A Law to Cut Off All Our Weavers’ Fingers

Irish ten pound banknote, one of the series issued between 1976 and 1982, featuring Jonathan Swift and the Dublin City Council coat of arms. An economy-themed image of Swift FTW!

In 1720, Jonathan Swift published a pamphlet called Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture. The full title was Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, in Clothes & Furniture of Houses, etc. Utterly rejecting and renouncing every thing wearable that comes from England. 1720. The gist of the short essay was that Irish people should use what they produced, rather than engaging in an import-export situation that only profited England. All the quotes in this post that appear in red type are from this Proposal.

And because people are the riches of a country, and that our neighbours have done, and are doing all that in them lie, to make our wool a drug to us, and a monopoly to them; therefore the politic gentlemen of Ireland have depopulated vast tracts of the best land, for the feeding of sheep.

Detail from a seventeenth-century painting showing long-tailed Jacob sheep (a breed popular with spinners and weavers). The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau by Rubens, 1624.

Wool was a huge industry in England at this time, and the idea of growth in the Irish woollen industry was a frightening prospect. A group of English mill owners and processors sent a petition to the House of Lords, asking them to deal with the Irish situation, to stop the flow of of woolly exports from Ireland to England and abroad, and to stop the flow of English workers going to Ireland take advantage of new woolly employment opportunities there.

‘Tis true indeed, our beneficial traffic of wool with France, hath been our only support for several years past, furnishing us all the little money we have to pay our rents and go to market… However, since we are so universally bent upon enlarging our flocks, it may be worth enquiring what we shall do with our wool, in case Barnstaple [English distribution centre for Irish wool] should be overstocked, and our French commerce should fail?

The House of Lords sent the following message to King William III:

…the growing manufacture of cloth in Ireland, both by the cheapness of all sorts of necessaries of life, and goodness of materials for making all manner of cloth, doth invite your subjects of England, with their families and servants, to leave their habitations to settle there, to the increase of the woollen manufacture in Ireland, which makes your loyal subjects in this kingdom very apprehensive that the further growth of it may greatly prejudice the said manufacture here.

The House of Commons advised that the King should limit Ireland’s wool export market to England only, thus allowing them to continue at their labour, but stopping the threat of competition to English millers.

What if the House of Commons had thought fit to make a resolution nemine contradicente against wearing any cloth or stuff in their families, which were not of the growth and manufacture of this kingdom? What if they had extended it so far as utterly to exclude all silks, velvets, calicoes, and the whole lexicon of female fopperies; and declared, that whoever acted otherwise, should be deemed and reputed an enemy to the nation? … What if we should agree to make burying in woollen a fashion, as our neighbours have made it a law? What if the ladies would be content with Irish stuffs for the furniture of their houses, for gowns and petticoats to themselves and their daughters? Upon the whole, and to crown all the rest: Let a firm resolution be taken by male and female, never to appear with one single shred that comes from England; ‘And let all the people say, Amen.’

In 1698-9, King William III passed the Wool Act, making it illegal for Irish wool workers to export their wool anywhere. Read the full text of the Act here – some relevant bits are quoted below. As a carrot to this stick, he promised to encourage instead the linen trade in Ireland.

…An Act to prevent Exportation of Wooll out of the Kingdoms of Ireland and England into Forreigne Parts and for the Encouragement of the Woollen Manufactures in the Kingdom of England It is enacted and declared That no Wooll Wooll-fells Shortlings Mortlings Wooll-flocks Worstead-Bays or Woollen Yarne Cloth Serge Bays Kerseys Says Frizes Druggets Cloth-Serges Shalloons or any other Drapery Stuffs or Woollen Manufactures whatsoever made up or mixed with Wooll or Wooll-flocks shall be exported transported shipped off carried or conveyed out of or from the said Kingdom of Ireland into any Forreigne Realme States or Dominions or into any Parts or Place whatsoever other than the Parts within the Kingdom of England…

Caroline of Ansbach, the Princess of Wales, as she was painted in 1716.

Six years after writing this Proposal, Swift made a presentation of some pieces of silk, which had been processed in Ireland (probably by Hugenots in Cork), to Caroline, Princess of Wales and to her lady-in-waiting, Mrs. Henrietta Howard. A letter accompanied the gifts, which said:

I beg you will not tell any parliament man from whence you had that plaid; otherwise, out of malice, they will make a law to cut off all our weavers’ fingers.


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This entry was posted in cork, dublin, eighteenth century, england, ireland, jonathan swift, laws, linen, personalities, silk, wool. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Law to Cut Off All Our Weavers’ Fingers

  1. There were also Silk-weavers in Dublin, of Hugenot stock. There was a book, Silk Weaver by Gabrielle Warnock that was a fictionalised version of some of the experiences of those weavers in Dublin,

  2. Pingback: To Drag Free Citizens to the Tenter-fields, and There to Torment Them | Irish Historical Textiles

  3. Pingback: Abundantly Happy When They Can Afford An Athlone Hat | Irish Historical Textiles

  4. Sally says:

    Thank you for all of this very interesting textile history.

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