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Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Woolly words: names deriving from the wool trade

Wool Names

Anyone who knows me knows that two of my pet obsessions are the wool trade; and names.
This essay will endeavour to cover both my interests, since no trade has influenced the surnames of England like the cloth trade.

I will also show that the names derived from this trade are also to some extent regionally determined, by the specific terms generic to each region of cloth production.  I will concentrate on the woollen trade but will also mention the native linen production, which added its own names to the general stock.

Wool has many processes in its production.  First of all it must be grown on sheep, tended by a shepherd; then sheared.  However though someone surnamed Shepherd or Sheep had doubtless that task in his background, someone surnamed ‘Shearer’ did not shear the sheep, but was a person who sheared the nap.  But I get ahead of myself.   
Once the fleece was ready it was spun; which might be done in the grease, or from a washed fleece.  This was usually done by the women.  A women worker has a surname suffixed –ster not –er, and so we get the word ‘spinster’ as well for an unwed woman who eked out the family economy by spinning.  Male spinners gave the name Spinner; but might equally have spun linen thread, another miserable job as it had to be done in the dark and damp.

Spun wool might go next to weaving or be ‘dyed in the wool’.  Certain colours like blue, from woad, were always traditionally dyed in the wool  Hence one has the Dyers and Listers.  Lister is the more recent name being derivative of a Middle English word. Dyer has old English roots.  There exist as names Dyers, Dyerson, Dyster though in this case not necessarily from a female dyer.  [English isn’t always consistent, is it?]

Next, the weaving.  A Weaver might also be a Webber, a Webb[e] or a Webster   who might well have been a woman in the trade.  This was a highly skilled trade, and determined a lot about the use of the cloth afterwards.  Not all wool woven would go on to become woollen cloth; some would have the hard wearing worsted weave.  However, wool that WAS to go on to be woollen cloth, the most expensive and prestigious export of the late Middle Ages,  would then be fulled by a Fuller or Walker or Tucker
Walker may be an ambiguous name as it also refers to the job of walking the wet flax to turn it into linen fibres, and though a fulling Walker had a skilled job, walking the flax made it to Tony Robinson’s ‘Worst Jobs in History’. Tucker derives from folding and torturing the cloth; the act of fulling is to wash and shrink the cloth to bring the fibres closer together and make it more weather resistant as well as thicker.  After being fulled it would be re-stretched in the tenter’s yard, giving us the phrase ‘to be on tenter-hooks’.  I have been unable to track down Tenter as a surname however; I suspect it was assumed in the fuller’s art.  Fulling has also given us the name for a type of kaolin clay, fuller’s earth, which was used to rub into the wool to absorb and remove the lanolin and greases from both the fleece and from the earlier processes.  Fuller’s Weed is also the country name for soapwort which was used in the washing process. 

Next, the cloth must be napped and sheared, often many times.  This meant raising a nap with teasels – no man-made substitute for this plant has ever improved on nature.  The slight hook on the end of the spines lifted the nap very successfully.  This gives us the names Tesler, Tazelaar, Teasel, Taycell.  The name Napper does not, however exist.  The very skilled job of cutting the raised nap to a level surface was a Shearer and was also derivative of  Sharman, Shearman and Sherman especially in the East.  ‘Shere’ and its variants however derive from shearsmith, one who kept shears sharp, and though a related industry in some respects is not directly derived from the woollen industry. 

Some slightly related names are Flaxman, a man involved in the growing or handling of flax for linen, Sower and some Sewers, those who sewed, Souster for a woman; Mercer,  a seller of luxury fabrics.  Also Fleming since the statutes of Edward III that wool might not be exported unwoven meant that there were insufficient weavers in England, and certain foreign experts were invited to settle.  Nowhere did this make more impact than in Norfolk, whose cloth was justly famed long after the woollen industry was on the decline elsewhere in Britain, surviving to produce the magnificent Norfolk Shawls in imitation of the costly  imported Cashmere shawls indispensable fashion wear to the Regency miss. 

So down to the business of location.

Widespread, largely midlands and north
South-west, as far east as Hants and Wilts
East and South East, mostly in Sussex, Kent and Anglia but as far west as Bucks and Oxfordshire.
Mostly south-west, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, but also Suffolk [owing to the Suffolk woads and saffron and other dye weeds]
Mostly Cambs and West Riding of Yorkshire, also Lincs and Norfolk
Largely Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Somerset
Largely Somerset and Devonshire
South of a line from the Wash to the Dee except in those places where Webber or Weaver are more common
North of the line from Wash to Dee where the name was taken by men, and where women wove.
General, wherever woollen cloth was produced
Sharman etc
Largely East and south, as far north as Lincs and as far west as Bucks

Some counties have a high proportion of names related to one form of the woollen trade or another which I include for interest.

Cambridgeshire: Lister
Devon: Tucker, Webber, Dyer
Derby: Walkers, Webster
Durham: Walker
Lancashire: Webster
Norfolk: Fuller
Notts: Walker
Somerset: Tucker, Webb, Webber, Weaver, Dyer
Stafford: Walker
Suffolk: Webb, Dyer
Sussex: Fuller
Wilts: Tucker, Webb
Worcester: Weaver
Yorkshire: Walker, Webster, Lister


Guppy, Henry Brougham; homes of family names in Great Britain, [1890],  Bibliolife

Reaney, P.H, & Wilson, R. M; A dictionary of English Surnames, 1997, Oford University Press

Robinson, Tony, The Worst Jobs In History, 2004, Pan


1 comment:

  1. A fascinating insight into a tiny segment of British surnames; the master work will be fascinating.