When you hear or read the cloth that covers the slate and cushions of a Snooker (Billiard) table described as BAIZE you can almost hear the sharp intake of breath in Stroud (West of England - Strachan) and Pudsey (Hainsworth) where the last mills in the UK that produce Billiard / Snooker cloth are based. Why the intake of breath — well baize is a wool /cotton mix material used for covering card tables and notice boards, whereas the cloth used on Snooker tables is a specialist quality pure wool material with a raised nap and is a much more costly engineered product. A far superior material than baize!
The UK Billiards & Snooker cloth, unlike the worsted cloth used on European and USA style Billiard and Pool tables has a nap. One theory for this was that the cloth used for the cloaks worn by the drivers of horse drawn coaches had a nap that ran from the shoulders to the bottom of the cape. This encourage the rain to flow off the cape which would have kept the coachman drier for longer. This theory speculates that the same cloth used for the coachmen's capes, which according to the theory was also green in colour proved to be acceptable for UK style Billiard tables. Mind you the other theory as to why the cloth is green relates to the Billiards being played on a lawn on the ground, so when the game was brought indoors on to a table the cloth covering the table was the same colour as the 'grass'!
In the early days the finest wool was imported from Germany — in an article recording 'A 'Visit to Hunts & Co's' mills it reports - "It would seem, then, that the fineness of German wool is due not to any peculiarity in type of breeding or feeding of the sheep, but simply to the fact that the animals are under fed". However as a result of WW1 it was the Merino sheep's fleeces from Australia that became the source of the fine quality wool required for Billiard cloth.
In the 'old' Thurston ledgers there are many references to 'Best West of England' cloth an example is shown below and you will see from the date that Thurston have been buying Billiard cloth from the West of England ' mills based in Stroud for over 120 years. Now the cloth used on the World Championship tables is branded as 'Strachan' (pronounce by the English as "strawns"!!)
In our collection we have a copy of a booklet issued by Hunt & Winterbotham which was circulated by Orme & Sons Ltd in 1924 (on one of the copies Mr. E. A. Clare founder of the Liverpool firm had written a dated note about Orme's involvement). The information in that booklet is still relevant to-day so we have transcribed it below:
There are many points about a Billiard Table, which, provided the timber is sound and well seasoned do not greatly matter beyond the question of art and style. There are, however, three points, viz : the slates, the cushions, and the cloth, the perfection of which is absolutely essential if-the game is to be played in any degree scientifically.
Of theses, three the slates may be trusted to take care of themselves ; so may the cushions, provided they are properly treated by the players, and that the temperature of the Billiard Room is suitable and kept reasonably equable. But the cloth is another matter, and from the very nature of its construction demands regular care and attention of an intelligent kind. The more the true nature of a Billiard Cloth is under stood the easier it is to keep it in just that perfection of condition which ensures the perfect running of a ball, and without which no decent game can be played
It may be said at the outset that there is no material, either animal or vegetable, which can provide so suitable a surface over which a ball can travel with that truth, steadiness, and quietness that the stroke demands, as does a fuze woollen cloth. It is because so few people interested in Billiards really understand a cloth, that it gets so frequently blamed for troubles for which it is in no way responsible. And yet, given a little thought, it is possible so to understand it, or, to use an expressive French term, so to "soignee" the table that the pleasure and accuracy of the game are vastly increased
A Billiard Cloth is not a piece of leather or linoleum. It is a delicately constructed fabric made on strictly scientific principles, and the care of a cloth consists in the continuance, in a minor degree, ofjust those principles and processes which have been involved in the later stages of its manufacture.
Every little thread in a bed length of Billiard Cloth,—and there are some fifteen thousand from the baulk end to the top of the table.—is constructed of a mass of tiny fibres, each of which in its turn is built up of delicate microscopic cells, each hitting into, and overlapping the. other, very much in appearance like the scales of a fish.
Now it is the intelligent consideration for, and proper treatment of these fibres which really matter in the care of a Billiard Cloth. Their usefulness and perfection can easily be destroyed They can be bruised out of all recognition by hard sudden pressure or blows, —they can be torn and scratched by unsuitable and unreasonable brushing —they can be scorched and burnt by a too hot iron till their very nature and tenacity are destroyed and they can be seriously affected by continued damp. But given care and correct treatment these little fibres will play their part in the great game of Billiards to the entire satisfaction of its most critical exponent.
To come a little closer to detail. Beneath the cloth is the slate—a surface hard and unyielding. Above the cloth is the ball—with a consistency and substance of even still greater resistance. I do not suppose that one player in a thousand realises what he does when he throws a ball on to the table with a fairly sharp concussion. The pressure which the cloth receives from the impact between the unyielding surfaces of the ball and the slate is sufficient to crush and bruise the fibre cells, thus lessening their efficiency and usefulness, and incidentally removing some of the nap from the surface, of the cloth.
The same thing is possible with a hard masse shot or any similar or violent stroke. It must be remembered that although the surface of a ball is round yet the actual point of contact with the cloth, or with an other ball, is infinitesimally small, thus, having really a "cutting" effect, and given sufficient impact will even cut clean through the cloth.
I have often heard it stated that these little bare or grounded places which I have described as being left on a cloth after some sharp concussion or impact, are caused by moths. I have only to add that such an accusation is an unkind libel on the habits of an insect which already has enough sins lying at its door without including Billiard Cloths!
This liability of a cloth to "cut "under extreme pressure is better understood when it is remembered at what a great tension it is stretched over a slate. It is, or should be, "as tight as a drum", and therefore just in the condition to render it liable to injury from any outside cause. If it were merely lying normal, or at rest, as for instance like an ordinary dining-table cloth, this liability would be very much reduced.
