Experimental Archaeology – Swanskin

Experimental Archaeology – Swanskin

I am lucky enough to live in Sturminster Newton, Dorset, England (known affectionately by locals as Stur). One of our Town’s claims to fame is our Watermill. There has been a Watermill on the river Stour here for at least 1000 years. The original mill was a Grist Mill – that is for grinding corn, but in the early 1600s a Fulling (or Tucking) Mill was built adjacent to the Grist Mill.
This was largely to facilitate the greater production of a fabric which had been produced in and around Stur since the 1570s. This fabric was called Swanskin. It was a tough, course white woollen fabric, made from locally spun and woven wool, which was then scoured, fulled and the surface teazed and fulled again. Fishermen working out of Newfoundland, many of whom were recruited from Stur, greatly prized the Swanskin for its all-weather, waterproof qualities, as did the British Army and Navy.
Originally the fulling would have been done by fullers treading the fabric in troughs filled with all sorts of nasty stuff, including urine. Once the fulling mill was built this hard work was done mechanically. The woven fabric, in its troughs of nastiness, was hammered by large wooden stocks which were driven by gears from the waterwheel. Eventually the fulled cloth was hung out to dry along the river bank, stretched out on tenter frames by tenterhooks.
A report about Manufacturing in Dorset dated around 1812 reads:

“There is a manufactory in the neighbourhood of Shaftesbury of a kind of flannel called swanskin, which is a coarse white woollen cloth, used for soldiers’ clothing, and made from 18d. to 2s. a yard; but this is of little consequence to Shaftesbury, the chief trade in this article being carried on at Sturminster Newton, where about 1200 people are employed in it, and where between 4000 and 5000 pieces, containing 35 yards in length, in a piece, yard wide, are annually made.

At present the woollen manufactures are almost confined to Sturminster and Lyme Regis, at which latter place broad-cloth and flannels are made in considerable quantities.

At Sturminster there are four or five clothiers, and about 300 weavers; sometimes 700 or 800 people are employed in the manufactory of Swansdown, (sic.) but the trade is not so considerable as was formerly the case.”

In early 2016 I was asked by the curator of our town’s Museum and Mill Society (now known as the Sturminster Newton Heritage Trust) if I could produce a sample of Swanskin for the Museum since it appears that there is no example of actual swanskin now in existence.  As Swanskin was such an important part of the town’s history, the Museum wanted to create an exhibit for future reference.  This I did, so far as I could, and I also wrote them a report on the process, which I repeat here – it was of course written for the edification of members of the general public, most of whom would not be conversant with spinning and weaving terms, so please don’t think I’m trying to “teach granny to suck eggs”.

“Swanskin – Experimental Archaeology

“In order to try to recreate the processes in the manufacture of Swanskin some research was carried out by Kathleen Sanderson (a member of the Dorset Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers). It appeared that the likely breed of sheep from which the fleece was obtained was the Portland. This breed was found in fact over much of Dorset in the 17th Century.
“Kathleen found however that the fleece from today’s much improved breed of Portland sheep was finer and more delicate than would have been the case in 1600. She therefore blended Exmoor fleece with the Portland to obtain as near as possible the coarser, more hardwearing fibres originally used.
Originally the wool would have been spun “in the grease” – that is still containing (inter alia) the natural lanolin. The resultant yarn would have been woven in this state so that the resultant cloth would have had to be washed and treated with fuller’s earth (scoured) to remove the oils and other detritus like plant material and insect life.

Spun and Plied Yarn, with fibres

“The sample shown was spun after scouring because this had been necessary to facilitate the blending of the two fleeces.
The yarn was plied and then twill woven – that is instead of the basic over one, under one, over one – of plain weave, the weft was taken over two and under two on the first pass then over one under two over two on the next. This results in characteristic diagonal lines in the weave.
“When “fulled” twill woven fabric becomes denser than would a fabric with plain weave.

“I wove the sample in this fashion on a frame loom. After the weaving, the sample was wetted and fuller’s earth rubbed into it on both sides, just to make sure that all the grease and oils had been removed. This was rinsed out, the sample soaped and rubbed by hand to start the felting or fulling process.
“This process would have been carried out by “Fullers” or “Walkers” in the 11th and 12th centuries. Though they would have done it by treading or walking on the fabric in wooden troughs rather than using their hands. At Sturminster Fulling Mill swanskin was fulled at the Mill using water power to move fulling stocks. These hammered the fabric until it was fulled or felted sufficiently to make it water repellent.
“The sample was fulled in a washing machine, first at a temperature of 40° with a very hard rubber ball acting as a fulling stock. This was repeated once more and then at a temperature of 90° until the sample was fully felted. When the sample was almost dry it was ironed with a steam iron on both sides and then fully dried.
The original swanskin cloth would of course have been dried on tentering frames in the open air.

“Once the Sample was dry it was brushed with a flick carder (the modern equivalent of using a frame covered in teasels) on one side only in order to raise a nap on the fabric.”

The mill was open to the public again this year, after having had to be closed during lockdowns.  It is possible that, during the first lockdown, some of you may have seen reports about the fact that the mill reverted to milling flour which was provided to local bakers.  Many people over here took to making their own bread so that there was a general shortage of bread flour, and, since approaches were received from people from all over the globe trying to buy bread flour from our miller, I assume that this was the same almost everywhere. 

