Alpaca at Salt’s Mill, Saltaire

In 1836, as a young man, Titus Salt visited a warehouse in Liverpool and stumbled across a discarded bale of Alpaca wool. It had originally been brought into the country in 1808 but no-one at the time knew what to do with it. The woollen industry was pretty basic in those days.

Unlike wool, Alpaca is a long hair with a crimp in it. A single wool fibre has a number of barbs on its length so it is easily amalgamated into a yarn. This is why Alpaca is usually blended with wool to get the cohesion necessary to make a yarn from it.

Clearly Titus Salt overcame the difficulties of using Alpaca as he went on to create a double sided fancy cloth that was successful for over 40 years. He is reputed to have made Queen Victoria’s mourning clothes as the Alpaca cloth is light but as warm as wool so it can be worn all year round.

Live Alpacas were imported into England by the 13th Earl of Derby who had his own menagerie at his estate in Lancashire. Unfortunately they didn’t survive in the long term probably because the knowledge of how to care from them was not known at the time.

On the back of his success with Alpaca, Titus built Salt’s Mill and the village of Saltaire. He was also determined to give his workers a better quality of life. In Bradford at the time the pollution from the Mills caused a lot of ill health and early death amongst the workers.

By building Saltaire near Shipley in the Aire Valley, Titus had the canal and railway to get his goods to market and by building the village managed to get and keep the many workers he needed. He built a church, village hall and a school. He was also a Quaker so temperance was at the forefront of his thinking. There were no public houses allowed in Saltaire.

Salt’s Mill was opened in 1853 with a great banquet. It was also his 50th birthday. Like a lot of Victorians, he was a great philanthropist, serving as Bradford’ mayor and even as Chief Constable before Bradford was incorporated as a borough.

Today Salt’s Mill has been preserved by the late Jonathan Silver. It is famously known as the main exhibition space for David Hockney. There are businesses, retail space and eating places all occupying the vast floor space of the Mill.

In June the BBC filmed in Saltaire for the next series of Michael Portillo’s Railway Journeys. He will be following the old Midland Railway, which was the name of the railway through Saltaire. And in making the programme, they filmed the herd of Alpacas I’m working with to show that there is still a living connection in the area today.

So what is left of the Woollen Industry in West Yorkshire today?


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6 comments for “Alpaca at Salt’s Mill, Saltaire

  1. September 28, 2010 at 21:15

    What is left? None of it. My dad worked in wool in Bradford (no idea in what capacity, to be honest) in the last glory days in the early 1950s, when the canal still ran more or less to the centre of town, and then it sort of fizzled out.

  2. September 28, 2010 at 21:17

    And my aunt (his sister) lived just across the valley from that factory (you could theoretically see it from the upstairs window) She and her husband had nothing to do with the wool industry, they were both teachers (or maybe she didn’t work as a teacher, but she was and still is very teacher-y).

  3. September 28, 2010 at 21:57

    I wonder how Hockney’s art would sit with the old Quaker, Titus.

  4. JD
    September 28, 2010 at 22:09

    here’s Hockney’s painting of the mill

  5. September 28, 2010 at 22:13

    Very interesting, thank you 🙂

  6. Rossa
    September 29, 2010 at 07:09

    Not far off Mark. One local worsted spinner reckoned that the woollen industry used to account for 25% of GDP. It is now less than 0.1%. As near to none as you can get.

    Saying that he had moved his operation back from Eastern Europe and things are taking a small turn for the better. The UKFT have just launched a database of companies that can supply everything from yarn to producing garments and things. They’re trying to encourage British designers to Make in Britain. Which is what I’m trying to do and I’m getting there slowly.

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