The towns and villages within the Wool Towns region share a common heritage. Wool was by far the most important influence on European trade in the late 12th century until the early 15th century and during this period an industrial revolution took place which saw the manufacture and export of woven cloth from the Wool Towns replace the export of raw wool.
As trade developed, the area became a very active cloth weaving centre, both in terms of silk and wool. The development of this trade generated huge wealth for those involved and this manifests itself today in the legacy of fine buildings which are a feature of the Wool Towns. Today, the Wool Towns retain their medieval centres, streets lined with timber-frame buildings and elegant churches filled with light.
Classic examples can be seen in Clare, Hadleigh, Lavenham, Long Melford and Sudbury.
Across Suffolk and Essex, there are many traditional wool-weaving locations, from the greater towns such as Sudbury or Halstead to small villages such as Kersey, Cavendish and Coggeshall. It is in our Wool Towns that the medieval heart still beats most strongly.
Many visitors come to the Wool Towns to enjoy a vacation in this lovely rural area. Many more visit the area to experience our rich heritage. A long and common history is embedded in our offer to visitors. You can stay in 500 year old hotels, browse independent shops in medieval buildings, visit Stately homes and outstanding churches – or simply walk the streets lined with medieval residential buildings.
600 years ago, this area led the Country in the production of woolen cloth. Yes, sheep grazed across our entire nation and weaving was thus endemic. However, nowhere was a greater proportion of the population engaged in the 16 distinct processes of turning fleece in to textile than here. Sudbury is renowned today for a strong weaving industry, though the mills today work in silk, rather than wool.
Family names and even street names are constant reminders of our shared heritage. For a detailed history of the development and success of weaving in this area, the Wool Towns Association recommends ‘From Wool to Cloth: The Triumph of the Suffolk Clothier’, an excellent book, by local author Dr Nicholas Amor.
The History: Lavenham was famous for its blue broadcloth. This woven cloth was exported as far as Russia. The wool (fleeces) was dyed before spinning, hence the saying ‘dyed in the wool’. It was then dyed, spun, woven, fulled and finished in Lavenham. The wool was dyed using woad (Isatis tinctoria). The indigo extracted from the woad is a pigment, not a dye. In order to dye, the indigo must be dissolved and the technique used was a complex one!
The Dye: Traditionally a fermentation vat was used to dye with woad. This often started with stale urine! The fermentation removes the oxygen from the vat making the woad soluble. The Wool is dipped into the vat, left for a few minutes, and then removed. At first the wool is pale yellow, but with exposure to air, the colour gradually turns to green and then to blue. Today a chemical called ‘spectralite’ is used to remove the oxygen from the vat.