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Spinning, Weaving and Textile Production in Rylstone


Occupational background


Whilst Rylstone is generally thought of as being a rural farming community, in past centuries, a sizeable proportion of its parishioners were occupied in non-agricultural trades, of which the processing of yarn and manufacture of linen, cotton, woollen and/or worsted materials were key occupations. According to Long, (2003), Rylstone parish was a mixed agricultural and industrial township.


'While many of these mixed agricultural/industrial parishes were clearly growing quickly and becoming more industrial, there were a few whose occupational structure changed very little in the course of the eighteenth century. For example, at Rylstone, in Craven, where occupations were recorded from 1720 to 1820, the percentage of non-agricultural occupations was almost always between 40 and 50 per cent. There were both colliers and miners in this parish, since Rylstone was on the border between coal and lead mining areas, in addition to textile workers though none of these groups became dominant. The percentage of agricultural occupations also remained fairly constant and the parish is today essentially agricultural'.


An analysis of mid-Wharfedale registers, from 1721 until 1812, (Pickles, 1976) reveals that, in Rylstone parish, textile manufacture in its various forms accounted for:


  • 52 people, out of a total of 272, between 1723-1740 (19%)

  • 52 people, out of a total of 329, between 1761-1780 (16%)

  • 31 people, out of a total of 190, between 1801-1812 (16%).

However, the return for the first census in 1841 showed that textile manufacture had all but ceased in Rylstone, as in other small Dales' parishes, with no recorded textile workers here at this date. Thereafter, the odd one appears in subsequent censuses for the 19th and early 20th centuries, including a one-off for silk manufacture.

From the medieval to Georgian period, the types of textile jobs filled by local residents, (and during its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries by some incomers seeking work), ranged from:

  • spinning yarn: on household wheels; firstly wool and flax and then cotton. It was not until the mid 18th century that the production of yarn (by carding and spinning) began to be mechanised and moved to mill-based production.

  • knitting wool: This was always a cottage industry in the Dales - but a significant one, given the availability of wool from local sheep. Home knitting for sale continued until well into the 19th century in some Dales villages, but not in Rylstone.

  • fulling: 'A process that increases the thickness and compactness of woven or knitted wool by subjecting it to moisture, heat, friction, and pressure until shrinkage of 10–25% is achieved'. (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Several fullers are recorded on Rylstone's registers, and fulling became an important part of woollen textile production with several monastic fulling mills being identified in the Dales from the 14th century, but not at Rylstone.

  • weaving woollen goods: This began in Rylstone and other Dales villages as a domestic concern, became a cottage industry in medieval times, and then became more organised with weaving work either being farmed out to home-based weavers by merchants and/or undertaken at local mills and managed by more professional manufacturers.

  • manufacturing worsted: According to the Wikipedia definition, worsted is made from long-staple pasture wool which 'was not carded; instead it was washed, gilled and combed (using heated long-tooth metal combs), oiled and finally spun. When woven, worsteds were scoured but not fulled. Worsted wool fabric is typically used in the making of tailored garments such as suits.' This higher quality fabric could yield higher profits and became a preferred local woollen activity.

  • manufacturing cotton: This was largely concerned with spinning cotton yarn in Dales villages such as Rylstone, and this activity, which came in during the 18th century, was based at local mills.

Local woollen and worsted manufacture


According to Heaton (1920):


'The manufacture of woollen cloth has for centuries been an important occupation of Yorkshire men and women. From the twelfth century onwards there is abundant proof of the existence of the industry, and since that time generation after generation has worked at the spinning-wheel, loom, and dye-vat. The industry has been the architect of the social structure in each epoch, and has been the motive power of the county's progress. Finally, it has left its mark in the list of family names; Lister, Walker, Webster, and other names common in the county, have survived from the days when a man took his surname from his trade'.


...'by 1300 there was in town and country alike a big element of textile labour, which was supplying domestic needs and also a wider market'... 'On the other hand, the rural fabrics were of inferior quality and coarse texture, and did not take a prominent place even in the home market. Native manufacture could now meet some of the demands of the wealthy, and all the needs of the poor, and a few types of cloth were exported to the Continent'.


Meanwhile, the Out of Oblivion website on textile production in the Dales, states that wool production and fabric manufacture was a key source of income for local monasteries, from the 14th century onwards and a widespread occupation throughout the Dales.



