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


Volume 3


Flax Spinning and Weaving

Flax was cultivated in quarter acre plots like hemp, and grown, as the Act of Parliament suggested, to find work for 'the idle poor'. The process of preparing the thread was similar to that used on hemp fibres, with the spinning invariably a female occupation. Anne Green, who was a 'spinster' living at South Elmham All Saints, left in her will of 1626 'all my hempe which I have now pelled' - a term used for the spun fibres. To get on in the textile trade, training as a weaver was a good move, so we hear of Robert Goodwin of Metfield being made an apprentice to Henry Rackham in 1657. Rackham was a linen weaver by trade and he demanded a binding fee of 6 to cover Robert Goodwin until he reached the age of 24 years. The master weaver promised 'to teach, instruct and informe him in the craft and misterie which he, the said Henry Rackham now useth commonly called weaverscraft'.

The next step was to work your own loom, and in 1590 Robert Valye of Bungay is reported to own two looms, valued at just under 20 using servants who would have been apprentices or journeymen. Some craftsmen obviously moonlighted, for John Banor alias Barber of Stradbroke described himself as a weaver with several looms, but also as a minstrel. It seems to have been a rewarding profession, for some 842 East Anglian linen weavers are known from various types of historical records ... records in which you seldom appeared unless you had money, property or belongings. The value of the yarn itself could be considerable, for Thomas Winter of South Elmham had, in the 17th century, a stock of yarn worth 78.

The knitting of stockings was a cottage industry in the Waveney Valley, so much that Celia Fiennes, the writer/traveller, wrote 'the ordinary people, both of Suffolk and Norfolk knitt much and spin' and in the 1620s, 70,000 pairs of stockings a year were exported through Yarmouth, mainly to Rotterdam.

The last linen made in Bungay was woven at the same time that the Halesworth Hemp industry was dying in 1855. There, in the premises of Mr. John Henry Smith of St. Mary's Street, six looms had been employed up to that date, the last weaver being Charles Chapman. Bungay canvas was considered very good for sails for the fishing industry. 


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