We have been away in Lancashire for the weekend. Tom will shortly be participating in a rather testing race, and the Bolton Hill Marathon provided the ideal training run. While he was off doing that, me and my parents visited Helmshore Mills Textile Museum.


For someone interested in textile history this is a truly wonderful place to spend a day. Helmshore is one of those great Lancashire places whose very landscape and infrastructure tells the story of industrial development. The story begins with a small eighteenth-century wool processing mill, where locally hand-woven cloth was fulled and finished during the late Eighteenth Century, providing the uniforms for British soliders fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Waterwheel and fulling stocks are still in situ, and for me it was well-worth the visit just to learn more about this aspect of textile processing in the region.


In the Nineteenth Century, Lancashire grew rapidly as a global centre of the cotton industry, and downstairs in Helmshore’s second mill there’s a superb interpretation which allows the visitor to get to grips with cotton in its colonial and imperial contexts, as well as in terms of local social history. There are also some fabulous historic machines to wonder at – including a Water Frame (above), which I’d never seen before.


Until the late 1970s, Helmshore was a “shoddy mill”, producing a relatively coarse-cotton thread to be used in household textiles, and I had not appreciated the multiple stages of recycling that might be involved in its production. Cotton waste might be circulated and re-circulated through the different stages of production several times, before being finally spun into thread on these mules.


It is wonderful to see these machines in action, demonstrated by their knowledgeable guides, and though it would be impossible (and undesirable) to recreate the appalling noise, dust and humidity that cotton mill workers had to endure, I do think that being in such spaces, among the whirring doffers, carders and condensers, allows one to gain a good sense of the former life of the mill. My Grandparents laboured in similar environments, and I came away with a renewed appreciation of what work must have signified to them.


In short, I would heartily recommend a visit to Helmshore Mills, and the cafe, which serves tasty home-baked Lancashire fare – such as Eccles Cakes – is also excellent.

And, in other news:


Tom came 16th in the hill marathon which was a very good result . . .


. . . Bruce has hurt his nose, forcing us to construct a makeshift cone out of pieces of plastic pending a visit to the vet. . .

And, having arrived home across the border, I have now updated the shop with more Ecclefechan mitt kits.


38 thoughts on “Lancashire Weekend

  1. What an interesting trip! Will certainly put the mill on my map of Lancashire things to do!

    As for working conditions in such a mill I recommend taking a look at the BBC´s adaptation of “North & South” (Gaskell) – the one with Richard Armitage in it. Very early on the female lead visits a Northern cotton mill, and aside from all the noise the machinery was making, there were cotton flocks flying everywhere!
    If I remember correctly the filmed at a museum mill.
    (Great adaption all around btw.)
    Watching surely is not the same as standing right in the middle of such machinery, but I certainly got an idea.

    Poor Bruce, hope he´s better and got rid of the collar – but a very stylish one you made, I might add. Our little Paul had to wear one after an operation this January and his approach to the whole unwanted trappings was one of disdainful disregard – he just ignored the thing altogether which meant that he went around edges and such the way he always did, scraping the collar rim permanently, repeating the movement as often as needed for the collar(!) to give way!!!


  2. Congratulations to Tom – I’d love to do the Bolton race as I grew up not far from there and it passes through many places I knew well as a child. I’m jealous of him doing the West Highland way too as that looks a stunning route. Please wish him luck from me. Big hugs to poor Bruce. Will you be releasing the Ecclefechan mitts pattern without the yarn at some stage?


  3. I’m always amazed at your knowledge and productivity, Tom’s energy and skill, and Bruce’s ability to make just about anything cute and loveable.


  4. Yum! Looks like a delightful and interesting day. Last summer I visited an old woollen mill in Lanark County, ON, closed in the 1980s, but now converted into a textile museum. Also fascinating and now, fortunately, a beautiful exhibit space for textiles and art. What’s odd is that there is now a growing community of sheep and alpaca farmers in the area who have to send their fibre hundreds of miles across the province for processing because there is nothing available locally.


  5. Thank you for posting this wonderful piece. A few years ago, my belle-sœur and I were researching my maternal family history, and we discovered that my grandfather’s grandfather (and I suspect my grandfather’s grandmother too!) worked in Lancashire cotton mills very close to this area, so it was fascinating to read more about them. Who knows maybe one day we will get the chance to visit.


