Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Bradford in 50 Buildings by George Sheeran

Bradford, a Wool City isn’t it?

Bradford in 50 Buildings 1 Saltaire Mills, Saltaire, the 1853 building (Bradford in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

Ask anyone what Bradford made its money from in the nineteenth century and there will be one answer – wool. ‘Wool city’, the capital of the wool industry, the richest city in Yorkshire with a millionaire on every corner, and all based on wool. Yet if this were true, why did William Cudworth, a journalist and historian working in Victorian Bradford, entitle his history of the rise of the industrial city, ‘Worstedopolis’?

The first thing we need to clear up is the difference between woollen and worsted cloth. Wool yarns are made from short, hairy fibres and woollen cloth derives its strength partly from the tendency of these fibres to entangle and felt together. Those of us who are old enough to remember the woollen blankets of pre-duvet days will know what I mean – ‘The rough male kiss of blankets,’ as Rupert Brook put it.  Worsteds, on the other hand, are made from long-fibre wools which are combed straight before being spun into a strong, fine yarn.

So what? I hear you say, It’s still wool. Yes it is, but in the early years of the nineteenth century some European and American textile manufacturers began to experiment with a cloth made with cotton warps (the threads that go up and down) and wool worsted wefts (the threads that go across), to produce a strong cloth that became known as ‘Orleans’.  But it had a major drawback. Being made of plant and animal fibres Orleans was difficult to dye, different fibres taking up dye at different rates.



Bradford in 50 Buildings 3 Brigella Mills, the Briggs family, spinners of worsted and mohair yarns; manufacturers of umbrella coverings.

Despite these technical difficulties Bradford manufacturers took up the challenge in the mid-1830s. They solved the dyeing problem, and Bradford was to become a centre of Orleans production. What is more, they were to introduce other animal hairs into the mixture such as Alpaca hair and mohair (the hair of the Angora goat), which replaced woollen wefts, and thus originated a new form of worsted. While fine wool worsteds had formerly been the preserve of the better-off, these new products were cheaper, hard-wearing, could be dyed in a range of colours and had a lustrous finish. Lustre cloths, as Orleans became known, were also ‘boardy’, that is, had a stiffness, and this was a stroke of either genius or luck, because it meant they were an ideal material for laying over crinoline hoops, the crinoline becoming fashionable from the 1850s.

Between about 1850 and 1870 such lustre cloths became a fashion fabric and production boomed. It is said, for instance, that Saltaire Mills at Saltaire were producing 30,000 yards of alpaca-based lustre cloths a day at the height of their production. Elsewhere in Bradford, fortunes were made and business empires were built on this trade, the ‘Bradford trade’ as it was known, and mills big and small were built for spinning, dyeing and manufacturing lustre cloths. Yet much of this cloth did not have an ounce of wool in it.

Bradford in 50 Buildings 4 The Wool Exchange, 1864-67 (Bradford in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

Given this story of success, what could possibly go wrong? Well two things, actually.  Firstly, the crinoline was beginning to pass out of fashion by 1870 and lustre cloth along with it in favour of softer materials. Secondly, a trade recession halted the building of new factories and warehouses as international demand for Bradford goods slackened. The result was that numbers of Bradford firms went out of business; others diversified into linings or men’s suits and trousers, a more stable market; some went into more specialised products – umbrella coverings, for instance, which, because of the long-lasting qualities of the Bradford product, became known as ‘durables’.

So here’s the secret of Victorian Bradford’s success – fashion and the specialised fabrics that went with it. And when the women’s dress goods market became a quagmire for some, expertise gained in producing mixed fibre worsteds was put to use in other areas. But let’s make no mistake: wool, yarns for export and wool textiles remained a vital part of Victorian Bradford’s economy. The point is it was an economy made up of a diversity of textiles and raw materials. When the town’s Wool Exchange opened in 1867, it became an international trading floor not just for wool, but for other fibres and hairs as well – and the most important such exchange in Britain. William Cudworth then reflected this in the title of his history: not ‘Wool City’, but ‘Worstedopolis’.


George Sheeran's new book Bradford in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.