Net making has been a craft for thousands of years for a wide range of uses, from sports to the haulage of loads and protecting crops from birds. It's generally accepted that the earliest nets were used for fishing.
Nets are versatile thanks to their strength, as they are constructed from woven fibres in a grid-like structure, making them extremely durable.
The first known net, known as the net of Antrea, dates from 8300BC. Along with other fishing equipment, it was unearthed in the town of Antrea - which became known as Kamennogorsk in 1946 - in Russia.
Made from willow, it was discovered by farmer Antti Virolainen in 1913 in a swamp that had been the Ancylus Lake. It measured 27 to 30m long and 1.3 to 1.5m wide, with a mesh of 6cm. It was suspected that a fishing boat had capsized, causing the loss of the net and all the equipment.
Many examples of fishing nets have been documented in ancient Greek literature and Egyptian tomb paintings, while Roman mosaics have also featured nets.
Evidence from The Domesday Book reveals that twine and nets were being manufactured on a large scale in England as long ago as the 11th century. Net making was a cottage industry for many people, with outworkers toiling from home.
It was often women's work, completed in between their other tasks such as cooking, tending the cattle or labouring in the fields. Children were also enlisted to help and net making was a skill taught early to every family member.
Net was made using twine, a block of wood called a lace and a wooden needle. The needle was threaded with twine and gripped in one hand, while the lace was held in the other hand. The twine was stretched across to the lace and secured with a braider's knot. This continued until the net took shape - it could be made to any size. In the 19th century, mills that made net provided employment for thousands of people.
Using large, industrial pieces of machinery to produce knotted nets, automated net making is common across the world today. The machines mainly use nylon monofilament of different sizes, 210D nylon multi filament or twisted PE.
They can make single or double knotted nets and can be adjusted to manufacture a precise mesh size ranging from around 16mm to 300mm. Knot tightening is possible via adjustable cams to suit various types of yarn. The net can be further processed in a length stretching machine, which passes the fabric continually through an oven pre-set at a specific temperature, thus fixing the knots in place.
Bird netting is a form of cruelty-free pest control, used globally to stop birds from eating and pecking at crops. The most common type has a small mesh of either 1cm or 2cm squares and is made from UV stabilised polyethylene, so it doesn't deteriorate in sunlight and will retain its shape for years.
In 18th and 19th century England, netting was used to keep birds off home-grown crops, particularly in walled gardens such as the one described in Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, The Secret Garden.
The eight-acre walled garden at historic Brocklesby Park estate in Lincolnshire was built by English landscape architect, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, in the 18th century. Queen Victoria had a 31-acre kitchen garden built in 1844, employing 150 gardeners. According to landscape architect, award-winning gardener and writer Bunny Guinness, such gardens were vital to feed the huge households of the day. They ensured that the privileged few had treats, such as all-year-round fresh fruit or asparagus at Christmas.
The height of productivity for these walled gardens was between around 1800 and 1940. Guinness describes how simple hot walls, as well as greenhouses, helped to mature the fruit. Copings often overhung the wall by around 15cm, so for extra protection, metal brackets that protruded by around 60cm were fitted to the fruit walls, so that nets could be hung vertically - nurturing and protecting the fruit.
'Hot beds' were protected by nets and covered by large amounts of manure to promote the growth of early salad vegetables and even melons.
Another popular method of deterring birds from crops, particularly in 19th century England, was the fruit cage. Queen Victoria’s fruit and vegetable garden at Osborne House had a selection of beautifully ornate cages, in addition to bird netting.
Today's professional anti-bird netting comes in large rolls - a cost-effective option for farmers and agricultural businesses who require bulk quantities. Smaller packages are available for the amateur gardener. Equally applicable for vineyard bird control and to bird proof buildings against urban bird species such as gulls and pigeons, bird netting helps to manage bird activity, noise and mess.
In the sports world, nets are prevalent in football, netball and tennis and perhaps less obviously, in cricket. Practice nets are commonly used by batsmen and bowlers to improve their technique and to warm up.
The pitch is enclosed by cricket nets to the sides, rear and sometimes the roof, with the bowling end left open. Indoor cricket nets can also be used, often suspended on aluminium runners to provide a practice enclosure.
Up until the mid-1990s, cricket nets were commonly made from nylon but today, multifilament polypropylene is recognised as the superior material, being stronger and more durable.
Henry Cowls has been operating since 1889, originally producing nets for the Cornish fishing industry. As fishing began to decline in the mid-20th century, we used our knowledge to concentrate on the horticultural sector and other applications.
Today, we produce a comprehensive range of adaptable and practical hand-made fruit nets, fruit cages and cricket nets. Our products are designed to weather the changeable British climate and are built to last. Using materials sourced in the UK, we are Britain’s last true netmaker! We stock a huge range of nets in all mesh sizes and a variety of colour options - bespoke nets are available on request.