Local author and historian Melvyn Thompson weaves his way through the history of Kidderminster’s renowned carpet industry and how we are keeping the legacy alive.
"Chideminstre was the name recorded in the Doomsday Book for the small town on the banks of the River Stour. With its valley location and sheep on the hills, a wool-based cloth industry soon developed and, by the 1600s, small dye houses lined the river with handlooms scattered around the town producing a variety of patterned cloths. However, it was the ‘Kidderminster Stuff’ that brought the town to the attention of the merchants and wool dealers. ‘Stuff’ was a heavyweight, general purpose cloth, used for wall hangings, bedding and clothing. It was used as a backdrop for the travelling theatre and it could also be put on the floor.
In 1735, two ‘Stuff’ weavers became the first weavers of ‘Kidderminster’ carpet, which was a double thickness patterned, reversible flat weave without a pile. The demand for carpet grew and Master weavers adapted looped pile Brussels and the cut pile Wilton to their handlooms. In those days the weavers were assisted by children who worked at the loom from the age of 10. They worked long hours in dirty loom shops in appalling conditions to complete the 25 yard piece of carpet by ‘fall-day’. This was the day when the weaver took the finished carpet to the factory for inspection and payment. Fall-day was either a Thursday or Saturday and these became, and still are, the town’s market days.
The early 1800’s were a time of increasing population and economic growth, and the Masters profited handsomely from the carpet trade. Kidderminster’s carpets were soon found in stately homes and prestigious locations around the world, and the Masters exhibited their handcrafted carpets at Queen Victoria’s 1851 Great Exhibition. Steam power was introduced and an American showed off his newly developed power loom to the Masters. Initially they resisted, but change was inevitable and soon the town’s skyline changed as new mills and factories were built in the town centre and surrounding meadowland.
With the population at more than 20,000 new housing was needed and so the town and industry settled down to a period of growth as the new Axminster weaves and wider looms were introduced.
The after-war boom, with the building of new houses and the change to wall-to-wall carpeting, brought unprecedented growth and prosperity. In the 1950s-60s, there were 25 carpet manufacturing companies based in the town and 15,000 people earned a living in the industry.
After three decades of profitability the late 1970s saw the decline in the carpet industry as cheaper tufted carpet, coupled with uncontrolled imports took hold. The industry took action with cutbacks and mergers, but the writing was on the wall. In Kidderminster town centre, the clatter of the looms could no longer be heard through the open window, and the smell from the dye houses had gone. And so, the manufacturers condensed operations and sold their factories.
Nonetheless, even with the contraction of the carpet industry in Kidderminster, some companies have successfully continued to make carpet in the town to this day. Brockway is one just company, which is still family run. Brockway is proud of its craftsmanship, environmentally aware technology and that it uses British wool to make its carpets. This is a modern day jewel in the Kidderminster carpet industry."
Yet, what happened to the industry’s assets when it contracted? In the 1970s and 1980s local people believed strongly that there was a need to protect the history and legacy of the once world famous carpet industry that was declining. This was why the Carpet Museum Trust was established in 1981, which collected machinery, documents, designs and memorabilia from the carpet manufacturing companies and people associated with the trade, with the aim of establishing a museum. After considerable effort and planning by the trustees and others, the opening of the Museum of Carpet, in 2012, firmly placed Kidderminster on the map as a site of important industrial heritage. The Museum of Carpet is located in the refurbished grade II listed Woodward Grosvenor Carpet factory, Green Street, DY10 1AZ. Its high quality facilities were established with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Inside the Museum of Carpet, visitors find an interactive, fun and unique place to spend time. The galleries tell the story of the carpet industry from its roots in the 18th century to modern times where visitors learn about how carpets are designed by manufacturers, such as Brockway. Production processes are brought to life as skilled volunteers carry out demonstrations on the giant power looms. Hand loom weaving volunteers demonstrate the carpet’s early craft skills roots, producing beautiful hand made goods sold in the Museum shop.
There is no doubt though that the Museum’s life blood is its volunteer team whose enthusiasm for the town’s heritage is infectious. Their knowledge of the carpet industry is impressive and they give a warm welcome to visitors.
If your interest in the history of the carpet industry has been piqued then do come along to visit the Museum or learn more about what we do at www.museumofcarpet.org.uk