During the Middle Ages, the wool industry became very important to Britain's economy. Cloth was traded at home and abroad.
There were important cloth-making centres in the West Country, Norwich, Yorkshire and Lancashire, also in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. The counties of Gloucestershire and Devon played a key role in this industry.
The wool industry in Gloucestershire
The Gloucestershire woollen industry was well-established by the mid 1500s. By the end of this century the Cotswold scarp valleys of the Frome, Ewelme and Little Avon and their tributaries contained at least 43 mills. The many springs and steep-sided valleys made the Stroud Valleys a natural choice for building mills based on water power.
During the 1500s and early 1600s, the cloth trade concentrated on unfinished, so-called "white" cloth, mainly for export to Holland and Germany where it was dyed and finished. However, red-dyed cloth was a Stroudwater speciality. Improvements were made to the fineness and colour of these reds in the early 1600s, which soon became world famous. Other colours were also dyed on an extensive scale.
The Gloucestershire industry continued to expand until 1720. It then entered a long period of fluctuation and eventual decline in the 1870s. Trade was affected by wars and the competition, particularly from the West Riding of Yorkshire. There new cheaper types of cloth were being produced by a better-trained workforce. In the early 1800s Leeds Clothier, Benjamin Gott, was producing imitation strouds for export to North America.
By 1770 the West Riding was responsible for more than half of Britain's cloth exports. Eventually manufacture was concentrated there. By 1900 just a handful of Gloucestershire manufacturers remained.
The wool industry in Exeter
Exeter dominated the wool industry in Devon. It was home to the second largest cloth market in England during the late 1600s. The industry was at its peak a few years later. By this time it employed four-fifths of the city's workforce.
By the late 1700s, the Exeter wool industry was beginning to decline. However, some cloth makers were still able to compete with Yorkshire mills that were industrialising the process. Thomas Fox, at Coldharbour Mill in Uffculme, was one of them. He continued to produce Devonshire long ells until the 1830s.