I have added below some internet links about the Mill and our Society (Sorry – Trust!), and some of the news stories from last year –  Google has lots more.

Oh and a couple of my felt paintings of the mill – adding a bit of artist’s licence!





24 thoughts on “Experimental Archaeology – Swanskin

    1. Thank you Norma, the research and the experiment was very interesting to do.

  1. A really interesting article.What a great way to start the day here in S W France.Moved here 11 years ago from Hampshire and spent time with friends in Dorset.

    1. Thank you Olwyn. I’ve lived here now since 1999 and it still feels like new. From your name I assume that you (or your family) are Welsh, another lovely country.

    2. Hampshre and Dorset ;good places to live.Was a member of West Country Embroiderers for some time with many good people.I make felt.Not Welsh-had a Welsh father;I guess I’m a real mix as my great grandfather was Irish..

  2. What a very interesting story…. love these trips into the past especially with re-enactments. And your description of the process certainly bring past to life. Congrats

  3. I admire you for weaving anything on a frame loom! Such an interesting exploration of the old processes. After all that work was the fabric as ‘bullet proof’ as anticipated. Wool in the past was not expected to be next-to-skin soft for everything. Most of the time it was extremely utilitarian and durable. Do you think this fabric would last?

    1. Thank you.
      From what I’ve read about the army’s Red Coats, I suspect the fabric lasted very well.
      No doubt all the blood helped, as would the fish oils with the fishermen’s swanskin.

    1. Thanks Lyn. I quite enjoyed doing the pictures, they were only about A5 size – a bit smaller than I’ve been used to. I gave them to the Museum & Mill Society – they were sold in the Museum shop.

  4. What an interesting subject and such fun for you to experiment and see how this fabric sample turned out. Glad you didn’t have to stomp the sample in a trough with nasty stuff 😉

    Your felt paintings are so lovely of the mill.

  5. Thanks Ruth. I suspect that at least the Walkers and Fullers who used to do the stomping had very clean feet when they’d finished. I seem to remember that someone has said that urine bleaches or am I imagining it?

  6. How wonderful to have a living and working museum so close. They demonstrated the fulling by a mill in the Tudor Farm series. I was surprised at how long they pounded the cloth. I wonder if any of the Newfoundland museums would have a sample of the swanskin. Newfies don’t throw anything out. It is a thrifty culture.

    Flour wasn’t as much of a problem as getting yeast here. The yeast producers where overwhelmed by the demand.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this article and learning more about the processes of old. I think you did a wonderful job of providing clarity – but not oversimplifying. And of course learning about Newfoundland connection was fun. Your feltings are lovely. Thank you. Linda, Ottawa, Canada

    1. Thank you for your kind comments Linda. I do enjoy delving into the past, especially the lives of ordinary people, rather than the “nobility”. Though the more I learn the more I think that a woman in a rich household wasn’t all that much better off than one in a poor one – though mostly she didn’t suffer the possibility of starving to death during the winter.

  8. This is a totally fascinating read! I have learnt so much today (including the origins of the term “to be on tenterhooks”). In these days of automation it is good to take time to appreciate how much employment these mills brought to local areas and the total dependence on the industry within local economies. Congratulations on your reproduction and on the narrative that accompanied it. Love the felted pictures too – very fitting representations of yesteryear.

    Reading through the old processes brought to mind a program Tony Robinson made on this very subject – dressed in medieval garb he climbed into a bath full of urine to work the cloth. The one standout memory I have of this was his face as he traipsed through the noxious liquid. So your narrative and his TV programme have completed the picture in my memory. Thank you! (That said, I think I will stick to modern felting and fulling methods).

    1. Thank you for your thoughts.
      It has occurred to me recently that it might be good for the world if we brought back watermills to power non-computerised processes. There were so many mills running weaving looms this way, as well as engineering mills and so on. It would certainly save a lot of fossil fuel uses.
      We also have an electricity generator running at the watermill down stream from our Mill. We (the world) ought to be thinking about this sort of thing more.

  9. Thank you for this. We (Emerald Ant) are doing a project linking Stur kids with a school in Newfoundland. The students are researching the swankskin / emigration story together and sharing their findings on zoom. Little known family history is emerging! We’re creating a shadow puppet film of the story to be screened at the mill on July 17th. Please come! Your research has been very useful in understanding how swanskin was made, and I hope we include that in the film, sheep to ship. (not the name of the film but it sounds good!) The only missing image I have of the process is the loom, do you happen to know what kind of loom swanskin would have been made on, and would this have been in someone’s cottage? is there an image of such a loom?

    1. When Swanskin was manufactured in Stur back in the 1600s the weavers would all have been working at home. It is likely that the whole family was involved – the children likely preparing the wool for the wife to spin. The weaving was almost always done by the men. It is likely that the type of loom used would have been a simple 2 shaft floor loom, the width of which would almost certainly have been dictated by the length of the weaver’s armspan so that the shuttle could be passed from one side to the other. If the weaver was very poor, then a plain frame loom might have been all that he could afford. Sturminster Museum may have more details about this and I suggest that you contact them direct. I am sorry that I can not be of more help.

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