About reeds (Part 3): The historical weaving reeds collected by Karen Finch

About reeds (Part 3): The historical weaving reeds collected by Karen Finch
May 7, 2024 • By Philip Sykas0 comments

A group of six weaving reeds preserved by Karen for many years was uncovered during the house move from Ealing. Their precise origin had become forgotten, but it is likely that these old and fragile reeds would have been discarded if not for Karen’s recognition of their historical value.

Fig. 1: Details of reed A (below) and reed F (above)

All six reeds are constructed from natural materials in the time-honoured way. Halved dowel rods enclose the narrow splits that are evenly spaced by the winding of twine wrapped around the paired half-dowels. At each end, the reeds are finished with a narrow slat of softwood notched to take two or three wrappings of twine that cross each other in an X-shape to firm up and buttress the whole. This technique is akin to pole and ledger lashing (also called diagonal lashing), which is a rigging technique used to join two rods at right angles where there is a gap between them. All the reeds were once secured by pitch or resin that has now deteriorated so that the individual reeds are no longer tightly held. One bears traces of the paper layer that once protected the twine-wrapped canes. It is likely that the reeds were exposed to weathering or damp for many years, perhaps in a loft or basement, eroding most of the paper.

For the purpose of description, the reeds have been assigned identifying letters A to F.

Fig. 2: Details of reeds B, C, D, and E (top to bottom)

Reed A (see Fig. 1.) measures 35½ x 3¾ inches (90 x 9.5cm) with a reeded width of 33¼ inches and a maximum open height of 2½ inches. It is wrapped with a coarse twine giving a spacing of 7 to 7½ splits per inch. A pencil inscription on the slat at one end that appears to read 31/6, 31 inches possibly representing the nominal weaving width. The ends of this reed have been repaired by wrapping with uncoated twine. It is the only reed of the group intended for weaving fabrics less than one yard in width, nominally 7-8ths.

Reeds B, C, D and E (see Fig. 2) have end slats with flat (rather than bevelled) faces, but the projecting top and bottom edges of the slats are bevelled to a soft V-shape. These reeds measure 48 x 3⅝ inches (122 x 9.2cm) with a reed space of about 45 x 2½ inches, so they are for weaving nominally ell-wide fabric. The counts differ with Reed B around 12 splits per inch, Reed C around 14 splits per inch, Reed D around 16 splits per inch, and Reed E around 18 splits per inch.

Fig. 3: End view of reeds B, C, and D

Reed B has the numeral IV incised on the outer edge of one slat (see Fig. 3), and the number 22 inscribed in pencil on the face of the same slat; the opposite slat is inscribed on its face 6 /. At the centre, this reed has the remains of a paper facing covering the pitch-coated twine (only about 5-inches of the paper covering remain); smaller fragments indicate that the facing once extended the full length of the reed.

Reed C has the numeral VII incised on the outer edge of one slat; and the name KAREN has been inscribed on the face (possibly at the time the reeds were acquired, as also two other reeds so marked). The number 7 is inscribed on the face of the opposite slat.

Fig. 4: Detail of reed D and the branded initials

Reed D is incised with the numeral IIV on the face of one slat and XVIIII on the outer edge of the same slat; the opposite slat is heat branded with the initials I S S, probably a maker’s mark (see Fig. 4).

Reed E has the numeral VIII incised on the face of one slat.

Reed F differs in construction from the other reeds in that its end slats are roughly planed rather than flat. It is slightly larger than the other wide reeds: 48½ x 3¾ inches (123 x 9.5cm), and there are 8 splits per inch. The number 10 is inscribed on the face of one slat and 31 on that opposite. The splits of this reed have remained straight and undistorted, although with its hand-planed slats, it could be the oldest of the six.

The numbers inscribed or incised on the reeds would typically represent their reed counts. The way that reed counts are determined in Britain (and other countries) varies by region, and in theory this can serve to indicate their geographical origin. Scottish counts are based on the number of splits in 37 inches expressed in hundreds, with increases of 50 counted as half sets. Manchester and Bolton counts are based on the number of beers (where 1 beer = 20 splits) in 24¼ inches. Stockport counts are two times the splits per inch. And Rochdale counts (based on flannel manufacture) are based on the number of beers (where 1 beer = 17 splits) in 36 inches. Danish counts prior to the introduction of metric measurements were based on the number of snese (of 20 splits) per Danish ell (alen) of 24 Danish inches (tomme); the Danish ell is 62.77cm.1 In practice, the Danish counts work out to match the Manchester counts within a small margin of error. The counts of the six reeds were calcuated using each system to compare these with the numbers given on the end splats (see Table 1.)

