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 It was in 1821 that William Waddell of Jedburgh eloped with his young bride, seventeen-year-old Charlotte Ferrier, to the remote Northumbrian village of Otterburn, Charlotte having absconded from the fashionable School for Young Ladies in Georges Square, Edinburgh. William had been a younger member of a respectable Scottish family of woollen manufacturers.  

The textile trade was one of the first to benefit from the Industrial Revolution as woollen mills were built by landlords to enable them to profit from locally produced wools. William, Charlotte and their ever growing family were undaunted by the prospect of a crippling 109 year lease and they employed a small local workforce to turn wool, provided by local farmers, into blankets, cloth or yarn. Often, the wool would be woven on hand looms by locals before being finished at Otterburn Mill.

On William III’s succession the textile industry was no longer a cottage industry but had now become a factory based operation. In the past, the farmers would bring in their wool and it would be washed and dyed to the colours required and during the winter the farmer and his wife would hand spin the wool and bring it back to the mill as yarn. The yarn would be then hand woven in tweed, blankets or rugs. William III introduced the carding and spinning jenny to the mill, mechanising the yarn production.

The farmers would bring in their wool clip during July and August and a value would be placed upon it by the mill and a credit note issued. Throughout the year the farmer would visit the mill shop to acquire knitting yarn and tweed for clothing and have it offset against the credit note. This practice was common in the border woollen trade up until the 1960’s.

Recently we were visited by the Scot family from Byrness (near to Otterburn) who were researching their family tree. They found that their great, great, great grandmother nursed William III during his old age, as he suffered from gout. From their family papers they found a letter stating that one day she was dressing the gout ridden foot and it fell off in her hands!

By 1910, the first power looms were installed requiring further expansion of the mill building. A new diesel engine was installed to run the machinery. The mill became famous for its quality, colour and design. William, along with his brother George, acquired another mill in Carlisle and Otterburn Mill became a brand leader in woven cloths.

By the late 30’s Rena, daughter of William, took charge of design and marketing for the Otterburn ranges and became a fashion icon. Such was the popularity of the materials and designs, that the Mill’s products were sought after by members of the Royal family. During this period, Otterburn produced tweeds were adopted by such notable fashion houses as Dior and Schiaparelli, Balmain, Pacquin and Jaques Griffe. Garments were often featured on the cover of top magazines such as Vogue.

Many of the textile mills were privately owned and, during the Second World War, substantial profits were made. After the war, engineering materials were in short supply, resulting in a lack of investment in modern textile machinery and systems until the late 60’s/early 70’s. By then, the investment required was too large for many companies to afford.

This general lack of investment allowed worldwide competition to overtake the UK woollen trade. The Mill at Otterburn suffered from a lack of investment and it, too, had to close manufacturing in December 1976. The machinery lay idle until John Waddell sold the business and premises to Euan Pringle, a member of yet another famous family of Scottish woollen manufacturers, in 1995. Since that time, the site has undergone a substantial period of redevelopment to produce the facilities you see today.

Did you know the famous expression ‘on tenter hooks’ came from the textile trade? Otterburn Mill boasts the last set of tenter frames in Europe. After cloth had been woven it needed to be washed and dried. The drying process was done on the tenter frames by hooking the cloth onto the top and bottom bars of tenter hooks and the bottom bar was released to stretch the cloth.