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Floor Coverings - Carpets and Linoleum


Carpeting is relatively new in Europe, carpets were originally developed in the East where they were made by knotting threads round small tufts of material. Woven carpets were also developed in the East and when the Saracens invaded Spain in AD 711 they brought some basic knowledge of the technique of carpet weaving with them. It was several hundred years before an 'industry' in the modern sense appeared. France and Belgium had a traditional hand woven carpet industry by the seventeenth century and in the 1680's the French Huguenots seeking refuge from persecution settled in England bringing with them these skills. The Huguenots settled in small communities, notably at Wilton in Wiltshire and at Kidderminster and a rivalry soon developed prompting innovation but carpeting remained expensive. In the nineteenth century carpet making looms were set up in Yorkshire and Scotland, taking advantage of local supplies of wool but Kidderminster dominated the production. Joseph Jaquard (1752-1834) developed a loom of 1801 which used punched cards to control the colours being woven into the carpet, it was 1825 before the Jaquard loom appeared in Britain.

The power driven loom was invented in 1813 by William Horrocks (1776-1849) and by the 1840's years steam power was being used to drive the equipment (the first recorded use of steam power for carpet weaving was in the USA in 1840). Carpets are divided into two main types, the flat or 'round wire' type which are flat corded or ribbed, and 'pile carpets' which have a soft velvety finish. Flat carpets were the first type produced in Britain and were called Brussels carpets. These are formed of loops of material (usually wool) with a stiff fabric backing (originally cotton, later a mix of cotton and hessian). To make the loops the threads of wool are pulled round a series of wires, the most common kind of loop pile carpeting was called Brussels. In Wilton someone invented a 'cut pile' in which the iron wires used to form the loops had a sharp edge which cut the loops as it was withdrawn. This gave a more luxurious feel to the carpet which is today called Wilton Carpeting.

The other common carpet type is called Axminster, named after the town in Devon where it was developed. Axminster carpets are closer to the original oriental type of carpeting, made from tufts of wool pushed between the 'warp' threads and binding these in place with the 'weft' threads.

In 1831 Messirs Templeton & Quigley of Glasgow invented Chenille Axminster carpeting in which the tufts of wool are treated to make them soft and furry and in 1831 Mr. Whytock of Edinburgh developed a way of printing pile yarn to produce a variation on Brussels carpet called 'Tapestry Carpet'. By the 1840's Halifax in West Yorkshire had become the main centre for Tapestry carpeting but production declined rapidly in the 1930's.

In 1876 an American firm based in New York invented the Royal Axminster loom enabling an unlimited range of colours to be used, this technology arrived in Britain in 1878. In 1890 Brintons Ltd of Kidderminster invented a new variation called Gripper Axminster.

Carpet production then remained fairly stable until the Americans invented tufted carpeting in 1949, the range of colours was limited and patterns were at first not practical but tufted carpets soon became popular, by the end of the 1960's 70% of American carpets and 30% of British carpets were of the tufted type.

Up to the 1940's carpets were produced in standard sizes, a common one being three yards by four yards so if modelling an older factory the rolled carpets would all be in standard sizes. The most common carpets (technically called Standard Carpets) are rectangular, the standard sizes (in feet) being 1 X 2, 2 X 3, 2 X 4, 3 X 5, 4 X 6, 5 X 8, 6 X 9, 7 X 10, 8 X 10, 9 X 12, 10 X 14. These were shipped rolled and covered with hessian cloth, they were (I believe) always rolled on their longer side (producing a long thin rather than a short fat roll).

Runners are long narrow carpets, often used to lay along a hallway or up a flight of stairs. They also came in standard sizes, typically 2.5 to 3 feet wide and 6 to 20 feet long (some are even longer).

Smaller rugs were shipped bound flat in bundles

Fitted carpets required wide rolls of carpeting made up into long lengths for which a wide loom, called a broad loom, was required. Broad-loom carpeting began to appear in the 1940's but it was the 1960's before it became cheap enough to compete with the traditional fixed size of carpet.

By this time alternatives to wool were being used and alternatives to woven carpeting were being developed, most used a pile glued to a fabric backing and the most important of these is Karvel. Karvel was developed by John Crossley & Sons of Halifax, one of the older carpet making firms, it does not fray and it is widely used in motor car carpeting.

Prior to about 1970 there was virtually no imported carpet sold in the UK, since then there has been increasing competition from cheap imports and from the early 1990s there was a big move toward fake wooden flooring. This remained 'popular' (although not with neighbours who had to suffer the noise) for several years, not least because of the efforts of a Sweedish flooring maker who funded a group in the UK to promote 'scare stories' regarding carpets, suggesting that the fake flooring was 'healthier'. Several of these stories made it into the press, who didn't bother to check if they were true. No one at the time seems to have noticed that Lino is a lot safer than any other floor covering as it has a natural antibaterial action. In practice the fake wooden flooring and lino share a serious problem in that they are both slippery and dangerous to walk on when wet. British carpeting is still regarded as the best in the world, it was used for the new Hong Kong airport, the Kremlin and has been specified for the posh bits of several new cruise ships.

Major centres for carpet making were all old woollen towns, Axminster in Devon, Wilton in Wiltshire, Loughborough near Newcastle, Bradford, Hartlepool, Gwent, XXX


Invented and named by Fred Walton in about 1860 linoleum was developed to replace expensive 'oilcloth' (carpeting or cloth soaked in linseed oil) as a floor covering. Linoleum is actually rather similar to oilcloth but includes a quantity of cork and sawdust. The linseed oil is heated to oxidise it, then mixed with gum and mixed again in a heated mixer with cork, sawdust and colouring materials. The mix that emerges is dry and left for a few days to harden. It is then ground and rolled into thin sheets which are laid onto backing sheets of canvass or hessian (made from Jute) and passed through heated rollers called 'callendars' which melt the mix and press it into the cloth. The resulting sheets are then hung in tall heated buildings to dry out and harden. There are two types, plain and paterned, it was Walton himself who invented the patterning process (called straight line inlay) in about 1900.

