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1800-1850

'Why bother to rake up the past? The answer is that there may be the explanation of the present and the guide to the future' (Burrows, A History of the Rag Trade, 1956)

Batley, a small market town in 1800 is transformed into a thriving industrial textile hub by 1850, the catalyst of which is largely the discovery of one man (Benjamin Law). In secret and at a time of the Luddite revolution, murder, hangings and armies formed by mill owners for their own protection, veils his method of shredding old clothes into recycled fibres (shoddy) as a cheapening agent, which he blends with new wool to help with spinning. With competitors on his tracks, he sends his third son (born to his second wife and one of 15 children in total) with a small cargo of shoddy cloth to develop new markets in the US. His son, John, returns with a handsome profit but, when Benjamin plans to send him back to the US with an even bigger shipment, John is not happy and vows never to return. With no news of John, Benjamin travels to New York only to find that someone from England named John had set off for New Orleans some months earlier before an outbreak of yellow fever was declared. Benjamin returns a broken man. By this time, others had stolen his idea, embarking on one of the greatest transformations of the industrial revolution. He moves away to Lancashire unable to witness his losses amongst his community and dies in 1837 aged 65. The numerous towns in and around the heavy woollen (Birstall, Bradford, Brighouse, Dewsbury, Halifax, Huddersfield, Morley, Leeds and Ossett) flourish, many inhabitants get rich and the world is provided with cloth that many had previously been unable to afford. Fifty years after his death, his sister places a headstone in Batley Cemetery and the Batley History Group erect a plaque on the town’s Library over 100 years later – otherwise nothing! Outside the heavy woollen district, few people were aware of the shoddy trade. Those living and working within it were unlikely to ever enlighten them or declare their own involvement. This situation tended to arise more from a sense of embarrassment than a duty of silence to their employers. Howley Mill (above), attributed to Benjamin Law’s secret experiments.

1850-1900

Ossett is a small town within the Heavy Woollen District of West Yorkshire. At the height of the town's activity with wool recycling, some people have claimed that there was a 'rag merchant' on every street. This was so important to the town that its coat of arms' motto reads: 'Inutile Utile Ex Arte' (useless things by art made useful)

Project 2 shows the growth of heavy-woollen district towns and the many characters, family businesses and factories involved in the rise of the shoddy trade. Such characters include a mill owner that, on one occasion, sacked someone for smoking in his factory without realising he wasn’t even employed by him and later paid his tax debt with pennies, delivered to the taxman by horse and cart. Although there were periods of boom and bust, in the boom-times mill-owners built mill follies to show off their status and wealth, whilst competing to build the grandest houses. Two of them were using the same architect and when one heard about a south-facing aspect he insisted on having at least two! Other people were still to make their mark such as the man who walked twelve miles from Huddersfield to work in a Batley mill but became more interested in baking for railway workers that were laying new track to bring in rags. In the spirit of entrepreneurship (demonstrated by the manufacturers of shoddy cloth), he took advantage of his ‘curled-up biscuit mistake’, which eventually became ‘brandy snap’, the foundation for Fox’s Biscuits following his marriage to Susan Fox in 1853.

1900-1950

‘Birds fly backwards to avoid getting soot in their eyes’

This project covers both World Wars, when many Batley mills worked around the clock to make uniforms and blankets. As the best-known Batley historian claims, ‘When cannons roared in anger in any part of the globe, Batley boomed through the resulting trade’ (Haigh, 1978 p.59). People joked that there was so much smoke from the mill chimneys that Batley birds flew backwards to avoid getting soot in their eyes. The Methodist Zion Chapel in Batley centre had become a focal point of the town and temperance movement. It was known locally as the ‘Shoddy Chapel’ because of claims that more business was done on the chapel steps amongst rag merchants and shoddy manufacturers than in mill offices. However, between the wars there was horrendous poverty, unemployment and many mills fell into bankruptcy. Despite the squalor, there were no shortage of characters such as ‘Little Pey Abe’, deformed at birth. Abe pushed around a pram selling halfpenny portions of peas (Yorkshire accent 'peys') - in newspaper cones! Wealthier characters came in the form of one visionary mill owner (Theodore C Taylor) that in 1892 introduced a profit-sharing scheme that gave away millions to his factory workers. At the age of 99 he went on a business trip the USA to develop more business opportunities, before he died in 1952 aged 102. Nevertheless, by the end of WW2 textile machinery was worn out and both a fuel shortage and terrible winter in 1947 prevented them being run properly. Towards the end of this period, mills overseas were making cheaper cloth and synthetic material was being introduced as an alternative to natural fibres. This was the start of a long-standing decline in the production of heavy woollens in the area.

1950-2000

The Decline...

This is a period, where both the decline of trade and mills were most devastating and in 1954 a government report stated that only Liverpool slums were worse than those in Batley. During that decade a young man from Dewsbury, a neighbouring town, is released from national service and starts work in the sample room for a shoddy manufacturer. Later he becomes a salesman and then managing director. He works day and night eventually borrowing and re-mortgaging the family home to buy his own mill in 1970 when everyone is shutting down – a crazy risk. His name was Colin Parkinson. In the first year his best customer closes, the mill once run by Theodore C Taylor that had been in operation for 100 years. In 1977 his eldest son, John, joins the business and together they develop the company with the few remaining customers in the UK and other trade overseas. For a while they made money, but bad debts and declining sales put the business at risk. In 1989 the business founder (Colin) dies. Nine months later, his son, John, borrows and re-mortgages to establish Evergreen, the first ever shoddy business to promote and produce yarns and fabrics made from responsible materials and production methods. A crazy risk! Sales are made worldwide along with considerable media attention before a fire closed down the initiative in 1995.

2000- Present

iinouiio: recycling our past; creating a future ...

The age of the digital revolution emerges as the last traditional UK shoddy manufacturer from the industrial revolution closes. However, after twenty-years away, the founder of Evergreen returns. The infrastructure is diminished but this is 'an itch he just has to scratch'. He resigns from paid work and using savings, launching a new business with similar aims: iinouiio! The only one of its kind! He seeks to educate and inform through the arts, but the really, really crazy idea is to re-establish a new eco-friendly facility to make beautiful new yarns and fabrics from recycled wool and luxury fibres once more. Unlike the pioneering Evergreen phase, there is now growing political pressure, changing consumer attitudes and environmental urgency as never before. It is, perhaps, ironic that after such a long-standing history and heritage of traditional Yorkshire textile recycling, iinouiio is the only UK business engaged with traditional techniques to create yarns and fabrics in the most responsible ways possible.