Coldharbour and the Factory System

Coldharbour and the Factory System

In the late summer of 1797 the purchase of Coldharbour Mill by Thomas Fox was completed. Writing to his brother Edward on the 1st September he stated: "I have purchased the premises at Uffculme for eleven hundred guineas, which I do not think dear as they include about fifteen acres of very fine meadow land. The buildings are but middling but the stream good.

The mill at Coldharbour had originally functioned as a Grist Mill, and reputedly has its roots in Anglo-Saxon England given the mentioning of a mill on the site in the Domesday book of 1086 - one of only 6,000 in the area of England that it covered.

However, for Thomas Fox, it was the healthy supply of water power that caught his eye given the already present water wheel, which he saw potential in upgrading. Hence he wrote of his view to erect 'a little machinery at Coldharbour with for spinning yarn' continuing; 'though I consider it an eligible situation at some future time for a more extensive manufactuory.'

And it was an extensive manufactory that Thomas was to build, after gaining some capital from his mother-in-laws inheritance. His vision was for a factory of three floors, with machines on each floor - a vision realised and still visible to this day on the Coldharbour site.

The original factory was to have the capacity for combing, carding, and spinning - before the wool was taken off to Wellington in order to be woven into cloth ready for sale.

The combing process starts in our combing shed, where fleece from Devon Longwool sheep would have been combed in order to straighten out the fibres ready for spinning. The longer fibres accompanying this fleece allowed for the production of worsted cloth - a harsher, yet strong, material for textile production. Although woollen cloth, composed of shorter fibres of more erratic arrangement was also 'carded' and produced in the factory.

Our second and third preparing box's - used in the 'combing' process

Next in the process, is the spinning stage, where the 'tops' that come out of the combing process are spun on to bobbins, drawn and reduced into yarn, then rolled into wool skeins where they would be ready for export to the Tonedale factory.

After being combed, the Gill Box combs the tops into 'slivers' (soft ropes of fibres) - where groups of 10 tops, either the of the same colour wool or a mixture, are formed into one sliver.

Proceeding from that, the slivers are then 'drawn' on to bobbins where the wool is drawn (lengthened) to form a thinner and longer fibre known as 'slubbing'.

Then the slubbing is reduced further by our 18 spindle reducer using a system of two rollers rolling at different speeds in order to combine two slubbings and draw them into one 'roving'. The machine we use for this is affectionately called 'Granny' as it is the oldest machine in the mill today, being installed in 1898.

The 'roving' is then reduced one more time into yarn by our 30 spindle dandy - the difference between a roving an a yarn, is that the latter remains tightly spun when tension on the thread is released.

Penultimately, the yarn is 'twisted' from two or more bobbins in order to create a thicker wool - the yarn is not drawn or lengthened in this process.

Finally! The 3 or 4 ply wool (depending on how many yarns are twisted into it) is then turned into a skein on our skein winder frame - a machine that turns the wool on a drive shaft, creating a product ready to be either sold, or transported for manufacturing into cloth.

Gill Box

18 Spindle Reducer

Skein Winder

Even though originally, the spun skeins would have originally been transported to Tonedale works in Wellington in order to be manufactured into cloth ready for export; we have salvaged the old machinery from the factory and operate it in our own in order to give the visitor a feel for the whole production process.

The first step involves the warping creel and loom, a two-part stage of the weaving process. The former part involves arranging the threads in a certain order so it can be passed through a mill and turned into a 144 thread warp. The mill then measures out 'sections' of warp in order to build up a warp for whatever product is required - tartan fabric, using very fine fabric, requiring 17 sections for example.

The warp is then passed through a standard loom in order to weave the threads together tightly. This is a highly complicated process and used to be done meticulously by hand. Hand loom weaving was the dominant mode of production in the south west textile industry right up until the mid 19th century, owing the collective bargaining power of the highly talented weavers.

Today, the Mill is host to some excellent weaving tuition by professional hand weaver, Louise Cottey. Meeting in the ‘top shop’ of the atmospheric main Mill building, Louise will guide you through the processes from yarn to cloth and teach you to weave in a variety of styles.

New weavers are always welcome at the beginning of any term and shorter workshops are available during school holiday periods.

For more information, or to enrol, on the weaving courses, contact Louise by email – or visit