John Boyd Horsehair Fabrics and Lower Cockhill Farm

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Today I joined a group visit to two local venues of interest organised by the Friends of Holbourne Museum.   In the morning we converged on John Boyd Textiles in Castle Cary, one of only two horsehair textile manufacturers in the world.  Sadly, due to the specialist nature of the manufacturing process we were not permitted to take photographs inside the factory but the building itself was of interest, having formerly been a flax mill manufacturing linen fabrics and ropes.

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The horsehair is imported from China and Mongolia, where horses are still bred in sufficient numbers.  The tails are cropped and take two years to grow back.  The fabric width is dictated by the length of the horse hairs, white hair is shorter, about 20 inches and black and brown up to 25 inches.  The white hair is more expensive and is also processed in the factory by picking through it by hand to remove any coloured hairs which can take two days!  This pure white has become highly desireable for interior design use.  The hair can also be dyed and this is also done on the premises.

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We were shown the warping drum which will wind warps up to 50 metres.  The warp is normally cotton but silk and other fibres, even lurex, are used, depending on the design of the finished fabric.  There were two floors of about 10 looms, each closely monitored and tended to by one lady weaver.  This skilled work can take up to 15 years to learn and one of the weavers had been working for the company for thirty years.  Some of the looms were set up for dobby style patterns.  The looms are 150 years old and all the maintenance is done in house.  After weaving the fabric is pressed between hot plates in an old cider press.  This flattens out any undulations and gives a sheen to the fabric.

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The home page of the John Boyd website features a short but interesting film about the process.  We also had a chance to visit the town museum which had a small display on the factory where I was able to photograph the hair bundles.

The horsehair fabric itself is used predominantly for interior furnishings, seat covers being the most widely recognised use as the fabric is easy to wipe clean and very durable.  Examples can be found in historic buildings such as No. 1 Royal Crescent and the Holbourne Museum in Bath.  In recent years the fabric has become favoured by designers for use as a wallcovering.  I came away with a few small samples which I will treasure, in the knowledge that the fabrics cost from £150 per metre!

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If you look closely (click on the image for a larger view) you should be able to see that I have arranged all the samples with the horsehair running horizontally, as it is woven.  The top left sample uses black and scarlet cotton warp with dyed black horsehair weft.  Top right uses white horsehair dyed red with a red cotton warp.  Middle left uses a black warp and the horsehair is all natural browns and blacks.  Bottom right uses natural white horsehair with an ivory white cotton warp.  Bottom left  (my favorite) is white horsehair dyed turquoise with a turquoise cotton warp.  With this last one even though the white horsehair has been dyed you can still see the variation in colours of the original hairs in the overall weave.

After a very jolly lunch at Mother’s Tea Rooms in Castle Cary we trundled along the fringes of the Somerset Levels to the hamlet of Cockhill.  Here our group were shown around an ancient farmhouse and barn with beautiful traditional 15th Century cruck beams.  The special feature of the house is the Painted Room upstairs.  Little is known of why the room was decorated so splendidly but it is possible that this and the suite of rooms surrounding it were developed to accommodate a VIP visitor.  The paintings have been expertly restored.  The colours are vibrant and the designs are naive but appear to have a religious theme.  The room felt very special and I would have liked to have spent longer there, without the group to be able to experience the art and atmosphere more fully.

The day was dull and wet which meant that indoors it was quite dark as the rooms were not lit.  I did not take any photographs but I have found this Flickr feed which shows the rooms and the rest of the building perfectly.  The designs remind me of folk art wall paintings by Polina Raiko I saw recently featured on this blog.

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One response »

  1. My great-grandmother had an old high-backed chair upholstered in horsehair. I remember the slight crackle sound and scratchy, prickly feel of the seat on my legs as I scrambled to sit on it, as a child…… that was more than 60 years ago. I wonder if the fabric is now treated to prevent it breaking down like that, with wear, or is it not a heavy duty fabric….? Just curious – as I had no idea that fabric is still made….. Wonderful skills still abound, how great is that?

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