The Shetland Shawl Industry of Hucknall-Torkard
Framework-knitting (often abbreviated as 'FWK') was the predominant occupation in Hucknall-Torkard during the first half of the 19th century. It was a cottage industry synonymous with worker exploitation and poverty, which boiled over in Nottingham in 1811 with the Luddite rebellion. Things began to go seriously wrong due to loss of markets and changes in fashion (see journal on Framework knitting).
The prospects for the industry and the lives of those who worked in it remained bleak throughout the early decades of the century, but worse was to follow, when in the 1840's an industry in steady decline became one in immediate crisis following the introduction of the first highly efficient steam powered knitting machines. They tried to introduce glove making in Hucknall, which at one point gave employment to around 200 people, but a change in the method of production coupled with a strike had destroyed this industry by 1865.
Framework knitting had at first been surprisingly resilient to the competition and survived mainly by shifting from narrow to more productive wide frames, and it was not until the 1860's that the numbers employed began to fall steeply. In 1844, there were 973 frames in Hucknall (Felkin, 1867), but by 1864, the total had crashed to about 100 (White's Directory). Luckily in the 1860's, when first collieries were opened in the locality, that the lives of the people of Hucknall began to improve. Coal brought new work opportunities and wealth to the town and for the remainder of the century the economy grew and diversified.
About this time (1852 - Beadsmore) the Shetland hosiery business sprang up, and gradually gave work to the men who had been previously engaged in spider-work (lace) stockings and gloves. The legend is that Mr James Woods of Nottingham, brought a knitted fall in the Shetlands, and asked Mr Robert Widdowson, Postmaster and stocking-maker, if he could not make something similar on a frame. Mr Widdowson submitted the task to Messrs. Wm. and Thomas Ferrands, who were aided by Mr Ben Woolatt in adapting the frame for this class of work. Very soon, Messrs William Barker, William Calladine, Michael Wilkinson, Henry Rhodes, Joseph Stainforth, Thomas Dawson and Ruben Cale were engaged in this class of manufacture.
The shawls and falls produced had patterned borders and were brightly coloured using newly developed wool dyes. They were a great success and exported initially to France and later to Spain, South America and the USA. The growth of the industry encouraged other hosiery manufacturers in Hucknall, and elsewhere in Nottinghamshire, to switch from stockings and gloves, and by the mid 1860’s, most of the frames in Hucknall were producing shawls and falls. A little more than 30 years ago (written in 1908, so in 1878) many journeymen were tempted by the boom in this trade to set up as master hoisers, but the period of depression which supervened reduced their numbers, so that to-day the leading firms in this industry are Messrs. H & I Rhodes, Wm. Woolatt, Wm. J. Calladine, and John Buck, and the principal markets for their produce have been America, Russia, France and Spain. This scaled down version of the industry survived, and at times prospered, until the beginning of the twentieth century by producing quality products that could be sold at a premium and exploiting niche markets uneconomical to the larger operators. Calladines concentrated on Shetland shaws, and Antimacassar’s – the latter being a protective lace cover for the backs of sofas and chairs. The name is derived from Macassar, a messy sweet-smelling hair oil, which though popular at the time, was the scourge of Victorian upholstery. The shawl workers even formed their own trade union under the name of the United Wool, Shawl, Fall and Antimacassar Trades Union. The Union's main claim to fame was that throughout its history it never called a strike.
Farrands decided to diversify - the manufacture and export of copies of Russian Orenburg shawls was one of the success stories of the Hucknall hosiery trade towards the end of the19th century. A shawl measuring 1.5 square metres could contain 1,300,000 loops and be fine enough to pull through a wedding ring. This new market was created when Henry Rhodes began the production of imitation Orenburg shawls for export to Russia from a small factory on the corner of Portland Road and Station Road. Named after the region near the Ural Mountains where they are produced, these shawls were, and remain to this day, the traditional head and shoulder garment of Russian women. Authentic shawls are hand woven from goats down for which the inner wool of the Shetland sheep made a seemingly passable alternative. Using cheaper materials and mechanising production on a frame made the manufacture of Orenburg shawls in far away Hucknall a viable enterprise, and soon other Hucknall hosiers entered the fray, most notably John Buck and Son who operated from a factory in Derbyshire Lane.
The Russians were surprised by the quality of the shawls and invited Rhodes to send a delegation to Moscow to demonstrate the manufacturing process. And so, it was in about the year 1890 that two Rhodes employees, the brothers Thomas and Henry Houldsworth, left for Russia with a knitting frame. The Russians were impressed with what they saw and invited the Houldsworth's to stay and set up a local manufacturing base. The brothers did not decline the offer, but tactfully said they would first have to return home to collect their families. However, once safely back in England any thoughts they may have had of returning were forgotten. In July 1902 'a great slackening of the shawl trade due to the falling off of Russian demand' was reported in the local press. This event coincided with one of the lowest points in relations between Britain and Russia.
In January 1902, Britain and Japan had signed a military alliance aimed primarily at halting Russian expansion in the Far East, and effectively paving the way for the subsequent war between Russia and Japan in 1904. The once lucrative shawl trade with Russia was over, but not all the skills were lost. In November 1902, Hucknall shawl makers found a new job in the Shetland hosiery industry, but this time it was in the USA.