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Training in the mills

A young Witney weaver at her loom, 1920s or 1930s.
A young Witney weaver at her loom, 1920s or 1930s.
The traditional route for learning the trade of weaving before the days of factories was to be apprenticed for between seven and nine years. After the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company (the local trade guild) was formed in 1711, it became an offence to take on more than one apprentice at a time, or to take an apprentice on before the master weaver had been in the trade for three years himself.

In the first half of the 20th century, weavers learnt their craft by helping for two weeks or more at the loom of their mother, elder sister or another experienced weaver, who would earn a little extra money for their trouble. At the end of this time the new weaver would go on to work a loom of her own. In nearly all the departments of a mill new employees would be trained up by older members of staff, often their own relations who would pass their own particular set of skills down the family. Many people worked their way up from the bottom to become foremen, buyers and managers; others bought their skills and knowledge with them, learned from working in other textile firms both locally and nationally.

Just after the Second World War Early's blanket firm started a weaving school within their factory premises. Here training staff including Elsie and Muriel King and Beryl Harris taught full time weaving courses to school leavers joining the mill [1]. By 1966 a similar training process was set up in Early's Warehouse where the machining, folding and wrapping of blankets was taught.

In 1964 the Industrial Training Act introduced a training levy on all employers, who could then claim back the money they spent on training their employees, and after this more formal ways of training began to appear in the industry. Some traditional apprenticeships were still available but courses run at Technical Colleges, work experience and skill swapping sessions within the industry were also having an impact. Some of the key staff and management at Smith's and Early's undertook specialised textile and engineering training through degree courses at Leeds and other universities [2].

[1] Plummer and Early 1969: p170
[2] Plummer and Early 1969: pp169-171
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Yvonne Souch, a former worker from the Witney blanket industry, talks about the plans she made for when she left school (78Kb).

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Lawrence Dixey, a former worker at Early's, recalls the training that women received before they started in the weaving shed (85Kb).

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Alan Pullin, a 'weft man' for Smith and Philips' blanket company (1964-1974) recalls that many girls from Witney's surrounding villages started work in the mills as apprentice weavers (94Kb).