Wovember Words: Alnagers

I was reading about the history of woollen blanket manufacture in Witney, Oxfordshire, when I came across a curious term: “alnagers”. Further reading revealed that ‘Alnage, or aulnage (from Fr. aune, ell) is the official supervision of the shape and quality of manufactured woollen cloth’ and that alnagers were the official practitioners of Alnage. They existed to ensure the quality of wool cloth and to mark approved cloth with a special seal. This seems a particularly important term when considering that the raison d’être of WOVEMBER is to distinguish beauteous WOOL from other textiles and to ensure that viscose, polyester, acrylic etc. are not incorrectly labelled as WOOL… It’s also interesting to notice that because of the work and labour that goes into woollen cloth production, folk have been trying to adulterate and mix it with cheaper, inferior fibres for long since before the advent of manmade fibres. Here’s what I found about ALNAGE in seventeenth century blanket manufacture, shared here for your reading pleasure.

The growth of the woollen industry was clearly reinforced by the fast-flowing river Windrush, which could provide water power for fulling mills on its banks between Witney and Burford. Alfred Plummer, in The Witney Blanket Industry, 1934, suggests that broadcloth weaving flourished here because there was no guild of weavers in the town, so that, apart from the general laws concerning weights and measures, very little in the way of restrictive practices existed. This allowed the industry to grow and competition to flourish. It is even more possible that weavers from the older, but more restriced centres like Coventry may have moved to Witney in order to practice their trade unhampered by the rule of guilds.

This may have been a happy state of affairs in many ways, but during the 17th century the weavers found they had to contend with considerable fraud and malpractice. The Trade Commissioners, reporting in 1640 on the state of the ‘clothing industry in England’, found that frauds in the manufacture and dressing of cloth were causing a decay in the industry. Although alnagers (special inspectors) existed to insure that cloth was of a proper standard, they sometimes collected their fees without carrying out their inspections, and were often dishonest enough to accept bribes to pass inferior cloth. In 1641 the blanket weavers of Witney petitioned the House of Lords about a patent for the sealing of their blankets, saying that ‘Wm. Howes, now deceased, and his son’ had been enriching thesmelves by raising the price for inspecting and sealing each bundle of blankets from 2d to 6d, and had also made money out of ‘fines and exactions’.

– Charles & Joan Gott, The Book of Witney, published by Baracuda Books Limited, Buckingham, England, 1986.


Image features a Cloth Seal, Charles II, Alnage, 1682; Image & Found by Derfel and discovered online here.