Weave Truth With Trust

[Initial digression. Since my last posting David has been to a Director’s day at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon  with his colleagues from all the other amateur groups. More of this anon. The main website for the Play For A Nation project has gone live and this can be found at www.dream2016.org.uk/ . Now, back to the main plot……]

The Weavers Company coat of arms
The Weavers Company coat of arms

In my last post I got a little(!) sidetracked away from investigating my own character of Nick Bottom and his chosen profession of weaving to look at some of the more general London Livery Company history. So back to square one.

Shakespeare is not specific when it comes to the particulars of Bottom’s job; he is simply designated as a weaver. But this could mean that he specialises in one particular branch of the trade or that he might work with a number of different materials in various permutations. The most obvious material would be wool but he could equally well be a weaver of linen (flax), cotton or fustian (a linen/cotton mix).

The genetically confused barometz
The genetically confused barometz (contemporary illustrations)

[QI Digression. Did you know that when cotton in its raw form was first introduced into this country there was a popular belief that it came from something called the barometz (or “Vegetable Lamb of Tartary”)? This curious hybrid was described as being both animal and vegetable. It was supposedly the fruit of a tree which sprang from a melon-like seed. When fully ripe this would burst open and disclose a little lamb, perfect in form; from this could be picked the white cotton bolls. What! And if that isn’t bizarre enough a second version of the story circulated in which the lamb was supposedly attached by its navel to a short stem rooted in the earth. This stem was sufficiently flexible to allow the animal to bend downward and browse on the vegetation within its reach. When all of this had been consumed the stem withered and the lamb died. It seems incredible that anyone would think this might be the source of raw cotton; I don’t know about Bottom being away with the fairies…..!]

The late 1500s saw the development of silk weaving as an industry, particularly in London’s Spitalfields. This seems to be an unlikely medium for Bottom to work in as this was largely carried out by the new wave of despised immigrant workers highlighted in the last blog post. Equally unlikely for Bottom would seem to be lace weaving (primarily women’s work) or orris weaving (the highly intricate creation of decorative gold and silver lace braid). I can’t really see him as a tapestry or carpet weaver either. Of course it’s entirely possible that his weaving activity didn’t even centre around textiles, e.g he might have been into osiercraft (basket making to you and me). I think, in the end, I’ll settle for him being a London weaver of woollens. It’s traditional, very British and somehow seems to suit his down to earth characteristics.

Bottom would have worked under the so called “putting out” system whereby the raw materials would be collected from a London cloth merchant – Thomas (Wolf Hall) Cromwell’s father, Walter, combined this role with being a blacksmith. The cloth would then be processed at his home, likely to have been in the Liberty of Norton Folgate or Cripplegate Without (the City Wall, that is) or in the growing surburbs of White Chapel or Bethnall Greene. The finished cloth would then be returned to the cloth merchant to be sold on – possibly to a fellow Mechanical like Starveling the tailor. In all there were ten separate processes which went into making woollen cloth as follows:

  • Sorting and separating – segregating long and short fibres
  • Cleaning – beating the fibres with rods; known as willeying (I’m saying nothing!)
  • Carding and combing – smoothing the fibres and removing tangles
  • Roving – similar to spinning and preparing the thread (the core onto which it was wound was known as the bottom)
  • Dressing/sizing – strengthening fibres with a flour and water paste mixture
  • Weaving – the main event
  • Scouring – washing and removing the strengthening paste
  • Burling – getting rid of any knots formed by the weaving process
  • Fulling – treating with soap or fuller’s clay to strengthen and flatten the cloth
  • Tentering – stretching and drying the finished article (in Elizabethan London this was often done in the open ground of Moorfields)

    A traditional handloom (looks fairly straightforward!)
    A traditional handloom (looks fairly straightforward!)

Phew! The labour was clearly arduous and working the handloom itself required a lot of physical strength – hence the men were the weavers while the women did the roving/spinning.

[Thoughtful digression. Was there, I wonder, a Mrs Bottom back home? I’d like to imagine that there had been once but that she’d probably left long since, worn out by her husband’s boisterous personality and apparent need to be ultra-controlling.]

So what about Bottom’s working conditions? It is not clear from the text of the play whether he is a one man band, a journeyman working under someone else’s direction or a master weaver employing others. Whatever his actual position, a weaver’s day was a long one– usually 6am to 8pm though this would depend on the time of year and the amount of light available. This was for five days a week; on Sundays, of course nobody worked and the weavers in common with many other workers also downed tools on a Monday (so called Saint Mondays – the probable derivation of our various Bank Holidays).

And what would he have earned for his pains? Weavers were not that well paid – other workers in the cloth industry earned more and merchants made the most profit by trading the finished articles. As cloth production was “piece work”, wages entirely depended on how much was ordered and could be produced. The higher the grade or quality produced the more of a premium could be commanded. Thus “every yerde of wollen clothe” might fetch between 2½d (basic quality) to 10d (high quality).

Typical Elizabethan prices
Typical Elizabethan prices

Now I’ve no idea how long it would take to produce a yard of finished cloth going through all the processes and utilising a hand loom, nor do I intend to try and find out – that would be taking “method” acting a bit too far. But I can’t imagine there was much change left at the end of the week once rent had been paid and food and drink purchased (see table for typical costs of the time). However, I’d like to think that perhaps Bottom could occasionally (just occasionally) down tools and treat himself to his real passion by paying the 1d entrance cost to be a groundling at the Globe Theatre to see plays by that Will Shakespeare that everyone was talking about!

Weave Truth With Trust

4 thoughts on “Weave Truth With Trust

  1. Paula says:

    The QI bit about the cotton was great! The spectacle frame material cellulose acetate is made from cotton linters so I can use that tidbit in one of my lectures. Ta!


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