The industry was noted for its pungent smell.

Major centres of production in the UK were at Staines in Middlesex, Lancaster and Wigan (both in Lancashire), and east Scotland (notably the large works at Kirkaldy near Edinburgh).

In the 1950s there were nine large firms producing linoleum in the UK:
Staines Linoleum Company by Frederick Walton in the 1850s and later renamed Linoleum Manufacturing Co. Ltd., at Staines in Middlesex. Staines Linoleum Company stayed in the town up until the 1970s when the popularity of vinyl floor covering in preference to Linoleum forced the company to move their production to Scotland.
Jas. Williamson & Son, Ltd., Lancaster. This company was founded in 1844 for the manufacture of table oilcloth made by hand-trowelling a stiff mixture of linseed oil and china clay on to a sailcloth backing. The company later applied similar methods to the manufacture of floorcloth. When Walton's patents expired, Williamson began to make linoleum, specialising at first in printed linoleum. This company went into decline in the 1950's and 60's, with the remains of the once great company being run under the names or ownership of Nairn Williamson Ltd, then Nairn Coated Products Ltd, followed by Forbo Kingfisher Ltd and finally Forbo Lancaster Ltd.
Thomas Witter & Co. Ltd., Appley Bridge, Nr. Wigan. Formed in 1898 for the manufacture of floorcloth and linoleum. In 1924 all the shares were bought by nominees of Rylands & Sons Ltd. of Manchester. In 1932 an agreement was made between Rylands and the S.A. des Papeteries de Genval, Belgium, manufacturers of felt base floor coverings, under which each took an equal holding in Witter, and a paper mill and felt base factory were opened in addition to the existing linoleum works. In 1953 Rylands sold all but 5 per cent, of its interest to the Belgian concern, and the balance to the British directors of Witter. Linoleum (which accounted for less than 10 per cent of the company's total output of floor coverings in the 1950s), was made at its factory at Appley Bridge. Felt base, in which the company is chiefly interested, was manufactured in factories at Heapey and Chorley. By 1950 Witter had two wholly owned subsidiaries, Walls & Floors Ltd., incorporated in 1934, and British Hydroflex Ltd., acquired from Rylands in 1935.
Barry, Ostlere & Shepherd, Ltd., Kirkcaldy, Fife. As I understand it this firm did not actually operate any factories in the UK (they did own and operate factories in other countries). William Philip & Son (Kirkcaldy) Ltd. which makes machinery for linoleum and other purposes, was a wholly owned subsidiary and much of its business was with Barry and L.M. Co., but it undertakes general contract and jobbing work for other firms.
The Dundee Linoleum Co. Ltd., Dundee. incorporated in 1901 as the Dundee Floorcloth & Linoleum Co. Ltd.; the name was changed in 1947. It owns one subsidiary, the Stirling Floorcloth Co. Ltd., which manufactures felt base.
Michael Nairn & Co. Ltd., Kirkcaldy, Fife. Established in the 1840s and still operating into the 1980s (possibly still working today). In 1920 Nairn also acquired a 50 per cent, holding in the Grangemouth Wood Flour Milling Company Ltd., a Scottish private company, whose production Nairn uses in its manufacturing process.
North British Linoleum Co. Ltd., Dundee. Registered in 1927 this firm ceased operating due to war constraints in 1941 and resumed work in 1947
The Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd., St. John's Works, Falkland, Fife. SCWS began manufacturing floorcloth in 1919, a new section equipped with modern machinery for making linoleum was opened in 1934.
The Tayside Floorcloth Co. Ltd., Newburgh, Fife, was founded in 1891

Other earlier firms include the Greenwich Inlaid Linoleum (Frederick Walton's New Patents) Co. Ltd. The Greenwich company ceased to manufacture and went into voluntary liquidation in 1934.
Miles Sykes & Son Ltd.Had two factories, one at Northallerton and another at Sowerby Bridge. In 1938 this firm went bankrupt and was bought out by Barry, Nairn and Williamson.

The major supplier of jute was the Ganges basin in India and it was imported through London, Liverpool and Dundee. Jute was also used for making paper, string, fishing nets, ropes and sail-cloth and these industries were all associated with the ports mentioned. Linseed was imported from India and crushed in the UK prior to the Second World War, by 1950 the main supplier was Argentina and the crushing was done there.

Cork is a natural and renewable product produced by the Cork Oak tree (Quercus Suber). Because of its unique properties: elasticity, lightweight, impermeability, insulation and resistance to vibration, cork has many uses. The bark renews itself every few years (an odd trait for any tree), the first three 'peelings' cannot be used for wine corks and this materials is used for jobs such as sound-proofing wall tiles and cork flooring including lino production as well as (mixed with rubber) for gaskets and the like. The British imported cork from North Africa, Southern Spain, southern France and particularly Portugal (with whom Britain had a long trading history).

Lino was (slightly) cheaper than carpet, it was hard wearing, reduced noise, did not produce dust and could be cleaned easily with a mop and bucket. It soon became the flooring of choice for offices and shops and acceptance for homes followed. It was largely displaced by cheaper vinyl floor coverings in the 1980's but in the mid 1990's the possibility of using cut lino to produce complex floor patterns and its inherent antiseptic qualities have seen a resurgence of interest in the material for the home. The railways actually built a small number of wagons to carry rolls of the stuff, these had raised curved ends to support the tarpaulin covering and prevent it crushing the ends of the rolls.

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