5 April 2002

Historic horsehair weaving site earns welcome reprieve

Horse hair was once essential to great

furniture but today there is just one British

company weaving horse hair fabric.

Sian Ellis reports

THREE years ago Anna Smith, managing director of John Boyd Textiles Ltd, was told that the companys rented premises at Higher Flax Mills in Castle Cary, Somerset, were to be converted into flats.

The bombshell spelled the end of an era for Britains only remaining mechanical horsehair weaver, which has been in Cary since 1837 when the eponymous Boyd turned a local cottage industry into a flourishing factory trade.

"All the great furniture designers swore by horsehair fabric – Hepplewhite, Chippendale, Rennie Mackintosh – and I dont think the landlords and council realised what we had here," says Anna. "We still use the 125-year-old original looms and the building is one of the most significant textile mills in the country."

They certainly realised after Anna set in motion a campaign to avert the development and it was confirmed that both buildings and looms are listed. After much negotiation, victory is in sight, as English Heritage and the local council are buying the site. The future of the company and its special craft heritage is secure.

&#42 150 workers

In John Boyds Victorian heyday, 150 employees worked 100 looms to make the highest quality fabric. The cropped tails of local horses, washed in the village pond, formed the weft, and cotton or linen the warp. "Horsehair has unrivalled lustre," Anna says. "Its durable, hard wearing and doesnt need much cleaning. It will last several lifetimes."

Once the motorcar and mechanised agricultural machinery took over from horsepower, supplies of hair dwindled, and the advent of manmade materials bankrupted most horsehair weavers. Today, John Boyd, with a work force of around 15 and with 40 looms, has just one competitor, in France. They now import the horsehair, mainly from Mongolia, where live animals tails are cropped for safety reasons to avoid them catching in farm machinery. "Their tails grow back within two to three years," Anna adds.

After combing and dyeing, as required, the dressed hair is woven with cotton or silk. The most fascinating feature of the unique looms is the picker device – invented at John Boyds – which feeds each hair from a tray to the rapier for weaving. Before the Education Act of 1870 made school attendance compulsory, children used to sit beside the machines and hand hairs individually to their mothers.

&#42 Darker patterns

"We still make the darker Victorian patterns, but weve added fresh ones, bright yellows, blues and greens, and we can embroider crests and motifs," Anna says. "Our range is wider than ever before and weve cultivated new markets."

Now, its not simply antiques restorers who beat a path to John Boyd, but top designers who use the material for wall coverings and lampshades, and even handbags.

"Crown Princess Masako of Japan carried a gold lurex and yellow horsehair handbag on her wedding day in 1993," Anna says. "It was very beautiful."

At around £100/metre, the fabric is not cheap, but then it does last several lifetimes.

Inquiries: John Boyd Textiles, tel: 01963-350451.