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Dream Weavers

Cooperatives trace their roots to Scottish basket makers

October 2022


In honor of National Co-op Month, it’s instructive to take a look at the roots of the cooperative movement. For that, it’s necessary to journey to the village of Fenwick in East Ayshire, Scotland, where a pioneering group of weavers started what is generally considered to be the first cooperative.

The year was 1761, and weavers in Fenwick had relied on local landowners and the aristocracy to support them, notes the Future Museum project in Scotland. Faced with that market, 16 weavers signed a pledge of mutual loyalty —working together, instead of competing, to ensure a fair price for their labors. “The idea that the working classes could organize themselves and cooperate with each other in a way that was mutually beneficial and which enabled them to operate on their own was brand new,” according to the project.

From baskets to banks. The Fenwick Weavers Society branched out into selling discounted food and lending money to members, which established it as the first credit union on record. In 1808, the cooperative founded a library and a service to help members relocate elsewhere in the world.

In time, the society faded, given the mechanization of weaving and the departure of members to more lucrative spots. In 2011, the Scottish parliament recognized the 250th anniversary of the society.

“We can trace the idea of a formal co-operative, founded on a clear statement of values and principles, as it spread from Fenwick throughout Scotland to the UK and further afield,” says lawmaker Willie Coffey.