Wovember Words: woolfels, shortlings, mortlings, woolflecks…

The story of the history of the wool trade in Britain is not always a pleasant tale of fluff and joy; it is often a story of protectionism, in which the flow of wool between countries is restricted, taxed or regulated to safeguard economic interests. (The “Burial in Wool” act passed in British parliament in 1678 is a good example of a law that was passed to protect the interests of the British wool industry.) Consequently, digging into laws around wool often throws up some amazing words for banned or restricted items, giving great insights into all the things that were once made – and jealously protected by Governments – from WOOL! Today we hear from Judith Hoad who wrote a wonderful book in 1987 called “This is Donegal Tweed”. Judith reveals one of many hundreds of laws invented to protect the British wool industry, uncovering legislation from 1699 which features a fantastic list of woolly goods. The context is the 1600s in which Ireland rivaled the UK as an epicentre of woollen goods manufacture.

The woollen manufacturers of Taunton claimed that Irish goods were being sold 20% cheaper abroad than English equivalents and that as this was undermining the overseas trade, something had to be done! It is known, too, that there was at the same time an emigration from the West of England by English weavers who had learned from the Irish that had come among them that the wool and the general cost of living were both cheaper in Ireland than in England. Many of these emigrants seem to have settled in County Cork and to have begun their own weaving enterprises, thus increasing the output from Ireland. The English Petition, succumbing to the many petitions it received citing the Irish trade in wool and woollen goods as seriously injuring the English trade in the same field, passed the famous act forbidding the sale of Irish wool in any form, manufactured or otherwise outside Ireland but promising to promote linen manufacture in the place of wool. The very list of prohibited goods makes interesting reading, listing all the goods concerned with wool which were at that time available from Irish weavers and woollen goods traders.

‘After 24th June 1699 none shall directly or indirectly export, transport, ship etc. or cause to be exported etc. from the Kingdom of Ireland into any foreign realm, states, dominions or place whatever any of the wool, woolfels, shortlings, mortlings, woolflocks, worsteds, woollen yarn, cloth, serges, bags, jerseys, caps, friezes, druggets, shalloons, or any other drapery stuffs or woollen manufacture whatsoever made or mixed up with wool or woolflocks or shall directly or indirectly load or cause to be laden… etc.’.

Although the immediate effect on the wool weaving industry was pretty horrendous it did not immediately reduce the national flock and the production of fleece continued. Some found its way abroad through smugglers. But over the next thirty years or so the emphasis changed from woollen yarn to worsted and sales began to pick up again.

– Judith Hoad, This is Donegal Tweed, published in Ireland by Shoestrings Publications, Inver, Co. Donegal, Republic of Ireland, 1987


Image from page 819 of “Whitaker’s peerage, baronetage, knightage, and companionage” (1897) and found on the amazing Internet Archive Flickr stream

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

One thought on “Wovember Words: woolfels, shortlings, mortlings, woolflecks…

  1. As a kid, one of my favourite books was The Wool Pack, by Cynthia Harnett – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wool-Pack. It’s a great story about the wool trade and smuggling shenanigans set in 15C, with the heroes a boy & girl recently betrothed (in those days, at a young age, so there’s no romance). A great way to know more about wool.

    PS I also recomment A Load of Unicorn – all about Caxton, paper, the first printers in England, 16C I think. Great way to learn history with a thrilling plot, too.

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