This Royal-Watching Joules-Wearer Was On Tenterhooks To Visit Otterburn Mill

Chromolithograph of Alnwick Castle from County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain (1869), by Alexander Francis Lydon, Wikimedia Commons

You might recognize it as Hogwarts from the first two Harry Potter films, or as Brancaster Castle, the home of Downton Abbey’s Lady Edith Crawley and her husband, Bertie Pelham, the Marquess of Hexham.

But to Northumbrians, it’s better known as Alnwick Castle, the 11th-century castle on the banks of the River Aln with a Capability Brown-designed park known as the Pastures. As the seat of the Duke of Northumberland and the home of the Percy family for over 700 years, Alnwick has been the destination for several royal visits, most recently by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 2011.

While on a visit to Alnwick, the queen’s great-grandmother, Alexandra, was presented with a handmade traveling rug from nearby Otterburn Mill. Edward VII’s consort was so taken with her present that Otterburn tweeds soon became a royal favorite for hunting, shooting and fishing togs. When the current queen was born in 1926, Buckingham Palace contacted Otterburn Mill to make a rug for her pram, and the mill earned royal patronage. A Newcastle-based client of the mill asked to sell the pram rugs in his shop, and they sold out in two weeks. Since then, the Otterburn pram rug has become a British classic. It is still made from pure new lambswool, woven in a double-sided plain coordinating color on one side and a checked pattern on the reverse. Measuring 38 by 27 inches, the pram rug comes in four colorways: pink; blue; lemon and cream.

While a mill is believed to have operated on the same site in the town of Otterburn since the 15th century, Otterburn Mill’s most noted history dates to 1821, when William Waddell, a Jedburgh, Scotland weaver, brought his bride to Otterburn and leased a mill there. Waddell gave local farmers a credit for the value of the wool fleeces they provided; washed and dyed the wool; converted the wool into yarn; and sent the yarn to local weavers to create tweeds, blankets and rugs by hand in their homes. The finished products were sent back to the mill, where farmers used their credit to barter with Waddell for them.

Four generations of the Waddell family ran the mill, seeing it develop from a cottage industry into a mechanized factory with automatic carding machines, a spinning jenny, and diesel-powered looms. Otterburn Mill became a leading producer of woven cloth, famous for its quality, color and design. In fact, Otterburn produced tweeds during the 1930s for fashion houses such as Dior and Schiaparelli; the garments were often featured on the cover of Vogue magazine. However, post-World War II investment in the mill suffered and it was forced to stop manufacturing in 1976. In 1995, a member of the Pringle family, the famous Scottish woolen manufacturers, bought Otterburn Mill and redeveloped it as a combination of a visitor center and a retail outlet for British country clothing brands such as Joules. The old weaving shed was converted into Weavers, a coffee shop serving refreshments and home-baked snacks.

The mill’s old machinery still exists on the premises. Visitors can see the coal-fired Cornish boiler that was used during the early 20th century to produce steam and water for washing wool and cloth. A horizontal water turbine, installed in 1890, powered the mill until the 1950s; a water-cooled diesel engine powered the mill from 1926.

At the scouring machine, newly woven cloth was sewn together to form a loop and washed, or “scoured,” by being circulated repeatedly through hot, soapy water and a series or rollers, or “ringers.” After washing, the cloth was spun dry. Then, it was hooked onto outdoor tenter frames to dry in the sun. The bottom rail of hooks on the frame was released to stretch the cloth as it dried. The expression, “to be on tenterhooks” was created from this method of stretching the cloth. Dating to the early 18th century, Otterburn Mill’s tenter frames are believed to be the last remaining ones in the world.

In the last set of 19th-century fulling stocks in the United Kingdom, two heavy oak feet in the fulling box pounded the damp cloth for two or three hours, matting the cloth to give it a bulky, warm hand, or feel. A teazle gig, a machine used to raise the surface of fabric used in blankets and travel rugs, has been in place here since the late 19th century. Over 3,000 teazle heads in the machine pluck the surface of the cloth to make it fluffy.

Inside the retail store, you can spot original weaving looms…

and the line shaft, a power-driven rotating shaft for power transmission that was used from the Industrial Revolution until the early 20th century.

Visitors can also see the restored mill office and samples of cloth once produced by Otterburn Mill.

Otterburn Mill is surrounded by 25 acres of fields, through which the River Rede, a well-known spot for trout and salmon fishing, flows. A popular hiking trail starts and finishes at the mill.

The mill’s signature pram blankets are still sold here. To accompany them, it also offers Floss and Just Like Floss, children’s books by Kim Lewis about a Border collie who moves to a Northumberland farm and learns how to round up sheep.

This entry was posted in England, History, Northumberland, Shopping, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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