Table 1. Reeds mapped onto regional counting systems

Reeds & (given nos.) Dents/inch Scottish Mc/r
Rochdale Stockport Danish
A (6) 7 200 + ½ 15 14 8.5
F (10) 8 300 10 17 16 10
B (IV, 22, 6) 12 400 + ½ 14½ 25½ 24 14.8
C (VII, 7) 14 500 17 29½ 28 17
D (IIV, XVIIII) 16 600 19½ 34 32 19.8
E (VIII) 18 600 + ½ 22 38 36 22
19 700 23 40 38 23.5
22 800 26 46½ 44 27

If Roman numerals were intended to represent Scottish counts, we can see from the table above that they are imperfectly assigned apart from Reed B. The best matches overall are for the Manchester counts (or their Danish equivalents), with Reed F accurately represented as 10, and reed D closely approximated as XVIIII (for 19½ or 19.8). However, this does not explain the inconsistency with the inscriptions on the other four reeds. The overall lengths measure quite evenly in Imperial inches but not so in Danish tomme, which suggests an English origin for the reeds. However a letter only recently found, from Karen Finch to Louise Bacon, curator at the Horniman Museum, while the museum was considering acquisition in 2008, pronounces the reeds as Danish. The inconsistencies in numbering may relate to an earlier counting system.

In her letter, Karen compared the construction to an Egyptian example illustrated in Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms by Henry Ling Roth (1913):

Among the objects illustrated is a reed, close to the Danish one[s], which is thought to be Coptic. Of course, there is always a sort of inevitability about techniques arising with natural materials, given their properties, but even so the likeness is interesting. (Correspondence,19 July 2008)

The Egyptian reed has iron dents and Ling Roth thought it was relatively modern. As a comparative example, it is notable that it is framed in wood without lashing at the corners. The lashing technique seen in Karen’s reeds may be a later development.

Before departing from the subject, it is useful to note that the origin of variations in reed counting systems arises from local specialisations in particular types of cloth. A reed maker’s folding wooden ruler produced by Thomas Blunt of Cornhill, London, in the late eighteenth century, records the British relationship to cloth before the transition to place names had solidified.2 Designations stamped into the ruler include the following:

Fig. 5: Close up of smooth and rough sides of two natural cane splits
Beirs of 40 ends at 24¼ Inch Bolton
Beirs of 40 ends at 45 Inch Blackburn
Beirs of 20 ends at 24¼ Inch Fustian
Beirs of 36 ends at Yard Check
Beirs of 30 ends at 20 Inch Nankeen
Hundred Dents at 37⅛ Inch Scotch [muslin]

All the reeds in Karen’s collection are constructed from natural split cane (see Fig. 5). The use of natural cane was common in the eighteenth century. For example, an advertisement in the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 2 Dec 1761 (p. 1) includes in the sale of the weaving implements of the late George Gear, ‘one Hundred of Cane, and Frame for making Reeds, together or separate…’ However, by the start of the nineteenth century the changeover to metal reeds was unmistakably in progress. The reed-maker, George Fox of Belfast, advertised in 1808, ‘that he has got a MACHINE, on the very best construction, for making REEDS, by which he is enabled to execute Orders with more speed than by hand. […] and will furnish REEDS of BRASS, STEEL, CANE, or MIXT…’ (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 7 Sep 1808, p. 3). By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, reed-making advertisements are focused on metal reeds. From the Manchester Courier, 7 March 1829 (p. 2), we find a sale for a Scotch Reed Machine along with shears and ‘a large quantity of fine and coarse brass and steel dents for making reeds…’ It is likely that cane continued in use on a diminishing scale until the mid-nineteenth century. It was not until 1845 that machinery for polishing steel dents was perfected so the steel did not put undue strain on warps.

Given this progression in the reed-making trade, we can posit that the reeds salvaged by Karen probably date from the first half of the nineteenth century, and Reed F potentially from the start of that period. These survivals of craftsmanship in once-common weaving tools now possess great rarity and connect us with hand-loom weaving at the start of the industrial era.