Weaving, for other than domestic usage, began in Rylstone as a cottage industry in about the 14th century, and it probably remained so. In the Poll Tax return of 1379 for Rylstone - when William de Rilston was the Lord, in a population of 25 men and 31 women, there were two weavers (Raistrick, 1967).


Heaton (1920) notes that, '... many of the weavers mentioned during the thirteenth and fourteenth century were cottars. These men would have a small tenancy of land, probably six to twelve acres of arable, the cultivation of which would take up part of their time. They would look after their live stock, and perform the requisite number of days' service on the demesne lands, unless those services had been commuted. When all this had been done, they would still have at their disposal each week a number of days which would be occupied with cloth-making'.


Several Rylstone houses have large north-facing windows, which suggest that weaving took place here, with the northern light providing an even light for weaving, helping to reduce the fading of dyed cloth and the large windows offering a means of access for bales of woollen yarn. There is no evidence that either of the two local mills - one on Hetton beck that served both Hetton and Rylstone, and the other in central Rylstone - were used for wool weaving, but precise information on this is missing.

Cotton manufacture

                  Image depicting home-based carding, spinning and weaving cotton.


Like woollen manufacture, cotton spinning and weaving began in Yorkshire as a cottage industry using spinning wheels and hand-held looms. Although it later became centred on West Riding towns, as Ingle (1997) states, it first grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, especially Craven, because of pre-existing expertise in woollen manufacture and then, later on, the presence of old water mills which could provide the energy for mechanised spinning machines and looms which became available in the 18th century.


Mechanised production became possible principally because of the inventions of Arkwright's Water Frame in 1769 for spinning thread and Cartwright's Power Loom in 1785.

                 Arkwright's Water Frame.                  

                                                                                Cartwright's Power Loom.

Following these developments, cotton manufacture moved to stream-side locations and to more extensive premises, and domestic production ceased. Ingle continued that, 'there are probably more early cotton mills in the Yorkshire Dales than anywhere else in the country.' He went on to say that, 'The widespread introduction of the cotton industry into many towns and villages of Yorkshire in the form of multi-storeyed spinning mills was often the initial stage of industrialisation of those settlements'. Apparently, many Yorkshire land-owners were quick to see the income potential of the mills and were keen to have them sited on their land and leased out to tenants.

         Old Mill house, Rylstone                          (Courtesy of Irene Smith).                          

     Drawing of an old cotton mill system

                (English Heritage).

The old water and corn mill on Hetton Beck (shared by Hetton and Rylstone) was converted to a cotton mill late in the 18th century. The mill at Rylstone itself may have been built solely for cotton manufacture and Ingle (1997) made specific reference to this mill, as follows:


'Robert Bradley and Co., for instance, were to be allowed to get stone from the Duke of Devonshire's land where they proposed to build Rilston Cotton Mill in 1798.'


Indeed, a factor in the siting of these mills was the local availability of building materials since, as he continues to note, 'the new cotton mills were the largest buildings being constructed at that time in most areas...' The key determining issue for location, however, was always the availability of an adequate water supply, but this could also be a delimiting parameter. The mills often used the full resources of the local stream from the outset, according to Ingle, and did not have the scope to provide more water power to allow for the growth in cotton production. One wonders if this was a factor in the decision both to build Rylstone pond and in the demise of the shared Rylstone and Hetton mill on Hetton Beck.

Few of the small Dales village mills survived for long and the trade moved to the large-scale manufacture of cotton in the West Riding and Lancashire cotton towns. Both local mills had ceased operation by the first quarter of the 19th century, whilst some wool weaving continued throughout this century in Rylstone and other parishes.



Heaton, H. (1920). 'The Yorkshire woollen and worsted industries from the earliest times up to the Industrial Revolution'. Oxford Historical and Literary Studies. Vol. 10. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Ingle, G. (1997). Yorkshire Cotton. The Yorkshire Cotton Industry, 1780-1835. Preston: Carnegie Publishing.


Long, M. H. (2003). 'A study of occupations in Yorkshire parish registers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries'. Local Population Studies. No. 71. pp.14-39.


Out of Oblivion Website (undated). Textiles. Available at: Yorkshire Dales National Park and National Lottery Fund.


Pickles, M.F. (1976). 'Mid-Wharfedale 1721-1812: Economic and demographic change in a Pennine dale'. Local Population Studies. No. 16. pp.12-47.

Raistrick, A. (1967). 'Discovering a village'. Chp. 2 in Old Yorkshire Dales. Newton Abbott: David and Charles.

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