The History of Wire Weaving and Wire Working
Early Examples of Wire Weaving
Examples of gold and silver jewellery dating back to early Egyptian times exist which incorporated hand woven wire meshes, but the earliest evidence of the development of wire weaviing on looms for industrial purposes appears to be in the early part of the 18th Century. Wire drawing had existed prior to this for many hundreds of years on a simple scale. Iron ingots were beaten to a flat sheet which was then cut into strips, hammered round, and pulled through a stone die and many products were made from hand wrought wire.
In the 5th Century, the growing popularity of chain mail as a means of body protection seems to have been an important stimulus to the wire drawing and wireworking industry - at least in Europe. During the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th Centuries the strategic nature of this industry was regarded so highly that the export of chain mail and drawn wire from Germany was forbidden.
No doubt the expansion of the wire drawing industry at this time will have encouraged the development of allied industries, including some weaving of wire. However, there is little evidence of woven wire as a sieving or screening product at this time.
Some excellent references to the development of the uses of wire and the wireworking industry in the 17th Century and can be found in Charles Berry's book "The Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers alias Wire Workers and its connection with the Wire Industries" written in 1926.
This fascinating compilation of searches from the Public Records Office, the Records of the Corporation of London, the British Museum, the College of Arms and the records of the Girdlers and the Tinplate Workers indicates the extent of Wireworking activity particularly in London in the early years of the 17th Century.
Reference is made those who "sold iron and steel wire by retail and cut and worked it into mouse-traps, bird cages, lattice-work for windows, buckles, chains, clasps for garments, fish hooks, pack-needles, knitting needles, rings for curtains etc."
These types of product remained the mainstay of the wireworking industry throughout the 18th and 19th century, the two most significant producers in the City of London in the 19th C being F.W Potter & Co. (later Potter & Soar) in Shoreditch and Bedford, Steer, End & Co. in Southwark. Charles Berry's book refers to the Lord Mayor's Procession of 1894 in which two wireworkers from Bedford, Steer, End & Co. Ltd. and dressed in the Stuart Costume of our Company "worked on a car at their benches producing flower baskets, fencing masks, flower stands, fire guards and gravel sieves".
The Invention of The Wire Weaving Loom
In parallel to the development of this wireworking 'handcraft' however and following the invention of the steam driven loom for textile weaving in the late 18th Century this new technology rapidly transferred to the wire industry and automated wire weaving subsequently developed very fast throughout the UK during the period of the industrial revolution.
Apart from the wire weavers in the London and South East, the industrial North West grew rapidly with a number of manufacturers adopting mechanical wire cloth weaving techniques.
In the forefront of this development was the family business of Thomas Locker, who was believed to be the first person in the world to weave wire mesh on a steam powered loom. The Company later grew to be the largest private employer in the Borough of Warrington in the 1950's.
Two specific drivers for this development were firstly the incorporation of wire in the warp of sailcloth by the jute weavers in Dundee and Liverpool to increase the strength of their material.
The second was the growth of the paper industry. Hand woven wire mesh had been used for pulp dewatering for hand laid paper before the 17th Century, but it was a clerk working for a paper mill in France who, in 1798, first thought of using fine wirecloth in a continuous form for the production of paper. This invention was later introduced into the UK by Henry Fourdrinier after whom the process was named.
This was to have an enormous impact worldwide, as the endless mesh belt, the basis of the invention, allowed the processing of pulp at much greater speeds than were previously possible. Paper and books could be produced in far larger quantities than ever before. This together with the wide range of woven wire meshes that could now be produced at speed for sieving and screening fuelled rapid changes.
One further invention, the Davey Lamp (1815) whose flame arresting gauze was designed to prevent firedamp explosions in mines and give early warning of the presence of carbon monoxide was fundamental in the rapid development of coal mining and consequently smelting of iron in the early 19th Century. Thus woven wire mesh made a significant contribution to the speed of development of the industrial revolution.
Post Industrial Revolution manufacture in the UK grew substantially, fuelled in the first half of the 20th Century by increasing requirements for the War Office - wire mesh filters for aircraft, tanks, military vehicles, petro chemicals, gas masks, sieving equipment for explosives and so on. Subsequently after the Second World War, growth in the industry centred largely in the North West around Warrington and with some manufacturing in Scotland as well. One of the dominant players in the North West through this time was Locker Wire Weavers , while the Potter & Soar Group (having absorbed Bedford Steer End around 1910) remained in London until the 1970's. Post war developments in manufacturing techniques had greatly increased wire cloth weaving efficiency, but a hard battle was fought with German manufacturers whose industry had been largely destroyed and had the advantage of being re-equipped with the latest equipment.
While the majority of demand throughout the 20th Century continued to be supplied from domestic manufacturing, today wire weaving in the UK tends to be limited to specialist technical meshes while, as with many other industries, standard volume materials are sourced from the Far East. The long established traditional manufacturers still supply the majority of wirecloth consumed in the UK, with the Locker Group, now incorporating Potter & Soar as a trading brand, supplying a substantial proportion of domestic demand using carefully selected overseas strategic manufacturing partners.
Modern Wirecloth Applications
Woven wire cloth is largely an 'invisible' product, but is a product of great importance. Its presence is rarely detected as more often than not it is incorporated as a filter or screen or used within a process. There is little visible evidence for the public to see apart from the pattern on a digestive biscuit, the wire mesh filter in the base of your cafetiere, or the flour sieve in the kitchen cupboard.
Yet its lack of visibility belies the existence of a huge worldwide industry. There are few products today that do not involve wire cloth in their manufacture. The ability to maintain very accurate aperture size enables wire cloth to be used for a variety of particle, fluid or gas cleaning and sizing applications. It can vary in texture from being as fine, soft and flexible as silk to being as rigid and durable as steel plate.
Woven wire mesh and wire cloth have countless applications today:
- in filters for road vehicles
- the manufacture of floor coverings
- chipboard, hardboard, pulp and paper processing including watermarking for banknotes
- in filtration and separation processes for the petro-chemical, pharmaceutical and food processing industries
- radio and microwave shielding
- ore and minerals screening
- screen printing
- transportation belts
- plastics extrusion manufacture
- optical lens manufacture
- catalytic converters
- precious metal recovery
- flame, heat and light diffusion
- vacuum forming
- spark protection
- battery manufacture
- and many more besides.
Additionally in recent years a whole new industry has developed based on the use of heavier woven wire meshes for architectural applications. The Locker Group with Potter & Soar are at the forefront of this development and have installed thousands of square metres of architectural mesh in high profile installations across the UK, Europe and the USA.