In this connection I have purposely said nothing as to the very common trouble of the shaving off of the nap of the cloth by a cue tip, especially if the tip is ragged or rough. Untold damage can very quickly be done to a new cloth in this way, and it is the result either of gross carelessness or an entire misconception "of how the game should be played.
The two methods adopted for keeping a cloth in suitable condition for play are brushing and ironing, and the points I have referred to in the first paragraph are intimately connected with these two operations. Both of them, as I have said are the continuation in a minor degree of processes of manufacture through which the cloth passed in its final stages.
First as to brushing. I have seen markers brushing a cloth hard against the nap (i.e. from the top of the table towards the baulk end) or scrubbing it round and round like a woman scrubs a stone floor. Both are fatal to the condition of the cloth and in fact a new cloth may be so injured in this way as to make it impossible to again "Set" the surface properly.
The table should be brushed the running way of the nap of the cloth, i.e. from the "D" end to the other, and in doing so you merely follow the lines on which the manufacturer produced the original nap on its surface. (It sometimes happens that for some reason the cloth is reversed, the "D "end being changed to the top of the table. In that case of course the above remarks would not apply, as the cloth should then be brushed from the top of the table to the baulk end).
Secondly as to ironing. This again is a minor reproduction of a manufacturing process, viz pressing.
An overheated iron has a directly injurious effect on those little fibre cells which are the very life of the cloth. It drives out of them the natural, or absorbed moisture which they contain and which are necessary to their elasticity, suppleness, and brightness,—leaving them dry and brittle, and far less capable of standing the strain of play and brushing to which they are continually subjected.
It is a truism that a really fine cloth 'feeds" and improves with age, and though that is an expression which may perhaps be a little difficult to analyse scientifically, it is nevertheless the result of experienced observation, and is closely connected with the condition of the fibre cells. Excessive heat would entirely prevent this and it is far better to go over a cloth three or four times with a moderately heated iron, than once only with an iron so hot as to produce the undesirable effect I have suggested
There is at Dover a famous bronze Gun, cast in Utrecht in 1544, and presented to Queen Elizabeth by the States of Holland. It bears an inscription in low Flemish which has been translated rather freely, in several ways. One version however, reads - Charge me well, and sponge me clean, And I'll throw a ball to Calais Green."
The point is that the gun undertook to do certain work on certain conditions. So with a well made and good quality Billiard Cloth. If properly and intelligently cared for it will-do the work and play the part it has undertaken to do, and those interested in its perfection and condition will find it will well repay the trouble and thought given to it.
It would not be in the interests of the maker of a Billiard Table that the cloth he supplies should last for ever 1 But it is distinctly in the interests of his reputation that those who purchase his tables should get the very best possible value out of them, and it is solely with the object of assisting them to do this that the foregoing remarks are offered
So the booklet ends.
However the production of woollen cloth from that area goes back many more years than that. In "The History Of Strachan & Co" written by Esther A. L. Moir in 1955, she writes that "it is abundantly clear that by the thirteenth century cloth making was being carried out extensively here". From those early days all types of woven woollen material was produced from army dress material to suiting as well as Billiard Cloth. Now the Stroud mills specialise in Billiard Cloth & Tennis Ball Cloth.
Naturally our interest is in the Billiard Cloth production and certainly the production of cloth for Billiard tables also goes back through the centuries. Hunt & Winterbotham dates from the 1860's. In the 1920's Strachan, Playne and Hunt & Winterbotham came together and traded as Winterbotham, Strachan & Playne. This business later became a division of Illingworth Morris, a UK textile group and subsequently in 1990 a division of Milliken Industries whose parent company in the USA enjoys a similar history dating back to 1865.
A copy of a competition sheet issued by E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. Circa 1940 which shows an old West of England trade mark with a 1646 date within it. It is we believe associated with Hunt & Winterbotham. Strachan have provided some interesting 'old' pictures not only showing how production was carried out but also historical pictures of the mill building.
This water colour painting shows the men at the bench hand teazeling the cloth with the boy fitting new teazels to the tools.
Lodgemore Mill before, after and rebuilt from the 1871 fire.
The following pictures showing production are from a period just after the WWII and show the old machinery and working methods.
Above left: Bales of raw wool are delivered from Australia and are stored until needed. Above right: Oil is applied to lubricate the fibres and aid in blending, carding and spinning.
Above left: During blending the bales are opened and mixed. Above right: Carding separates the wool fibres and puts into a form ready for spinning into yarn.
Above left: Mule spinning. Above right: During section warping yarn is built into packages and then made into warp for presenting to to the loom and weaving.
Above left: On the weaving floor shuttle looms insert the weft threads and creates the 'greige' cloth. Above right: Mending and burling removes knots and corrects faults in the weave.
Above left: Teazels (a type of thistle head) is set into a frame. The frames are fixed into a raising machine which will create the nap, sheen and lustre on billiard cloth. Above right: Fulling combines heat, moisture and friction to shrink and felt the cloth.
Above: Wet dressing and teazle gig - these machines are used to lift and lay the directional nap on billiard cloth
Above: After dyeing and drying the nap is sheared to the desired height.
Strachan West of England cloth uses only the finest Merino wools from Australia carefully selected according to very precise specification and the woven"greige" (the rough cloth) is put through a series of complicated specialised processes such as "raising" or "teazeling". To raise the face of the cloth and give a direction or "nap" and "milling" which provides the body or weight. After these processes the cloth is transformed into a highly engineered fine billiard cloth featuring the napped lustrous characteristic of Strachan West of England.
Strachan West of England cloth has been chosen by the Professional Billiards & Snooker Association for use at all major snooker and billiard tournaments, including the prestigious World Championships since 1980
Acknowledgements — Strachan West of England for providing much historical information as well as many of the pictures used in the article.