Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

That’s Women’s Work!

I have been listening to Alistair Hulett’s version of The Weaver and the Factory Maid since purchasing the album In Sleepy Scotland from the UK back in 2010. I always thought of it as an upstairs/downstairs style of love story between a wealthy man and the woman forced into his embrace through her station. A bit of knowledge has caused me to re-think the meaning of the song, and wonder about the way that a little bit of context can change the meaning of a folk song so much.

You can listen to my own recording here, or the Steelye Span version here. It is a great disappointment that there is no version of Alistair’s up on YouTube.

Recently I was sent a book about the history of the linen trade in Ireland. I come from a branch of the Clark family that has been manufacturing linen in the Upperlands area of Northern Ireland since the mid 1700s. The book, Linen on the Green, was written by Wallace Clark (my great-great-uncle) and first published in 1983. Reading this book and doing a bit of research on weaving has given me cause to rethink my understanding of the song.

The song is written from the perspective of a hand-weaver and speaks of his love for a factory girl. If you are already familiar with hand weaving and the various technological advances that started in 1733 with the invention (or maybe just patenting of an Asian invention dating back 500 years) of the flying shuttle by John Kay, then these next paragraphs will be a bit dull.

The handloom appeared in Europe in the 11th century and by the likely time of this song (the 1800s), there were around 250,000 hand-weavers in the UK [1], from a population of around 10 million[2]. Hand weaving was a skilled task and a good weaver could make a reasonable living for themselves. These hand-weavers would most likely have been young men (25-35), and the male subject of our song was probably one of them.

Industrialisation of the loom meant that the skills of the hand-weaver were no longer required and a young, unskilled, girl or woman could now do seven times the work for lower pay in a factory with steam driven looms.

One of the perks of being a hand-weaver was that young male weavers would travel from farm to farm with their loom to weave the flax or cotton thread spun by local farmers. This would give the weaver easy access to many a young lass, being the daughters of the farmer or land owner (the Jolly Beggar comes to mind). A young weaver who had a regular seasonal trip between farms could have had the weaver’s equivalent of a sailor’s girl in every port.

With the advent of the factory, these women now went to work early in the morning for their own money and had no time or need of a hand-weaver. This might account for the verse where the protagonist goes to the girl’s bedroom door but cannot find his way into her pleasant bed, without a job he would have had no access to the property.

I should add that it wasn’t all money and status for the women in the factories. With the guaranteed deafness, loss of finger in machinery and eyes from loose shuttles it was a miserable life. Carcinogenic chemicals on the cotton that they would thread after wetting in their mouth meant and early grave for the factory workers.

So is this song really a lament for a firm breasted young girl, or a lament for the job and the status that the hand-weaver had before the arrival of the factory? Or is the author instead longing to be let into the factory and continue to ply his trade, is his actual lament for the loom and her charms?

I may be drawing a long bow with the last suggestion, but I know I will never think of the song in the same way given this small amount of context. I wonder how many other songs are similarly misunderstood for want of a little knowledge?

[1] Guest, R, 1823, A Compendious History of Cotton-Manufacture.