A Wool-Comber was one whose occupation was to comb wool in order to disentangle and straighten out the fibres in order to prepare them for spinning into what were known as worsted or woollen yarns dependant on what type of wool fleece the wool came from. Worsted yarns were of a fine texture suitable for making into clothing, stockings, gloves etc and woollen yarns were rougher in texture and thickness.
Leicestershire sheep provided a good supply of long stapled wool which was ideally suitable for worsted spinning and knitting as preferred by the framework knitters. The woven woollen cloth weavers did not demand or need such high quality wool.
Wool-combing at this time was generally carried out by hand in local communities such as Coleorton. The first machine to be really successful at combing fine wool (botany wool), was invented in 1843 by a Mr. Lister, and after that, machines began to be quickly introduced, bringing about the demise of the hand comber.
The process, as shown in the photographs, involved pulling the wool through fine toothed steel combs. However, there were many arguments surrounding the quality of the end product, price, waste etc dependent on whether the wool was combed by hand or on machines which came later.
This method of combing the wool was a Flemish invention. The hand-comber employed two combs, one known as a “pad” comb, which was subsequently fixed to a post as shown in the photograph. The raw material, after being properly prepared, washed, oiled, and separated into convenient handfuls, was secured into the comb prior to fixing to the post. However, it was necessary to heat the wool to a correct temperature to ensure successful combing. After the pad comb was charged with wool, the comb was placed in a comb-pot on a specially adapted stove until it reached the correct temperature. Once properly heated, and with one comb attached to the post, the other held in the hand, the process of combing began. Each comb became a working comb alternately, the teeth of one passing through the tuft of wool upon the other, until the fibres became perfectly smooth, straight, and free of short wool, or “noil,” which was left embedded in the comb-heads. The residue was called the “top”.
In the late 1700s, the “wool combers” would have earned 12s. to 14s. per week which compared very favourably with the spinners of wool, who earned in the order of 1s. 6d to 3s. per week. However, most of the wool spinning was carried out by women as a cottage industry. To put this into perspective, beef at that time was 3½ d. to 5d per pound, and milk 1½ d per quart.
The occupation of a Robert Artless, the owner of The Cottage in Elder Lane Griffydam from 1830-1831, was that of a wool-comber. An indenture dated 1830 refers to the sale of The Cottage as a ‘piece, plot, parcel of land with messuage or tenement buildings’ by Joseph, William and Thomas Kidger to Robert Artless a 'Jersey Comber'
It is interesting to note that in the 1830 indenture, Robert Artless is referred to as a ‘Jersey Comber’, and in his will of 1831, a Woolcomber. Presumably Jersey refers to the now extinct breed of Jersey Sheep which were probably being used in the locality to provide a good grade of wool at the time.
In addition to Robert Artless having this occupation, the 1841 census for Griffydam refers to Thomas Haywood, aged 40, as a Woolcomber, and in the 1861 census Joseph Haywood as a Woolcomber. The industry would be coming to an end at this time following its height in the 16th,17th and 18th centuries.