Search This Blog

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Whiter Than White



As well as beautifully printed calicos and cottons, Georgian and Victorian customers also wanted dazzling white cloth. Bleaching employed ‘great numbers of children and Young Persons’ in places like in Bolton and  Bury, where most bleach-works and finishing works were concentrated in 1850s Lancashire.
Traditionally, to bleach cloth, it was ‘bucked’ or ‘bowked,’ i.e. soaked for several days in a strong, heated alkaline solution made from vegetable ashes in a ‘kier’ or copper vessel. Then it was ‘soured’ to neutralise the alkali by soaking it in buttermilk for at least a week.
‘Crofting’ was the next stage; the cloth was spread out across the fields (bleaching croft), and soaked repeatedly with water, so the sunlight could bleach it, which could take months. In late Georgian times, industrial methods of bleaching were introduced which greatly speeded up this process; artificial soda ash was used instead of vegetable-based alkalis, and sulphuric acid was used instead of buttermilk. The invention of dash-wheels, and later, washing machines, made it much easier to wash large quantities of cloth (formerly done by hand by womenfolk in all weathers).

At the bleachworks, the ‘grey’ cloth was first sent to the dressing-shop. The cloth was marked with the customer’s name or initials with a needle. The ends of several pieces were sewn or pasted together to form one long piece suitable for processing by machine; next, the cloth was ‘dressed’, that is, passed over a hot plate or gas jets to singe off  nwanted fibres.
After dressing, the cloth was bleached as above, then went through the finishing processes: mangling, drying and clamping (stretching), beetling, calendering (an ironing process in which the cloth passed between heated rollers to give it a glossy finish), then making up and packing.  Beetling was a special, lustrous finish for Holland cloth used for blinds, achieved by hammering the cloth
Hours were exceedingly irregular; in the 1850s fourteen year old Mary Partington’s hours varied anything between 56 hours and 76 hours per week at Ridgway Bridson Bleachworks, Bolton, which employed over 200 people.
You can find out more about the story of the industrial revolution in Lancashire here, tracing Lancashire ancestors here, and the fight to improve children’s working hours and conditions in The Children History Forgot.
Illustrations from author’s collection.
Llewenni (Lleweni) Bleachworks, Denbighshire, designed by Thomas Sandby for Thomas Fitzmaurice. Engraving by Thomas Sandby, 1792.  Possibly one of the grandest bleachworks ever built.
Dash wheels, and Calendering. Pictorial History of Lancashire, 1844.

No comments: