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Last updated 26 November 2011

THE CLOTH INDUSTRY OF LAVENHAM
 

By the early 14th century the cloth industry was already well established. The origin of the industry probably had much to do with the high local population of free men not having enough land to make a living from. The cloth industry offered them the opportunity to increase their income. As the years went by the industry became more organised and profitable. However, the soil in the area was more suited to arable farming than to the raising of sheep, so the raw wool had to be imported from places like Lincolnshire. Also local wool was of an inferior quality.

The prosperity of the trade was such that by 1524 Lavenham was ranked as the fourteenth wealthiest town in England. Cloth was being exported as far as Russia and North Africa. Also, Thomas Spring III, a clothier of Lavenham, was reckoned to be the richest man in England outside the nobility.
However, heavy taxation in the mid 1520s, and disrupted export markets through war on the continent, brought a rapid decline in the industry. All this helps explain why most timber-framed buildings here date from about 1460 to 1530. There was no wealth left to build anything of quality later in the century.

 

SPINNERS

Spinners were usually young single women, hence the origin of the word "spinster" which meant "woman who spins". Before the wool was spun, the raw wool was carded to tease out the fibres. Spinning yarn was poorly paid, and prone to boom and slump, but was to last longer in Lavenham than cloth manufacturing.

DYERS

Lavenham's blue cloth was dyed in the wool, before weaving, using woad. Various shades could be obtained according to its concentration. Other colours were also produced. The process needed a dyehouse, leads, cisterns, vats, coppers, water and means to heat it. Lavenham has a network of brick-built culverts under its main streets. It is debatable whether or not part of their purpose was to take water to and/or from dyehouses. As yet the exact location of dye houses in Lavenham is unknown. Some dyers were independent, some co-owned their dyehouses, other were employees of local clothiers.

 

WEAVERS

At first weavers probably worked as independent craftsmen. Later more wealthy weavers became clothiers, the rest worked for the clothiers. Though weaving was central to the cloth industry, only three weavers were rich enough to leave wills, as most were considerably exploited by their clothier masters. The looms used were basically unchanged throughout the time of clothmaking in Lavenham. They consisted of a solid wooden frame within which were beams, and rollers on which the cloth was wound, treadles connecting to 'heddles' which moved the warp to form the passages for the shuttle to be thrown through, plus the hinged frame which compacted the weave and contained reeds dividing the warp.

 The illustration is of a weaver from The Book of Trades, 1568, Jost Anman and Hans Sachs, as are the picture of the dyer, above, and the shearman, below.

 

FULLERS AND SHEARMEN

Fulling involved scouring and thickening the woven cloth in water containing fuller's earth or urine to help remove the grease. As with dyeing, plenty of water would have been used, and water would have powered the heavy wooden mallets which pounded the cloth. The cloth would then have to be smoothed and washed clean. Then the cloth would be put on frames called tenters and be dried and stretched.

After all this a shearman would treat the cloth by repeatedly brushing and wetting the cloth to raise and comb the nap, first using soft then harder teasles. In between each brushing and wetting the cloth would dried and shaved smooth with giant shears. This would be done up to about three times.

 

For further research on the history of Lavenham, I would recommend the various writings of David Dymond and Leigh Alston.

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