted into socks or caps, or woven into blankets that could be sold to earn extra pennies on top of meagre farm wages. With the arrival of the railway in the late 1800s, the need for drovers declined, and woollen paths fell out of use. But the role of drovers had extended beyond livestock: they were the original bankers of Wales.. The first Welsh bank notes were issued by Banc y Ddafad Du (the Black Sheep Bank) of Aberystwyth, and Banc yr Ychain Du (the black Ox Bank) of Llandovery.

Once in the mill, wool had to be sorted and then prepared for spinning. Fleece cannot be spun straight away as it is too ravelled, and undergoes a treatment called ‘willowing’. Prior to mechanisation, this was done on a felking board, using sticks probably cut from willow. Come the industrial ages, a willowing machine combed the wool, teasing out tangles on a metal toothed roller. This transformed the wool into a sort of candy-floss cloud of fibre. Another combing task. ‘carding’, turned the soft fluffy fibres into strips of wool known as ‘rovings’ or ‘rolags’. By hand, this was done with carding bats which had metal or wire teeth. The earliest carding bats had teasel or thistle heads. Being a gardener for a living, I found this especially interesting. The scientific name for thistle is Cardus, from which the word carding is derived. The Welsh for teasel is llysiau’r cribwr and translates as ‘the carder’s plant’.


IMG_1471 Teasel (above); a carding bat with teasel heads (below)

During my visit, there was a demonstration of the willowing and carding machine in use, and I found it a bit odd that the machine operatives were called craftspeople. This jarred with my sense of the word craft, as I tend to think of it in relation to non-mechanised activities. Is that just me, or does anyone else have this perception too?

The carding machine with craftspeople notice

The carding machine with craftspeople notice

The rolags produced by carding were then spun, converting the fluffy wool into strong yarn. Traditionally done by individuals at spinning wheels, the invention of a machine called the ‘spinning mule’ put a lot of local spinners out of work. This machine wheeled backward and forwards, drawing out and twisting the fibre together, producing 400 threads at once. It required only a single operator, saving the mill owner money in wages and allowing the maximisation of profit.


The spinning mule

Once wound onto bobbins, this yarn was ready for knitting or weaving. One way of incorporating some knitting into the day was whilst walking: in the 19th century, women in Cardiganshire were known to knit their way down mountains, carrying peat harvested from the higher land to use as fuel in coastal areas. I’ve seen people knit on public transport, but I’d be worried about tripping up and rolling downhill like a giant ball of wool!  A vital rural industry in the 18th and early 19th centuries was the home knitting of socks and stockings. Wares were sold door to door or at markets, as well as to itinerant stocking merchants. People who knitted for money frequently convened for their shared purpose, merging work with play… and a bit of friendly (I hope!) rivalry. Sometimes, competitions called Gwau Gwryd were held, testing who could most speedily knit a given measure of wool. Of course, mechanisation also put knitters out of work as stockings made in factories were cheaper, and these finer stockings became more fashionable. I think that’s why crochet appeals to me: it has yet to be mechanised.

Despite putting many people out of work through industrialisation, the woollen mills were the biggest employers in the Teifi valley until the 1980s. The wool museum, on the site of the old Cambrian mill, still produces wool and cloth today. And visiting was a wet afternoon well spent.



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Centenary Stitches

One of my lovely gardening clients, who knows I’m a crochet addict, told me of an exhibition she’s heard about on the radio called Centenary Stitches. It sounded very interesting, and I was keen to go. Finding out it was in Lincoln, I figured it was a bit too far to visit just for an exhibition! But then I remembered I had some money-off vouchers from a delayed train journey in the summer, so I decided to use them to day-trip halfway up the country especially. And I’m glad I went – it was a small exhibition, but I spent nearly an hour and a half having a good ol’ rummage around.

