What is Flannel, and how is it different to Worsted

We are often asked about the definition of flannel, and how it differs from another woollen fabric known as worsted.  The simple answer lies in the type of woollen thread used in the production of the cloth. For worsted the woollen thread is made by the long fibres being parallel to each other and therefore smoother. For flannel, the fibres in the thread are intermingled and shorter giving a rougher texture.

The first thing to note is that the modern use of the word flannel often refers to a fabric made from cotton or synthetic fibre as well as wool. In the Museum we are only talking of the woollen cloth – the original fabric of that name where the woollen threads, woven together, produce a soft fabric. The main characteristic of which is the soft, fuzzier appearance. Flannel is just one type of fabric made from this sort of yarn.

Worsted is also a woollen cloth but it has a smooth appearance and is best known for its use in men’s suits and smart, crisp garments.

So, how is it that wool is the raw material used in both flannel and worsted, but the end result is so dissimilar?  It seems that the characteristics of the threads are as different as is possible, and it is the processes involved that create this variation. 

In a woollen thread used for flannel the fibres are intermingled in the teasing and carding process by separating and then re-blending the fibres in one common but confused thread which is subsequently twisted on itself to provide strength.

In a worsted thread, all the processes of manufacture are aimed at arranging the fibres to lie parallel with each other, producing a symmetrical and smooth thread, which in turn produces a smooth cloth.  For more information check this link.  Or this one.

There is more to the history of flannel, of course. Click here for more information

Sarah Owen sampler
Sarah Owen - Sampler

Sarah Owen born in 1798, was the niece of Robert Owen, famous socialist pioneer. Her father Richard was one of Robert’s brothers. In 1841 she lived in Newtown with her mother, also called Sarah, and sister Charlotte, in Glandwr House, Pool Road and was variously described as a Landed Proprietor, and an Annuitant in the various later census records. At a time when it was common for wealthier families to have resident servants, there is no such record in Sarah Owen’s household.

Samplers have a long and varied history and were found in many different cultures. The name derives from the Latin ‘exemplum’ meaning ‘example’. In Britain, by Tudor times they were commonly used as a reference work, "an example for a woman to work by". By the nineteenth century they had evolved into practice pieces for girls learning needlework.They were almost entirely worked in cross stitch and were particularly popular between the 1830s and 1870s. Sarah’s work, dated 1834, is of interest because samplers were more frequently completed by school age children, but Sarah was 36 when this work was completed. It contains her name and moral text, common features of these works, but does not include other common items such as the alphabet or the numbers. For more information, check this link.

This sampler was donated to the Newtown Textile Museum in 1967 by Miss Hamer, a Newtonian but by then a resident of Northampton.

Mary Jones - pedlar doll

One of the items on display in the Textile Museum is this lovely model doll of a pedlar. The details of her stock are amazing.

Mary Jones was born in 1823 in Llanllwchaiarn and her mother Anne Jones born in 1790 in Denbighshire. In 1871 they are recorded, as living in Frankwell, Llanllwchaiarn and her occupation was Hawker.

A hawker was a person, who traded in goods, wares and merchandise from horse drawn vehicle or travels by any means of locomotion to other places.

A hawkers license was issued by the local authority and cost 4/- p.a. in the 1820s. It lasted for one year from date of issue. To obtain such a license, the applicant had to produce references of good character from a clergyman and two householders or a Justice of the Peace or Superintendent or Inspector of Police. They had to have their name and the words ‘Licensed Hawker’ visibly written, painted or printed on every box, package and every vehicle used for the carriage of goods and on every room or shop in which his/her goods were sold etc.

Mary Jones was apparently licensed to sell tea, tobacco and snuff. Her travels took her from Newtown to Aberystwyth four times a year. More examples of Pedlar dolls can be found here.  Or here.

Mary Jones, Pedlar doll
Mary Jones's wares
Unused work token
George Morgan's mill work token
Tally check token George Morgan, Crescent Street Mills, Newtown, c1880

During the early years of the nineteenth century, Newtown developed as a centre of the flannel industry. Although parts of the industry such as spinning had been mechanised, weaving remained a manual process. Dozens of three or four storey buildings sprang up, particularly in the Penygloddfa area of the town, many of which had small back to back cottages on the lower floors. Our building is one of the remaining ones in Newtown in near original condition. On the upper floors, open rooms, running the whole length of the building, accommodated the handlooms of the weavers where both men, women and children laboured to produce the fine quality woollen cloth. George Morgan took over the Crescent Street Mills in the late 1870s, by which time the handloom factories were being converted to steam power. Morgan installed a steam engine in his factory in November 1881. The building was destroyed in a fire in 1938, by which time flannel production in the town had ceased.

Each worker in the mill was issued with a brass token, individually stamped with his own number, which was used as an attendance check. Work tokens have a long long been used by employers as a simple check to see who was in work on any given shift. They were always used in mining because of the additional safety checks needed. Our token is connected to the flannel industry. This example appears to have been unused, as it lacks a number. Information on mining tokens can be found on this link.

Crimean War quilt 

There is a picture hanging in the Royal College of Surgeons of a man sitting in bed sewing a quilt. His quilt was made of triangles, while the one on display at the Museum is tiny squares of densely woven worsted used in the production of military uniforms, predominantly in red. Soldiers were encouraged to take up needlework as a form of therapy for those injured in conflict and recuperating in hospital but many questions remain as to why and how they were made. Further information here

They are generally called Crimean War quilts, even when made in other parts of the world. Our quilt was made by Private James Reeves, a soldier in the 108th (Madras Infantry) Regiment of Foot.  It is wonderful to have a photo of him with the regimental number on his cap, the great grandfather of our curator.  The quilt is on loan to the Museum and is on display.

Crimean military quilt
Medallion awarded to Pryce Jones at the Exhibition in Vienna in 1873.
Pryce Jones medallion. Vienna

Pryce Jones, a native of Newtown, began life as a humble draper’s apprentice but became a pioneer of the mail order business and revived the flagging mid Wales textile industry in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to recognise the potential of the new universal postal system and the growing railway system. From his magnificent Royal Welsh Warehouse in Newtown he established a global trading empire based on mid Wales woollen cloth. Each day three special rail carriages ran daily to London Euston carrying his goods for onward transit to all parts of the UK and the world. He directly employed more than 300 workers in his factories in Newtown and Welshpool and indirectly provided a livelihood for many hundreds more. A master of publicity, he capitalised on the patronage of the crowned heads of Europe. He also displayed his wares at the great trade exhibitions at Vienna, Sydney, Philadelphia, Paris and Berlin where he won prestigious awards for the quality of his produce. Sadly, success did not last, as mid Wales ultimately could not cope with the more efficient textile centres of Lancashire and Yorkshire. By 1914, the mid Wales textile industry was in terminal decline.