  6. I’m from Bolton originally but have lived nr Edinburgh for 40 yrs. There used to be 129 cotton mills in Bolton don’t think there are any now – so sad. My dad worked in the mills as did my husband’s parents (he’s from Bolton too). We have a very old wicker skip from a cotton mill in our bathroom that we keep towels in. Hope you enjoyed your weekend.


  7. Thanks so much for your historical posts. Congrats to Tom. My daughter is doing the Triathlon in Sonoma, Calif., this summer and has been practicing and training for a long time. Running is the hobby of choice for her and her husband–mum is the fiber person!! I hope dear Bruce is better soon.


  8. Congratulations to Tom, and best of luck in the next race!
    Poor Brucie. Is the cone working to protect his nose? I’ve only seen them used to keep the dog from licking injuries on other body parts.


  9. I love places like that – Paradise Mill in Macclesfield has a wonderful feel to it, as if everyone has just popped out for lunch. Tea and a bun adds to the experience of course. Many congrats to Tom – what is his biggie that he is training for? Good effort on the emergency head bucket. Poor Bruce, hope his nose is soon better. Am loving the Eclefechans, I woke up the other morning, with eager anticipation of the next few rows! How sad am I?


  10. Looks like a facinating trip, can only imagine what it was like for those past workers but I think you’re right, it did actually mean a lot to them, and shaped their lives greatly! Hope Bruce’s nose is on the mend, love the header btw!


  11. Poor Bruce! I hope he is okay. Interesting post. My family worked in a textile mill in Maine. Unfortunately I think it’s since been torn down.


  12. What a great place to visit, I have been reading the Shetland Textiles book and this is a good adjunct. All the best to Tom and Bruce……..ah, the dreaded cone! and Gretchen is right, those things are lethal! Thanks for the tour.


  13. Please, dear Kate, in the interests of good grammar, change the third sentence of your post to ” … my parents and I …”. I do enjoy reading your posts, but this slip is killing me!


    1. apologies, Sheila! As you may be aware, I have a doctorate in English Literature, but I do feel that it is fine to be flexible with grammar, and that it is perfectly acceptable to write on a blog post less formally, as one would speak.


  14. Congratulations, Tom! And sorry about that, Bruce…though I think it is very nice of your people to makeshift a cone to match your coat.

    As another commenter wrote, I also remember seeing the rag and bone man going up and down the streets with his cart and horse in the 1950s when I used to visit my Nanny who lived in the East End of London. Nothing went to waste in those days; some rationing was still a part of post-war UK life up until 1954.


  15. On my knitting retreat in Maine, we visited an old, brick textile mill @ Saco River. What a beautiful space. I also imagined what the conditions might have been like 200 yrs ago. You could see the broken windows..the buildings were huge and must have employed many.
    So the 53 miler is called a Fling. My husband runs ultra’s..Leadville 100 twice. He ran with Aaron Ralston (he’s the one who cut off his arm). I paced him several times. After his 1st finish, we knew we could manage marriage-so we got engaged. Best of luck to Tom with pacing, and keeping fueled and hydrated. All a fine balance. Bill says eat early and eat often and don’t drink beer until after the race:)


  16. Poor Bruce. We call that the “collar of shame” in our house because of the way the dogs hang their heads when they have to wear them. Feel better soon pup!!


  17. Ive visited Helmshore a number of times with my daughters. The whole of my mother’s family worked in’t Mill and I earned my first wage as a creeler in a Bolton Mill. Sadly, that one doesn’t exist and though I’ve practiced in Colne, fewer and fewer of my patients recall this way of life.


  18. You’ve added another destination to my dream tour of Britain.

    Congratulations to Tom, and condolences to Bruce. My Rudy had to wear a cone post-surgery, and his humans’ shins and calves were the worse for it. Beware the ramming capabilities of a dog in a cone!


  19. Speaking of your husband’s run–you once showed us a picture of a runner’s jersey that you knitted for him? Is there a pattern for that? I would like to knit my runner hubbie such a piece.


  20. Fascinating ! My good friend and duo-mate remembers a day when the Rag & Bone Man would call along the streets… now I have a hunch what was done with the rags ! (at least the cotton ones). I appreciate your giving us who live far and away in a more modern world, a glimpse of 18th century Brittain. :)


    1. Oh, and how could I have posted without congratulations for Tom on this huge hilly marathon ! And give my condolences to poor Bruce. Emma sends lix, as she understands the dreaded cone !


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