Sunday, January 18, 2015

Fustian cutters

Samuel St Ledger (1821-1882) was a fustian cutter all his life, and so were his sons Ralph, Samuel, William and David. In her younger days his wife, Alice Dodd, was also a fustian cutter. But what did a fustian cutter do?

Corduroy: This modern diagram shows the warp (3) 
and the long (red-4) and short (green-5) weft threads; 
traditionally the knife (1) and the guide (2) 
are attached and the cutting motion is upwards.
"Cordsamt 6" by Ryj - Digitalkamera FinePix A 201. 
Licensed under Public Domain 
via Wikimedia Commons

Fustian refers to several types of heavy cotton cloth such as corduroy, velveteen and moleskin, which were once used mainly to make work clothes. It had ridges running along its length formed by loops of thread woven into the weft. For corduroy and velveteen these loops had to be cut to give the cloth a soft, thick surface.

The fustian cutter (sometimes called a cord cutter) used a tool rather like a modern-day stitch cutter (or button-hole cutter) on a long handle. This was run carefully along each ridge, cutting the loops.

At 7 ridges per inch, a bolt of corduroy cloth 31 inches (~ 80cm) wide would have been over 200 ridges across. Each bolt was many metres long, so cutting every one of these ridges was a laborious and skilled job.

The material was stretched across a long table and the fustian cutter would walk along the length of it, cutting one ridge, then back to cut the next one. Some fustian cutters were able to use two knives simultaneously. Once one length had been cut, the fabric was advanced. After the whole bolt had been cut, the material would be processed further to clean and brush it and then it was dyed.

Since each fustian cutter held their knife at a particular angle, it was important that only one person work on a bolt of cloth, otherwise it would be obvious where one stopped cutting and the other started. In a 60 hour week, a good fustian cutter could cut 500 yards (457 metres) of cloth. For this they might be paid 15 shillings.

Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire was particularly well known for its fustian manufacturing, and it was sometimes referred to as Fustianopolis. Foster Lane, where the St Ledgers lived, was the centre of fustian production. Some of the moleskin cloth produced here was exported to Australia, where it was used to make the iconic moleskin trousers worn by stockmen and other bush workers.

The first part of this video demonstrates what was involved.



Fustian cutting from Alternative Technology Centre on Vimeo.

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