The Centenary Stitches project grew from the costuming of a community film called Tell Them of Us. The aim was to create something centred around the war story of ordinary people, not celebrated already by fame or high rank. But these are the people about whom there is typically less documentation. However, one family – the Crowders from the village of Thimbleby in Lincolnshire – had maintained a comprehensive archive containing letters, memoirs and scrapbooks, photos and other items from the Great War years. From this family archive, a script and screenplay developed.


If the stories of everyman are difficult to discover due to lack of records, costuming and clothing can be even more tricky. Fabrics are fragile, especially the woollens, being susceptible to moth damage or easy to repurpose, for example, through felting. Photographic evidence provides little more information, as these tended to record special events rather than daily attire. Knitting patterns from the era are a more reliable source, though these are problematic for the 21st century yarner thanks to the difference in culture; in the early 20th century, most girls were schooled in knitting and crochet, so patterns didn’t need the details required by many today. For instance, sock instructions could use the short-hand “turn the heel” and the reader could proceed without panic and you-tube how-to guides. Some of the items in this exhibition are clothes crafted for the film, but there are also reproductions of other items from World War One.

There are two woolly stories to be told here: one is military – how knitting affected the lives of troops at the Front; the other is social – the tale of women and how their clothing reflected their increasing emancipation.


Military uniforms were not enough for the needs of the soldiers, and were supplemented with knitted accessories that came to be known as ‘comforts’. These were sent by women to their loved ones in the trenches, but also distributed by organisations like the Red Cross and Regimental Comforts Fund. Such items included scarves, gloves, balaclavas and smooth-seamed socks. Lord Kitchener, British secretary of state for war and the face of “Your Country Needs You” posters, is credited with the invention of an invisible grafted toe seam which helped prevent blisters – sock patterns of the time were made with a seam up the toe that tended to cause chafing. Among the more unusual knits were knee warmers, often worn over bandages in hospital, and rifleman’s gloves without thumb and trigger finger. Despite the value of their endeavours, many of the crafters put themselves down as being just a “Sister Susie”, and denigrated their war work , believing it to be a minimal contribution because  they did not suffer or don a uniform. But VAD nurse Olive Dent noted otherwise in her diary: “We nurses know how much the gifts and comforts are appreciated… Every stitch..meant a few minutes greater comfort – and correspondingly less pain – from an aching body tortured on our behalf, for our defence and birthrights.” She goes so far as to say that these Sister Susies performed “some of the most valuable war service”.


Rifleman’s glove

The process of women becoming more active participants in society, in roles that were previously denied them, meant that their clothes had to change. Greater freedom of movement became necessary. There was a shift from garments which needed to be clung to like the shawl, to those such as jumpers and cardigans. Women started to ditch the restrictive corset and this was hastened by metal shortages brought about by the war – metal, of course, was needed to construct the framework of corsets. Apart from maintaining a rigid, upright posture, corsets also provided an insulating layer  to the torso so all that would be required to stave off the chill might be a shawl. Without this thermal layer, those same garments enabling freer movement, the waistcoats etc, became fundamental for warmth.

The costume design for the film was based on original knitting patterns from the Edwardian period as well as photographs of the eldest Crowder sister, Grace, whose clothing was ‘reverse-engineered’ by specialist knitters. Looking around the exhibition, most of the items were knitted which is hardly surprising given that, traditionally, crochet uses more yarn, which isn’t conducive to the frugality that the war demanded. One of my favourite pieces was a knitted wrap waistcoat.

Knitted wrap waistcoat with crocheted embellishment

Its maker said she was excited to see the way garter stitch was used in this pattern because people usually think garter stitch is boring. It has a crocheted embellishment on the belt, which I liked. Other crocheted items included a bag, shawls and hats. The most surprising item was a tie done in Tunisian crochet, certainly an unusual technique today as I suspect it was then, too.

Tunisian crocheted tie

Commemorating a war through its woolies is an unusual venture, perhaps deemed too trivial in comparison with the horrors endured by the soldiers, or not dramatic enough to be considered. But knitting and crochet really did play an important, if understated, role.

 Further Reading

Jane Crowfoot, The Kitchener Stitch, in The Knitter, Issue 19


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