A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 2


The Medieval Cloth Industry in Suffolk

One of the most significant changes in agriculture in the 13th and 14th centuries was this growth in sheep farming to meet the demand for large quantities of wool for the medieval woollen industry. This was combined with a smaller market for cereals and crops due to the great reduction in population following the Black Death. This meant it was necessary for landowners and larger tenant farmers to change the use of their land from arable to pasture.

In some areas the deaths during the plague had caused such vacancies in the rural cottages, that it was possible for the lords of the manors to transfer the remaining tenants to new cottages and thus create vast sheep pastures on the old fields. The next move was the actual enclosure of this land for this new purpose which then contributed to the decline in the numbers of small farmers. It is also probable that these changes, which turned numbers of local labourers adrift from the soil, furnished the labour which was needed by the clothiers in the woollen industry.

From medieval times, England had derived much of its wealth from the quality of its raw wool, which was exported all over Europe. During the 15th century a much larger proportion of it was woven into cloth in England itself. As early as the 12th century, Bury St.Edmunds contained fullers and housewives who were spinning on the distaff, and in the 15th century, the weavers were organised into a craft guild. Suffolk ranked 18th in the distribution of lay wealth in 1334 and locally the area with the highest growth rates are nearly all in the sheep and corn areas and or next to the River Blyth.

Late in 1395, the records tell us that Suffolk produced 733 whole cloths - 24 yards x 1.75 yards (22m x 1.6m) made by 120 manufacturers in all, and 120 to 160 narrow cloths - 12 yards  x 1 yard (11m x .92m) made by 15 makers. The cloths made included Norwich fustian, Sudbury baize, Colchester says and serges, also worsted and a lighter cheaper cloth called Kersey which were named after the places where they were made.

The evidence for the early presence of cloth-making processes lies in the craft surnames which are present in the community. There are the Dyers, Fullers, Shearers, Spinners, Tuckers, Walker, Weavers, Webb or Webster to name but a few. Even the the inns and public houses come into the story, for there is the 'Packhorse', the 'Woolpack', the 'Golden Fleece' and the 'Ram' to be seen in many towns which had the trade in earlier days. While in Parliament itself, the Lord Chancellor's seat in the House of Lords is called 'The Woolsack', because on the sale of wool, was our national wealth founded.


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