Hi, welcome to String Revolution. I'm Léan, I live in Dublin with my husband and two little boys, and I am a dangerous stringy subversive.
My job is to radiate my creative truth, and to help you radiate yours. I create, without exception, every day. I write here when I have something to say.

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String Songs: The Weaver and the Factory Maid

Look, look, it’s a series!

A little while ago I published my first audio post, featuring me singing “Tuirne Mháire”, a traditional Irish song about a spinning wheel.

This week I recorded a second song, “The Weaver and the Factory Maid” – as performed by those linchpins of English electric folk, the fabulous Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span. We had their Parcel of Rogues album when I was growing up, and this was always one of my favourite songs.

My version doesn’t have any of the gorgeous crunchy instruments or harmonies, obviously, since it was just me and my phone (…in the bathroom, on account of the acoustics), but I rather like how it turned out.

Listen here:

The Weaver and the Factory Maid

Text

Oh, when I was a tailor, I carried my bodkin and shears.
When I was a weaver, I carried my roods and my gears.
My temples also, my smallclothes and reed in my hand.
And wherever I go, here’s the jolly bold weaver again.

I’m a hand weaver to my trade.
I fell in love with a factory maid,
And if I could but her favours win,
I’d stand beside her and weave by steam.

My father to me scornful said,
How could you fancy a factory maid?
When you could have girls fine and gay
And dressed like unto the queen of May.

As for your fine girls I don’t care
If I could but enjoy my dear,
I’d stand in the factory all day
And she and I’d keep our shuttles in play.

I went to my love’s bedroom door
Where often times I had been before,
But I could not speak nor yet get in
The pleasant bed where my love laid in.

How can you say it’s a pleasant bed,
When nowt lies there but a factory maid?
A factory lass although she be,
Blessed is the man that enjoys she.

Oh, pleasant thoughts come to my mind
As I turn down her sheets so fine,
And I seen her two breasts standing so,
Like two white hills all covered with snow.

The loom goes click and the loom goes clack
The shuttle flies forward and then flies back.
The weaver’s so bent that he’s like to crack,
Such a wearisome trade is the weaver’s.

The yarn is made into cloth at last,
The ends of the weft they are made quite fast,
The weaver’s labours are now all past,
Such a wearisome trade is the weaver’s.

Where are the girls, I will tell you plain:
The girls have all gone to weave by steam,
And if you’d find them you must rise at dawn
And trudge to the mill in the early morn

Oh, when I was a tailor, I carried my bodkin and shears.
When I was a weaver, I carried my roods and my gears.
My temples also, my smallclothes and reed in my hand.
And wherever I go, here’s the jolly bold weaver again.

Context

This song goes one better than “Tuirne Mháire” in the Things That Are Likely to Appeal to Léan stakes – combining as it does no fewer than three of my enthusiasms: String (obviously). Singing. And politics.

(Oh, also sex – but I have my Big Nerd hat on at the moment, so I’m not paying attention to that bit. Much. I do rather like the way the tempo changes after the verse with the breasts, though!)

“The Weaver and the Factory Maid” is about that moment in Britain’s Industrial Revolution when the established processes of cloth production are giving way to the new textile mills – leading to one of the largest social upheavals in Western history.

There are of course enormous amounts written about how and why this happened – entire careers-worth of research and publication and scholarly conversation. I’m no historian, but the potted version1 is that in the late eighteenth century a technological improvement in the shuttle (the part of a loom that carries the weft thread back and forth) led to a dramatic increase in weavers’ output, and thence to a demand for spun yarn that was unsustainable in the cottage industry as it stood.

1 Thank you, Google… I’ve listed some references at the end of this post.

Before the invention of this “flying shuttle”, two or three carders would produce enough roving (prepared fibre) for one spinner, and two or three spinners would produce enough yarn for one weaver. But now suddenly, the weaver was looking for about twice as much yarn as before.

You’ve heard of the Spinning Jenny? It was invented to overcome this supply problem.

One thing led to another, and within a few decades, steam-powered machines were doing pretty much all the work of carding, spinning, and weaving, in the textile mills (dark? satanic? yes, those ones) that have become so iconic in our picture of the nineteenth-century UK. The rural cottage industry was in decline, and our familiar urban industrialised society was coming into being.

The young weaver in this song is quite prepared to defy his father, forsake his ancient trade, and follow his crush into the factory. But alongside that, particularly in the penultimate verse, is a strong sense of the massive social change that’s taking place, with the “girls” who used to be visible in the community (and, presumably, available for young men to court) now disappearing into the factory at dawn.

(Not to mention that thirteen-hour days of hard work in a hot, humid, deafening, carcinogenic, acutely unsafe environment probably didn’t allow much time or energy for courting, as such. Yay industrial capitalism.)

Controversy

I went looking for a bit more information about the text of this song…

two days ago.

Turns out the online folk music scene is kind of vast (not unlike the online craft scene, in fact – geekiness is geekiness whatever form it takes!).

Overwhelming. I confess I’m in deep – and have to keep reminding myself that no, going and doing doctoral research in ethnomusicology isn’t exactly congruent with my medium-term plans! Sigh.

Anyway, to summarise in brutally broad brushstrokes, it seems that “The Weaver and the Factory Maid” as I’ve sung it here is most likely a consciously altered or conflated version of an older song or songs. It’s a modern take, in other words, on the issues it addresses.

(As I understand it, Steeleye Span also added in lines from two other traditional songs (the repeated first/last verse, and the two quicker ones towards the end), but that’s more of an aesthetic decision than an ideologically motivated one.)

Central to the British folk revival of the mid-twentieth century was a man called A.L. Lloyd (known as Bert), who collected hundreds of songs and wrote books on English folk music.

