Robin Longbottom on a forgotten trade that was essential to the textile industry

AT the top of Lidget in Oakworth there is a road called Slaymaker Lane. It bears off to the right as you approach the village from Keighley and leads to Slippery Ford and Goose Eye.

The name is a reminder of the now long forgotten trade of slay making, which was carried on by the Craven family, who were also joiners, in the late 18th and early 19th century.

They lived at Lidget and Jesse Craven, who described himself as a 'slay maker', was born there in 1789.

The trade fell within the scope of the textile industry, and the slay was an essential part of both a hand loom and the power loom. It was a simple wooden frame that held a comb, known as a reed, through which the warp threads passed, and it was pulled towards the weaver to beat the weft to the cloth each time the shuttle passed through the warp.

Jesse Craven also made the reeds that were supported by the slay. These, as the name suggests, were originally made from lengths of split reed that were bound on to a rectangular frame, but following the development of the power loom, reed was replaced by narrow strips of metal. Reed makers also made the healds, or heddles, that lifted the warp threads for the shuttle to pass through. Two healds were required to weave a piece of plain cloth and multiple ones for patterned cloth. They were also rectangular wooden frames but were strung vertically with cotton twine and each length had a loop halfway along through which the warp was threaded. Preparing the twine was known as heald knitting and when completed it was coated in 'varnish' to make it more durable. When a complex pattern was being woven, multiple healds were required for a single loom in order to produce a complex patterned cloth. Once delivered, setting up a loom was a lengthy process and known locally as 'gating a warp', presumably because the healds resembled gates.

With industrialisation, specialist reed and heald makers were required and slay making was left to the power loom manufacturers. One of the most prominent of these new tradesmen was John Farish. He had learned his trade in his hometown of Macclesfield but came to Keighley with his wife and family in about 1812 and settled here. When he arrived, he was only one of four or five reed and heald makers in the town but within a few years the number had more than doubled. He was an enthusiastic self-educator. What little spare time he had was devoted to studying mathematics and the sciences and, in the evening, he took in students to study alongside him.

The most successful reed and heald makers in Keighley were the Carr family. Thomas Carr set up in business in 1840 and worked out of his home in Turkey Street before moving to Hanover Street. In 1861 he is recorded as employing eight men and two boys. Reed and heald making remained very much a cottage industry, and Thomas’ son, Mark Carr, was still running the business from his home in Oakworth Road in the early 20th century.

When manufacturing reeds and healds became mechanised Mark’s son, Frederick William Carr, took premises in South Street, Keighley, and expanded the business. Although the old handmade cotton twist healds were still made, twine was gradually replaced by stainless wire. The company now produced a whole range of reeds and healds for weaving worsted and cotton fabric. In 1958, FW Carr & Son Ltd and two other leading companies amalgamated to form Wire Healds Ltd. The business in Keighley continued under the direction of Fred’s son, Brian Carr, until closing in about 1980.