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


Volume 2


The Process of Preparing the Wool

It will be seen that many processes were involved in changing the raw wool into cloth, each performed by a specialist. After the sheep had been sheared with clippers, the wool was sorted and carded between square wooden hair-brushes with wire teeth. This was continued until it was turned into a fluffy mass like candy-floss. This was then combed and the wool was ready for spinning. In early days this was done with a distaff which was a cleft stick about a metre long around which the wool was fixed. The fibres of the wool were twisted between the thumb and forefinger with the help of a spindle whorl to form the thread.

The invention of the spinning wheel in the the 13th century speeded up the process. The twisted thread was ready for the weaving on the loom, and Weavers' Guilds existed in many towns. After being woven, the cloth was fulled which meant it was scoured or cleaned with fuller's earth to reduce the fatty or greasy substances in the wool. To complete the fulling, it was placed in a vat of water or a flowing stream and trodden down continuously by men who became known as walkers, but eventually fulling mills with great wooden hammers did this job.

The damp cloth was now stretched over and hooked to tenters, which were large wooden frameworks fitted with many hooks. In Halesworth, the 1377 Extent of Halesworth Rectory Manor notes that John Payn Held. 'a piece of land for putting teyntys next to his house and pays per annum 4d (2p) and 4 Ibs of 'Flokkys' (wool flock). Another Halesworth man, John Stannard 'holds a plot of land inside the Rectory Close on which 'Teyntes' have been placed and pays per annum 12d (5p)'. So we know that these two men were involved in the drying and stretching of the recently fulled cloth. The list of tradesmen (1524-1608) which has been compiled by Mike Fordham (Halesworth Museum curator) includes a weaver, a shearman who was the cloth finisher, and a mercer who was a dealer in cloth, while the list of wills at the Ipswich Record Office contains references to numerous people whose surname is Fuller, including Edmund Fuller from Blyford (1618), Margery Fuller from Walberswick (1454), Thomas Fuller from Chediston (1558) and William Fuller (1464) from Blythburgh. Another craft name to emerge from the same source is William Dyer (1541) from Dunwich, while in the 1524 Subsidy Tax list is Robert Fuller of Halesworth.

Next the 'nap' of the woollen surface was raised by brushing it with the prickly heads of teazles (a plant), and then the raised nap cut smooth with large shears by the shearman. Finally the cloth was dyed with one of several coloured dyes, usually made from dyes produced from plants. These included woad (blue), weld (yellow), field madder (red), oak bark (brown), onion skins (amber), and meadow- sweet roots (black).

In 1470 East Anglia produced a quarter of the woollen cloth made in this country, with Suffolk first of the textile counties and Lavenham in Suffolk its most important centre. At a time when most English towns had 2,000 - 3,000 inhabitants, Lavenham had 11,000 and was England's fourteenth richest town. The half timbered houses that still line every street were the homes of its wealthy cloth manufacturers.

In the 16th century, Suffolk certainly profited from the settlement of people such as the Flemish in its towns, but at Bury the cloth manufacturing died out almost completely and its  place was taken by Sudbury and Lavenham. Even so, the mass of the population of this county was occupied in wool-combing and yarn-making for the manufacturers of Norfolk and the weavers of Norwich obtained from Suffolk much of their supplies of yarn. In fact the chroniclers of the past explained the easy capture of Norwich city by rebels in 1194 due to the condition of the men of Norwich who were 'for the most part weavers and know not how to bear arms in knightly wise'. In 1545 Norwich obtained licences to allow 30 foreign master craftsmen to settle in the city, and the revenue of the city doubled as a result, for the number of cloths produced rose from 276 in 1545 to 2,845 in the year 1572 when there were no less than 4,000 foreigners living in Norwich.

Whole families were employed in the processes of making cloth, and the master weavers would take on apprentices for a seven year period to teach them the trade. Not all proved satisfactory, and not all masters were kind to their apprentices and so a few would run away, hoping they would not be caught. When this happened the master would use the town crier to let people know he was looking for a missing lad.

'Cryd in Clare Market, one John Woods, apprentice to John Snell of Clare, who ran away from his master, the boy about 15 years of age, with a lank brown thick head of hair, and a round plump fulle vissage, he hath had the small pox, he had a light cullered coate and wescoate, and britches of sinniment culler and gray wollen stockens and a black hatt'.  (He was caught and goaled.)


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