Fig. 6: Baron and Hogarth Ltd reed, mid-twentieth century

To complete the description of Karen’s reed collection, it is important to mention a cut-down metal reed stamped with the name of the maker Baron and Hogarth Ltd (see Fig. 6). The company had a history tracing back at least to the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Thomas Baron of Kendal, reed-maker, died 4 August 1844 aged 71.3 His widow Isabella Baron carried on the business until November 1846 when it was taken over by her son, Thomas Baron.4 He expanded the business to wire weaving for agricultural sieves in 1853,5 but died suddenly 30 January 1861, aged 58, known not only for reed-making, but as a celebrated canary breeder.6 His widow Margaret Ann Baron ran the company for a few years until her son Thomas reached the age of majority and at the end of 1864, advertised the return of the business of ‘Reed, Heald, Riddle and Sieve Maker and General Wire Worker’, coupling this with his previously chosen occupation of hairdressing.7 This could explain why in March 1866, a Hat and Cap Warehouse was added to the business, and a year later Baron took John Hogarth as partner to expand into outfitting as ‘Woolen Drapers, Hatters and Outfitters’.8 Baron and Hogarth continued as woollen drapers, hatters, outfitters and reed makers until their partnership was dissolved on the 23 August 1879.9 The split marked a return to reed manufacture as the principal business. Already in July 1879, in being nominated to a seat on the Kendal town council, Thomas Baron is called a reed-maker and in the 1881 census, a reed and heald manufacturer.10 Baron became more involved with the corporate life of Kendal, and by 1891, his son Herbert William Baron had joined in the business, taking over after his father’s sudden death in April 1900. After Herbert’s own premature death in 1922, the reins passed to his son Frank Hogarth Baron (1899-1947). In 1933, the firm was incorporated as a limited company and F. H. Baron became co-director with his wife Lois Mabel Baron (1897-1977).11 It was during this sixth generation that the company closed.

Fig. 7: Cross-sections of solid baulk reed (A) and steel-bound wooden baulk reed (B), from Laird (1952)

Since the surviving reed is from the period of the limited company, this places its date between 1933 and the closure of the firm by the early 1970s. It is a pitch baulked reed with the wooden baulks reinforced on the outside by a narrow steel strip, known as ‘steel bound’ (see Fig. 7). The protruding ends of the dent wires have been clinked, that is bent over at an angle to hold them firmly in place. Clinking, however, makes the wires more difficult to extract for replacement if repairs are necessary.12 These strengthening measures, steel-binding and clinking, make this a reed meant for heavy-duty work. It is not known whether Karen Finch acquired it for teaching purposes or for narrow-weave work. These reeds and their survival remind us of the “invisibility” of everyday things. Our blindness to their importance risks their disappearance, with the stories they tell of working people and textile craftsmanship.

Dr Philip A. Sykas


  1. I am grateful to Tove Engelhardt Mathiassen of Aarhus, Denmark, for generously supplying information about Danish reed counts, backed up by a pre-decimal weaving text of 1897.

  2. Science Museum 1968-690, measuring scale. Thomas Blunt (1739/45-1823) traded at 22 Cornhill from around 1773 to 1822, at first in partnership with Edward Nairne from 1774 to 1793, and later with his son from 1801 to 1822. https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co44928/weavers-measuring-scale-by-thomas-blunt-london-weavers-measuring-scale

  3. Kendal Mercury, 10 Aug 1844, p. 3.

  4. Kendal Mercury, 14 Nov 1846, p. 2.

  5. Kendal Mercury, 1 Jan 1853, p. 1.

  6. Whitehaven News, 7 Feb 1861, p. 3.

  7. Westmorland Gazette, 31 Dec 1864, p. 1.

  8. Westmorland Gazette, 3 Mar 1866, p. 4. Kendal Mercury, 23 Feb 1867, p. 1. Thomas Baron (c1843-1900) married Mary Hogarth 5 Aug 1868, possibly the sister of his partner. The Hogarth family maintained a connection with the firm; Laurence S. Hogarth was a partner at the time of incorporation in 1933.

  9. London Gazette, 3 Oct 1879, p. 5748.

  10. Westmorland Gazette, 26 Jul 1879, p. 5.

  11. Liverpool Daily Post, 15 Aug 1933, p. 3.

  12. Laird, I. Reeds for Warping & Weaving (Manchester: Emmott & Co. Ltd, 1952), pp. 14-15.