Except that on examination, it seems that his “collecting” wasn’t always as neutral as he implied. (Shock! Horror!)

I’m not going to claim any kind of authority on the basis of a few hours spent reading the Internet, but several apparent experts believe that Lloyd was pushing an agenda: he wanted to prove that the rural tradition of orally transmitted folk song did not die out in the Industrial Revolution, but adapted to the new urban setting. I’m not sure how much genuine evidence for this exists, but it seems that Lloyd (often very successfully) tweaked things here and there to fill in some of the gaps in his picture.

Arguably, of course, all scholars have an agenda, whether they acknowledge it or not, but there are some obvious rules of thumb – such as scrupulous identification of sources, so that later researchers can retrace one’s steps. It’s hard to know how Lloyd viewed his own actions, but they do seem fairly egregious on the face of it.

Interestingly, one of the changes he may have made was to switch the direction of the social scorn: in an older source, the factory maid considers herself superior to a mere hand weaver. I wonder what that says about the power relationships: I’d love to read more about the Industrial Revolution’s impact on gender and class (I’ve heard it cited as a moment where women’s financial empowerment increased, for instance). I could imagine that a job in the shiny new mill might confer some status on a person.

You know, like fancy Internet jobs do nowadays 🙂

But, see, this is where the academic itch starts up again. I want to know, dammit! I want to know the gender balance of textile workers before and after the Industrial Revolution. I want to know about the politics of skill during the transition. I want to know about the power and the money. I want to know the gender balance of the speakers in textile-related songs, and how that relates to the gender balance of the actual workers. I want to know whether other crafts, such as knitting, sewing, lacemaking, were ever politicised in the same way as weaving. I want to know if any songs by carders and spinners survive, or if it’s all about the weavers – and if it is all about the weavers, I want to know why. I want… I want…

No. No ethnomusicological research. Just a little light reading, if I can find any.

References

For the history, I started from the Wikipedia article Textile Manufacture During the Industrial Revolution and spidered out from there.

For the text, I started from Jon Boden’s fascinating blog A Folk Song A Day, which featured a version called The Hand Weaver and the Factory Maid on 26 November 2010.

That post led me to the motherlode: (1) a page by someone at the University of Hamburg, comparing recorded versions of the song, and (2) an in-depth discussion of Bert Lloyd’s song-tweaking habits on an alarmingly vast folk music site called Mudcat (evidently an archive of an e-mail discussion list) – which itself led out in various other directions.

And that’s what I’ve been doing this week!

Why am I going into all this detail?

Well, you see, the history and politics of textiles make me shiver with excitement. Every new piece of this multifaceted, complex edifice that I discover makes me want to leap and whoop. Whee!

I also have an authenticity fetish. Having read all this stuff, I couldn’t actually press Publish here without telling you what you’re getting.

Finally, did I mention I love this song, just as it is, dodgy provenance and all? I hope you enjoy it too! Do comment and let me know what you think. Also welcome: suggestions for further reading.

7 comments to String Songs: The Weaver and the Factory Maid

  • it seems that “The Weaver and the Factory Maid” as I’ve sung it here is most likely a consciously altered or conflated version of an older song or songs. It’s a modern take, in other words, on the issues it addresses.

    (As I understand it, Steeleye Span also added in lines from two other traditional songs

    I like to say that in folk music there’s no such thing as “getting the words wrong” — there’s only “variant traditions”. 😉 It’s really interesting to look at all the variants of any given Child ballad and see how they overlap, and which bits are popular in modern recordings and which bits tend to fall by the wayside. I have four recordings of “Broomfield Hill”/”The Broomfield Wager”, and they have significant differences — mostly, one version is a lot less creepy.

    You may already know about this, but just in case you haven’t: my favourite folk song about textiles is “Poverty Knock”, another one from Lloyd’s collection; here’s Chumbawamba’s version (from their excellent album English Rebel Songs 1381-1984), and a Mudcat thread about its origins.

  • Thank you, Léan, for sharing that song and bits of its context. I totally get how having a “quick” look at these things would give you an academic itch!

  • Ailbhe

    Interesting! The tempo change is nice, yes. Click and clack and forward and back indeed.

  • Léan, this is so beautiful that my normally “squirrel on speed” multitasking mind halted completely just to listen and then I read Every. Single. Word. What a marvellous post!

    My mum does weaving, and I am sending this to her immediately for inspiration! Thank you 🙂

  • I love your voice — whether you’re speaking, singing, or writing. I love that you are interested in the historical and political context of the song’s creation (and alteration and recording(s) and discussion and place in tradition too).

    Thank you for this song, and for sharing your researches with us! I immediately thought of a children’s book I read recently (fiction, so it’s not a historical source or anything) called Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson. It’s about a young girl in Vermont who becomes a “fact’ry girl” in a Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mill. Sometimes painful to read (child labor, terrible conditions, poverty…). And it doesn’t address the hand-weaving trade at all. Anyway, that’s what came to my mind.

  • on gender and class in textile mills in early industrial revolution England there is a historian that’s done a lot of work on Preston and Lancashire generally. Damned if I can remember her name but there was a time when I had a book or two of hers (though I don’t think I read them) on my shelves. I suspect these are now in the many boxes I took to a book dealer friend a couple of years ago.

    Hoping that much detail can send you in the right direction. But I do know that textile regions had very different gender relations than other regions in that historical period.

  • kate schofield

    The weaver & the factory maid is one of my favourite Steeleye Span songs & I’d love to know more about the origins as I’m a spinner & weaver & interested in the time when cottage industries were disappearing as the factory system took over.Chris Aspin has written some good books about the textile industries & Helmshore Mills in Lancashire & Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire are interesting to visit for textile history.

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