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Our History

Calico Printing in Carlisle
Calico printing was established in Carlisle in 1761 and by the close of the century had grown to be the principal local industry with five firms employing over a thousand people. Several factors influenced the growth of the cotton industry in the area. The population was well used to carding, spinning, and weaving wool and linen; skills easily applied to cotton. Water power and coal abounded and the wet climate ensured the necessary damp atmosphere. Raw material could be brought in through Whitehaven, Liverpool, and Glasgow, which also provided trading connections with the West Indies and the American mainland. Cotton manufacture was well dispersed over Cumberland as a whole but was particularly concentrated along the banks of the river Caldew, the fine clear water of which was especially well suited for the bleaching and dyeing of the cloth.

Stead McAlpin
Before 1835 members of the McAlpin family worked as calico printers at the Wigton Stampery which was owned by Richard and Anthony Halliley, with Thomas McAlpin becoming a principal partner in the company.  In 1835 a rift between the partners caused him to set up a company at the disused print works at Cummersdale near Carlisle with his brother Duncan, their nephew Hugh McAlpin, and Thomas’ step son John Stead. The company name was Thomas and Hugh McAlpin, Stead and Company, which was first shortened to Stead and Company, and then in the early 1850’s to Stead McAlpin & Co. By the end of their first year of trading a London warehouse and retail outlet were established, and a retail outlet was opened in Edinburgh. The early company dealt mainly in furnishing fabrics but dress fabrics and window blinds were also a considerable part of the early productions. From the earliest days the company traded with wholesalers, retailers, and upholsterers nationally, as well as locally. Captain Thomas Christian, who married John Stead’s sister Elizabeth, was the Merchant Adventurer for the company and in 1837 he set sail from Maryport with his first cargo of goods.  A new ship was purchased in 1838 and from research we know that it visited Madeira, Cape Verde, Montevideo, and Columbia on its first sales voyage. Other ports visited included Newfoundland, Hamburg, and Barbados. In 1849 Stead McAlpin won a silver medal at the Society of Arts, and in 1851 received a special mention for their exhibits. At the international exhibition of 1862 Stead McAlpin won two gold medals for their exhibits. Early in 1850 Queen Victoria selected chintz printed at Cummersdale, now known as the Victoria and Albert Chintz, for the Royal yacht. The same design was used at Broadlands, home of the Mountbatten family.

Hand Block Printing
By the 1840’s Stead McAlpin was one of the few companies in the country still using wooden hand block techniques to print high quality textiles as other companies had switched completely to the copper roller system which had been introduced in the late eighteenth century. However, Stead McAlpin also used modern methods as a four colour cylinder machine had been installed in 1835, and 1844 saw the first surface printing by wooden rollers.

Pre-chemical Bleaching
The company also carried on farming activities at Cummersdale as a way of making use of the land when it was not required for the bleaching and drying of cloth. The dung and urine produced by the animals were also used in the bleaching process in the days before chemical agents were adopted.

John Stead
Thomas McAlpin died in 1849 and after a series of partnerships involving members of the McApin family John Stead was in sole control of the company by 1867. He was a supporter of innovation and in 1880 took out a patent for a machine for printing window blind fabric on both sides of the material.

Apprentices
Skilled workers in the textile printing trade began as apprentices, many of whom  had a relative working in the trade, making Stead McAlpin very much a family firm. Other young people worked in the print works as tierers (printer’s assistants), messengers, and copper roller pattern painters. The law required that their age be certified by a doctor and they worked only part of the day – spending the remainder in the schoolroom where they received an education.

Sport and Leisure
There was still some time for recreation amongst the print workers at Cummersdale in Victorian times, with an annual works outing by rail. There are also tales of football and cricket played in lunch breaks and from time to time tradition states that the block printers stopped work to follow the otter hunt down the river. The company had sports teams in rugby, football, and occasionally pushball with the first annual sports day held in 1926. Additionally the works always closed for the Carlisle race week but there were no paid holidays until the 1930’s.

Bannister Hall
In 1892 John Stead died and control of the business passed to his son, Edmund Wright Stead. One of Edmund’s first acts, which was of great importance, was to acquire the blocks, machinery, designs, and moveable assets of the textile printing firm of Bannister Hall near Preston. Bannister Hall had been founded in the late eighteenth
century and had long been a close competitor of Stead McAlpin in the field of high quality hand blocked fabric. The acquisition of the nine thousand designs from the Bannister Hall collection put Stead McApin in a very strong position within this field.

Work and Wages
Workers at Cummersdale have always taken tremendous pride in their work and were rewarded from the earliest
days with relatively high wages for block cutters and printers. Printer’s piece rates depended on the type of fabric and complexity of the design to be worked. Tierers and labourers were not in such a good position with tierers starting on a few shillings a week. Working conditions were Spartan and lighting and heating were poor. The sixty hour week which had been standard up to the 1900’s had been reduced to forty eight hours by the 1920’s, with a further reduction to forty. However, during the 1920’s and 30’s the men were often on short time working either a three day week or alternate weeks, which meant the men were then able to claim five shillings dole money.

Further Expansion 1903 – 1935
The early 1900’s were a period of further expansion. In 1903 the neighbouring dyeworks, Mungalls, was purchased and two years later Dalton’s cotton spinning and flour mills were acquired with the extra space used for warehousing. During the first world war the work of Harry Wearne, the American designer, and orders from the United States kept the works going, Women were now employed as tierers. In 1924 the business was formed into a limited company with Edmund Wright Stead in charge as Governing Director until his death in 1934, after which he was succeeded by his son, Gilbert Stead. Hand screen printing was introduced in 1931 alongside the more traditional methods and was undertaken by women. In 1935 Stead McAlpin celebrated its centenary.

1935 – 1951
Most textile printing was banned between 1939 and 1945 with some traditional hand block printing being allowed “for export only” and a few items such as scarves with regimental insignia and patriotic slogans permitted for the home market to boost morale. Women once more worked as tierers and a few became block printers. The rest of the print works was used for war work including the sorting of rivets, bolts, and washers and the repair of aircraft fuel tanks. It was at this time that a collection of William Morris hand blocks was acquired with many of the designs being printed at Stead McAlpin ever since. A post-war survey by industrial consultants led to important changes in working practices and improved amenities for the work force. In 1951 the Festival of Britain took place for which Stead McAlpin produced a specially designed fabric.

1960 to the present day
The 1960’s and 1970’s were decades of change and expansion for Stead McAlpin. 1961 saw automatic horizontal screen printing being introduced; copper roller printing came to an end in 1970; rotary screen printing started in 1971; and by 1977 the traditional hand block process had been phased out. New technology was applied to both production and accounting and the coal fired boilers were converted to oil. In 1965 John Lewis Partnership took control of Stead McAlpin with Edmund Stead’s grandson, R. Diggle, remaining as Managing Director until his retirement in 1980 which was the last of the Stead family connection to the firm. John Lewis retained control of the company until 2007 when it was sold to Apex Textiles. The company then went through some turbulent times which lead to the threat of closure before it was acquired in 2009 by the family run Lancashire textile business of R. Soper Ltd. 2010 saw the 175th anniversary, or the dodransbicentennial, of the founding of Stead McAlpin which continues to go from strength to strength as a textile printer and dyer aided by its highly skilled workers who produce high end fabrics for national and international markets. There are plans to establish a heritage centre at the print works in Cummersdale to celebrate its history.