Case Study

Heritage – Generations of Innovators

generations of innovators

Kirklees is built on the textiles industry; from the undulating hills that have been perfect for grazing sheep for wool to the plentiful supply of soft water from the Colne and Holme Rivers that is essential for washing raw wool.

In 1766 the trade moved from its humble domestic spinning and weaving beginnings to large-scale mill production and trading in the purpose-built Cloth Hall designed by Sir John Ramsden, which established a worldwide reputation for the manufacture of fine woollen and worsted cloth, and Huddersfield’s status as a centre for the textile industry.

During and following the Industrial Revolution, the once innovative hand-operated spinning jennies and looms became second-rate to large new machines, and with this  scale naturally, production moved away from individual homes to larger buildings or mills. Textile production became much faster and therefore more prolific. There were (and still are) hundreds of mills scattered across Kirklees. 

Despite organised protest, most notably by the Luddites who were completely opposed to the new machinery, the home workers had little option but to seek employment in the new mills; by 1911 there were 22,000 people working in textiles in Huddersfield. 

Kirklees textile story also sees the innovative development of shoddy and mungo, a technique said to have been established in Batley that shredded unwanted woollen rags or industry waste to create new yarn for soldiers’ blankets and uniforms.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the industry saw increased migration of workforce from Pakistan and India. And you can find out more about migration and the shoddy industry in the INTERWOVEN case study.

The decline of Huddersfield’s textile industry began in the late 1960s and was largely due to increased competition and technical advances. Other countries invested in new, more efficient machines which required less workers to make cloth more quickly. They mass-produced cheaper textiles, although of inferior quality.

Today Kirklees is reinventing itself as a centre for textile excellence; harnessing technology, innovation and progression through organisations such as the Textile Centre of Excellence and The University of Huddersfield’s Technical Textiles Research Centre, which aims to re-establish the town and region as a world leader in textiles by harnessing the newest technology and manufacturing techniques.  The centre brings together expertise in disparate fields of science, including technical textiles, engineering, digital technology, textile processing, cellulose science, medical textiles, fibre and polymer chemistry, pharmacology, surface functionalisation & material science. 

Kirklees is also nurturing the next generation with textile courses at Kirklees College, New College and a wide range of degrees at the University, and a thriving apprenticeship programme with the Textile Centre of Excellence.

Made in Kirklees cloth is having a resurgence through the environmental imperative to buy well and buy once, and a demand for more robust and characterful worsted cloths for TV in programmes such as Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders. High end may be here to stay!

textile heritage in kirklees

Find out more about the textile heritage of Kirklees at these brilliant museums.

Tolson Museum 

The building now known as Tolson Museum was originally a private house built in 1859 by cloth manufacturer John Beaumont.  The house and the stable block were completed at a cost of over £20,000 (equivalent of over £20 million today). This gives an idea of the status and wealth of some of the district’s manufacturers.  The house was eventually bought by Legh Tolson, his nephews Robert and James were to be heirs but they were both tragically killed in the First World War.  Legh Tolson decided to gift the house to local people as a museum and also as a War memorial in honour of his nephews.

The museum currently showcases objects telling stories from Huddersfield’s  past, including the importance of the Ramsden family for the development of the town and the textile trade.  It tells the story of people standing against the tide, like Richard Oastler who fought to reduce the hours children were working in the mills, and the Luddites fighting to preserve their jobs against mechanisation. You can see original looms and spinning machines and manufacturers’ pattern books.  You can view world class textile protest banners including the Skelmanthorpe Flag and a stunning Suffragist banner.  A fascinating painting by William Cowan captures a view of the burgeoning industry in Huddersfield in the pre-photography era.  So many intriguing treasures to find in a beautiful historic building.  

Entry is free. Please check website for opening times.

You can also find them on Facebook.

Colne Valley Museum 

Step back in time and learn what life was like for a handloom weaver’s family in about 1840. Four 19th Century weavers’ cottages form a ‘living history’ museum providing education for children and the wider public of life in the domestic wool textile industry in the valleys of West Yorkshire. There are live demonstrations and events; a changing programme of exhibitions on site; school and group visits and an active outreach programme covering West Yorkshire.

Colne Valley Museum, a Grade II listed building, is housed in four cottages built in the 1840s by a family of independent cloth manufacturers, the Pearsons, whose relatives still live in Golcar today. These weavers’ cottages, named ‘Spring Rock’ by James and Sally Pearson, were built into the steep hillside, having the traditional entrance for the lower rooms, like our modern front doors, and an entrance to the top floor at the rear of the cottages.  

Following the death of James Pearson, Spring Rock continued as a family home until 1910, when the end cottage was taken over by the Golcar Socialist Club. When the club moved to bigger premises in the 1960s, the building remained empty until 1970, when it was generously given to be used as a museum. From this, the Colne Valley Museum was formed, and the two adjacent cottages were acquired, one being kindly donated by the Yeadon family. 

The three cottages housed the museum for many years. The top cottage and adjoining shop were purchased in 2008. The ground floors of these two buildings were incorporated into the main Museum, forming a new entrance, Museum shop and Spring Rock Tea Rooms. In 2014, our ‘Realising the Dream’ project began – funded mostly by the Heritage Lottery Fund – and allowed us to recreate a complete weaver’s cottage where James and Sally Pearson may have lived, with a living kitchen, a period bedroom and the loom chamber above where the family earned a living.

Explore the website for more information.

Skelmanthorpe Textile Heritage Centre

The Skelmanthorpe Heritage Centre is a small privately-owned museum in a “one-up one down” former weaver’s cottage which consists of living quarters downstairs and a working hand-loom and exhibits on the upper floor. It’s owned by local historian, Leslie Robinson, who also provides guided tours.

The centre is open to the public on Heritage Days and special events but can also be opened by request for educational trips.

Find out more on their website.

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