Brass Wire

The woollen industry, on which much of England's prosperity depended prior to the Industrial Revolution, was one of the principal users of brass wire through the need for wool cards.

Carding is perhaps the most important process in woollen production. It has not changed essentially, except by the use of machines, for at least seven centuries. After being sorted, scoured, dried and teased, the fluffy masses of wool must be worked up into the yarn from which cloth is woven. This is done in two ways, depending on the length of the original fibres. Long-staple wools are combed to produce roughly parallel fibres which can then be worked into yarn. Short-staple wool, on the other hand, must be first prepared to make the fibres strong by interlacing them. For many centuries this operation was carried out by hand, the wool being worked between pairs of wool cards shaped rather like large butter-pats. Each card had one face covered with leather and thickly studded with short iron and brass wires, on which the material could be pulled in every direction. Carding machines did not come into use until 1748 and were not employed on a large scale until Arkwright's time a generation later.

One of the main activities of the Mineral and Battery Company of Shakespeare's day was to produce brass wire. The company had a monopoly that occasioned much outcry both in Parliament and in the country, and although the monopoly was eventually broken it was not before large quantities of brass wire had been smuggled in from the Continent.

Up to the Elizabethan period, copper or brass wire was drawn by hand in Britain by a very primitive process. One method consisted of two men seated on swings facing one another with a narrow strip of brass fastened to a belt round each man's waist. By propelling the swings with their feet they could swing apart and gradually produce a crude type of wire by stretching the brass. (15) Wire was also made by the equally laborious process of hammering, until that was superseded by drawing; this latter process is believed to have been invented at Nuremberg in the 14th Century. At first, drawn wire was pulled through a die by hand, but later by machinery driven by water- or horse-power.

15 HAMILTON, H. The Early English Copper and Brass Industries to 1800 (1926), p. 344.