Did you watch this year’s series of the Great British Sewing Bee? Sewing has become a popular hobby again, thanks to a renaissance in crafts and resurgence in interest in the handmade.
The famous proverb ‘a stitch in time...’ was first recorded in Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, 1732 but is likely to be much older. The virtues of hard work, prudence and associated with this adage have long been affiliated with sewing and been seen as desirable attributes, particularly for women.
A traditionally female pursuit, sewing has been a source of enjoyment, income and protest for women over the centuries. As one of the few respectable trades women, particularly poor women, could engage in, it could provide an albeit low level of income. Most of this work was piece work completed at home by women and children. The below show receipted bills for sewing services:
The pay was not only low, but a deposit had to the paid to the overseer for the materials, which was repayable on completion of the work. The ‘Song of the Shirt’, published in Punch in 1843, took this as its subject and helped draw attention to the working conditions of the poor.
'Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt!’
Aside from the principal cloth and woollen industries, both gloving and lace making have been important industries for Wiltshire. A prohibition on imported lace created a strong lace industry in Salisbury in the 18th century which continued after the prohibition was withdrawn. Nearby Downton was a lace-making centre with many of its cottagers engaged in it with some manufacturing continuing into the early 20th century. It also established in Malmesbury and was one of the principal occupations there in the late 18th century.
Inevitably the industry was by the competition of machine-made lace and the census records show the decline in lace-making occupations with 391 in 1850, 35 in 1871 and only 6 in 1900.
Gloving employed a large proportion of female outworkers and based on the number of references to it, it seemingly expanded in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has continued into the 20th century with both continuing and new firms. The oldest firm with surviving records is J. & T. Beavan Ltd. at Holt. Many of the cutters worked in the Great House (formerly the Spa Hotel) but outworkers living at Holt, Atworth, Melksham, Somerset and the Cotswolds completed the sewing work.
Now that summer fades away and crisp/wet autumn arrives, one would expect the museum staff in Wiltshire to take advantage of the impending winter months and retreat into their archives until spring. However, there is still much to see and visit throughout the county – indeed an intrepid traveller could embark on a grand circular tour this weekend, starting at Royal Wootton Bassett, then heading south west towards Trowbridge, due south to Mere and return via Market Lavington.
The museum at Royal Wootton Bassett is an iconic site in the town. Half-timbered, supported on fifteen pillars and dating from 1690, the former town hall was a gift from Lawrence Hyde, MP, (later the Earl of Rochester) to the citizens and incorporated a store room and a lock up or Blind House for drunks and other undesirables, used before local police stations contained their own cells. The building has seen many uses, including a school and a courtroom. After extensive restoration in 1889 the town library was based in the town hall and since 1971 it has housed the museum.
Currently, the museum is marking the closure of the Wootton Bassett railway station back in 1965 with an exhibition and marvellous scale model depicting the station in the 1960’s. Visit the slide show telling the story of the station and its various buildings and its early links with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Look at railway life through the eyes of a signalman and discover the impact of the Swindon rail works on Wootton Bassett.
Royal Wootton Bassett Museum is open every Wednesday and Saturday (10-12).
Travelling across the county we reach the administrative centre of Trowbridge and its wonderful museum which is situated in The Shires Shopping Centre. The museum collection covers Trowbridge and outlying villages and contains a multitude of artefacts relating to the history of the town including its past industries and notable townspeople, one of which was Sir Isaac Pitman, developer of phonetic shorthand. Trowbridge Museum is located on the second floor of Salters Mill, the town’s last working woollen mill which closed in 1982. The cloth industry was a huge factor in the town’s development and in 1820 the place was nicknamed the ‘Manchester of the West’ with over twenty cloth-producing factories - the museum possesses one of only five Spinning Jennies left in the world.