Spinners and songsters-Songs from textile workers

Girl Working at a Cotton Mill
Young girl working in a North Carolina cotton mill.

As I was preparing a class on the history of labor in the US, I delved into the narratives of textile workers, especially women. Of course, it brought to mind several folk songs and I decided to dig a little deeper into the musical depiction of textile work in various English-speaking countries.

The songs that I was reminded of seemed to have various purposes. Some of them seemed to be simple songs used by textile workers to pass the time or give themselves a working pace, while others document their living condition and some are downright protest songs (looking at you, Hedy West.) Again

Waulking songs

Waulking is an old practice which was kept alive into the twentieth century by Gaelic Scots, mostly in the Hebrides apparently. It is the process by which women clean and beat the tweed to soften it. Of course, beating the cloth created a rhythm, and the women added vocals to this rhythm. Vocals can be lyrics in Gaelic or meaningless syllables (called “vocables”), could talk about romance or be simple gossip between the women taking part in the luadh.

The structure in itself is (necessarily) repetitive, as the lead singer gives the words and melody, which are repeated by the chorus of women as the lead singer takes her breath. This is visible in the video below or in this one.

Nowadays, artists like commercially successful Capercaillie of Julie Fowlis have brought those songs to a new audience. These songs have also been exported by Scottish migrants to Nova Scotia and more precisely Cape Breton, where enthusiasts keep the heritage alive by performing and sharing their “milling songs” (more history and audio on this link.)

In Scotland, some women seem keen to keep this tradition alive:

Songs of weaving

Moving on to a completely different beast, I am leaving behind the Scottish handicraft as citizens of the British isles were thrust into the industrial revolution in the 19th century and had to adapt to a whole new production system.

One of the most lyrical songs on the period was probably even older than that. The Four Loom Weaver probably originated in The Poor Cotton Weaver, which is supposed to have been written in the very early nineteenth century according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The song, dug up by renowned folklorist Ewan McColl, inspired Silly Sisters June Tabor and Maddy Prior (of Steeleye Span fame) to record it on the first of their two records. They revisited it 42 years later in the video below. Tabor introduces the song by explaining how skilled workers saw their wages fall by nearly two thirds, but the song has reemerged several times throughout the nineteenth century in times of crisis, and even made an appearance in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 Mary Barton: “Do you know “The Oldham Weaver?” Not unless you are Lancashire born and bred, for it is a complete Lancashire ditty. I will copy it for you”. The version presented in the novel is lyrically similar to other versions of the song, with added regional accent.
The narrator is a weaver without work who can only look at his own clothes falling apart as he tries to survive on nettles.

The weaving idiom has spawned many other songs, but not all as grim as the Four Loom Weaver. The Doffing Mistress is ripe with spinning vocabulary: frames, doffers, tying up ends… Not going into the technicalities of doffing which I don’t claim to master (but Wikipedia does), let’s just say the process of doffing the frames require small, nimble and speedy hands, which made it ideal employment for children. In this traditional song, the doffing boys have a new supervisor, or “doffing mistress”, Elsie Thompson, who benevolently “helps them at every [spinning] frame” and urges them to “tie up the ends [of fiber]”. If they are happy to oblige the new doffing mistress, they won’t obey the same orders coming from the boss: “Yes, tie our ends up we surely do/ For Elsie Thompson but not for you.” I guess Elsie has some sort of… “natural authority”?

In Anne Briggs’ a-Capella version, the little nonsensical refrains adds to the  illusion of the tune as a work-song, meant to be performed while they worked.

Protest Songs

Of course, the industrial revolution and the industrialization of the textile industry evolved in a similar way in the USA. One of the best-know composition on the subject is without a doubt Cotton Mill Girls, by Hedy West (to whom we owe the folk classic 500 Miles, made famous to my parents’ generation by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and to my friends by Justin Timberlake and Carrey Mulligan. And consider yourselves lucky I’m leaving out the 1960s French adaptation.)
Back to Cotton Mill Girls, written at the height of the folk revival in the sixties, West speaks from the perspective of one of these children who fled the countryside (“go to cotton country and get ahead”) to work in terrible conditions in the cotton mills (“us kids worked twelve hours a day, for 14 cents of measly pay”). This reflects the real lives of families who left the rural South of the US at the turn of the 20th century to move into cotton mill villages of the Piedmont. Such villages offered houses to the families of mill-workers (some of which even had running water) but also allowed the bosses to control every aspect of their lives. By 1890, in some states, the work force of the cotton mills was made up by 40% of women and 25% of children between 10 and 15.¹ Child Labor was legal in the US until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

For more scholarly information on cotton mill villages, head over to JStor :

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd et al. “Cotton Mill People: Work, Community, and Protest in the Textile South, 1880-1940.” The American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 2, 1986, pp. 245–286. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1858134.
That’s it from me on the topics of waulking, weaving and spinning. Not promising anything, but I’m quite interested in looking into miner’s songs for a future article…

¹Victoria Byerly, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls. Personal Histories of Womanhood and Poverty in the South (Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1986)


7 thoughts on “Spinners and songsters-Songs from textile workers

  1. Elsa

    Super intéressant!!
    Y’a un joli passage de Waulking song dans un épisode de la série Outlander aussi, ça donne envie de se joindre à elles!


    1. Mr B.

      Effectivement, je viens de trouver ça et c’est plutôt sympa (un jour, j’essaierai de regarder une série télé. Un jour.)

      Chanter je veux bien, mais je ne suis pas sûr que mes cordes vocales soient capables d’articuler du gaélique écossais “on the fly” !


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