Lavenham, a Very Woolly Town, Part 2

Half-timber framed buildings

Half-timber framed buildings

In my last post I showed you some of the beautiful buildings in Lavenham financed using wealth generated from the wool trade during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

There are many areas in the UK where, at some point in their history, the economy has been based on the textile trade. Yorkshire has a long association with wool, as does Ireland with linen. During the industrial revolution, the cotton-weaving industry developed in Lancashire and in my region, the East Midlands, Leicestershire prospered by making stockings on knitting frames, Nottinghamshire from making cotton lace and Derbyshire from silk spinning and weaving. The Isle of Harris is still known for its tweed cloth woven on treadle looms, and the Shetland Islands for Fair Isle knitting.

Lavenham’s woolly speciality was a woollen woven fabric known as ‘Lavenham Blue’. We found out about the manufacture of this fabric during a visit to The Guildhall, a National Trust property, which houses a local history museum.

Corpus Christi, Lavenham, Suffolk

The Guildhall of Corpus Christi, Lavenham, Suffolk

The wool trade in Lavenham, and the surrounding area, was at its height well before the industrial revolution, so there were no factories. Most of the processes took place in worker’s homes. What gave Lavenham an advantage was good organisation, in that the wool merchants or ‘clothiers’ bought raw wool, paid the various craftspeople to process it and then organised sales and transport of the finished cloth; the bulk of the cloth was exported! It is the clothiers who became rich and financed the building of the church, four guildhalls and many houses.

Production of ‘Lavenham Blue’ started with the raw wool. this was washed to remove grease and debris, then the fibres were graded by length – the shorter fibres were used. These were carded, which lines up the fibres ready for spinning. The fibre was spun using a distaff and a spindle – spinning wheels were not common yet!

Carder, spindle and shuttles

Teasels, carder, spindle and shuttles

The yarn was dyed before spinning (origin of the phrase ‘dyed in the wool’); most of it was dyed blue using woad. Dying took place in ‘dye houses’, which were not homes, but specialised places located next to streams, since dying requires plenty of water.

Yarns dyed using natural dye

Yarns dyed using natural dyes

The dyed yarn was woven on looms, either in the weavers’ or clothiers’ houses (I detect parallels with the later framework knitting industry here).


Tredle loom

Three more processes were needed to produce cloth ready for sale. Fulling, which thickens cloth, was another water-intensive process, so ‘fulling mills’ were also located next to streams. The process involved soaking cloth in a solution of ammonia salts (found in urine) and Fuller’s earth (a special clay), which actually cleaned the cloth. Then the cloth was beaten, probably with a large wooden hammer powered by a waterwheel. Finally the cloth was washed ready for the next process.

The thickened cloth was taken to a tenterground where it was tentered – stretched taut on wooden frames, held in place using tenter hooks (origin of the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’) and then left to dry. This squared up the fabric and flattened it. Finally the cloth was finished by brushed with teasels to raise the nap, which was then cropped.

The wool industry in Lavenham declined when Dutch weavers, who settled nearby, produced new types of cheaper cloth. Lavenham residents carried on wool-trading and spinning, but these were less profitable. Later a new industry developed – weaving horsehair. This cloth has a beautiful glossy shine.

Nowadays, Lavenham has an unusual number of woolly shops, including Cafe Knit, which is both a yarn shop and a cafe – a perfect combination, I think. We had already eaten at another lovely cafe, so we just looked at the lovely yarn. We also found Elizabeth Gash Knitwear who sell their own knitwear and ‘Spirit of the Andes’ where you can buy knitwear produced in Peru and Bolivia.

Cafe Knit

Cafe Knit

Apologies for the haphazard posts and poor photos at the moment. My computer is having a major transplant, so I’m relying on my iPad, which much as I love it, is not up to the demands of blogging.

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2 Responses to Lavenham, a Very Woolly Town, Part 2

  1. Patricia 16 September 2013 at 9:48 #

    I visited Lavenham some years ago and was impressed by the beautiful old buildings. But on the same trip I visited Ypres in Belgium also a cloth making centre. The Cloth Hall in Ypres is a magnificent stone building, more like a cathedral. Perhaps more money there?

    • Being Knitterly 16 September 2013 at 12:31 #

      Or maybe stone was available nearby, and so was not quite so expensive to use. The only stone readily available in Suffolk was flint – it was used to fill in the spaces in half-timber houses. Stone that can be carved has to be transported some distance, which adds to the cost.

      I’ll add Ypres to my list of places to visit!

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