Clothing the people
The vagaries of the British climate have made clothing a necessity from the very beginning. Man’s ingenuity was taxed in order to convert natural and animal fibres into wearing apparel and so successful were his endeavours that clothing also became a means of displaying rank and wealth. The demands of fashion as well as the growth in population meant that the production of fabrics and footwear became two of Britain’s major industries from the late Middle Ages onwards. The rise in living standards also led to the use of textiles and leather for house furnishings in the form of upholstery, draperies and carpets. In the landscape, the wealth generated by the industry is revealed in the elaborate ‘wool’ churches of East Anglia and the elegant clothiers’ houses of the West Country. By contrast, the means of production can be identified in the weavers’ houses, stockingers’ workshops, water- and steam-powered mills and factories which are a feature of the landscape in many parts of Britain.
For centuries men have been wearing animal hides and skins for clothing and footwear. The curing and tanning of leather became a highly organised industry, and boots, shoes and leather for clothing and furnishing were produced. The most commonly used thread for textiles at the beginning of our period was wool from both sheep and goats, ranging in quality from the fine merino used for the new draperies to coarse wool for blankets. Generally, long staple wool was made into worsted cloth, while the many types of ‘woollens’ made use of short staple fibres. A lighter luxury fabric was made from silk, whose manufacture was begun by the silkworm producing filaments for its cocoon which had to be unwound, twisted and doubled to produce a usable silk thread. The silkworm thrived on a diet of mulberry leaves which grew better in France and Italy than in England, and it was to process imported silk that the first British water-powered factory