It’s the distinctive whizz and thump of a dozen or more looms that one first notices on stepping onto the floor of the Yorkshire cashmere mill.
Their percussion seems at first to set the rhythm of the place. Not so. It is instead set by the steady method by which the workers go about their business: passing luxuriant fabrics along the line, from hand to hand to machine and back again.
The mill sits in the area still known as the Heavy Woollen District. Heavy not, presumably, in the yoof sense, but the literal one, though either would be apt. Now well into its third century, nowhere in the country does machine-finished wool and cashmere better. The cloths off its line really are of the top-most quality — cloth that used well can lift a good garment up a notch. Rolls of the stuff festoon the place: some heaved to and fro, from stage to stage; others — including decades-worths of archival rolls — stacked on shelves as far as the eye can see, among them an arsenal of anti-moth provisions.
Prolific though the mill is, output is still an outcome of time-worn craft. Craft not so much of the rose-tinted, handicraft-and-homespunliness type, but the less celebrated mechanised type: the type with machines moving far too fast for the eye to make sense of, with intricate webs of yarn and thread — the bewildering cat’s cradle of the jacquard loom — and with industrial-strength finishing machines, many bespoke to the mill. It’s a craft that also uses the teasel-gig, which takes its name from the rows of prickly plants across its face. These draw out the softest fibres — and so raise the the nap — of cloth rolled over it. It’s a type of mechanisation older than the term itself.
The integral role machinery plays in the process is not to infer automation: work here is less hands-on than it once would’ve been, but lives — by and large local ones — are still spent learning and acquiring an intuitive understanding of the apparatus. In years past, this would have been one specific piece of this apparatus; calling one machine your own and acquiring the precise methods within — becoming in effect a single link in the chain. This is less the case now, and the circumstances of the day have brought the need for job rotation, meaning for the mill greater flexibility, and for the worker, a more varied and transferable set of skills.
These present-day ways of working also mean that workers see more of the cloth as it passes along the line: they’re wedded less to the apparatus and more to what it makes. With it comes a real, discernable, inside-out affinity with the cloth, and one leaves the mill appreciating just how it is that the intentions of its designers go on being meticulously and expertly realised.