The Domesday Book of 1087 mentions a mill at Flatford and records William the Conqueror's decision to keep it and some of the surrounding land for himself. This means there was a Saxon mill at Flatford before the Norman Conquest of 1066.
"Many of the earth embankments channeling water to Flatford Mill were constructed by the Saxons and undoubtedly a mill stood here before the Norman invasion. The Domesday Book mentions a mill at 'Bercolt'. This early mill would have been a small timber building grinding corn after the harvest in the autumn and into the winter, using power from the river Stour swollen by winter rain. Roger Bigot, Earl of Norfolk owned Flatford Mill between 1189 - 1121. It was managed at this time by the canons of Dodnash Priory who rented it to Nicholas of the Adlegrove" (Source Flatford, Constable Country by Ian St John)
In the late fourteenth century the The Manor Court Rolls contain a record of a fulling mill at Flatford that was called ‘Flotfordmelle’.
The fulling process
Fulling is an ancient process by which cloth woven from raw sheep's wool is cleaned in a mixture of water and fullers earth.
Fullers earth is a powdery, soapy clay that absorbs grease. It is used today in cleaning products and cosmetics such as mudpacks
The newly woven (but dirty) cloth was placed in fulling stocks along with water and fullers earth
River water was channelled into the fulling stock under the tappet wheel causing it to rotate, driving the wooden hammers attached to it onto the fabric, pounding the dirt out out of the cloth and closing the weave
Once 'fulled', the cloth was dried and stretched - called "tentering" - on tenterhooks - see image four above
When dry and fully stretched the cloth was dyed, brushed with teasels to raise the pile and trimmed of loose threads
By the 1470s Suffolk produced more cloth from its mechanised fulling mills than any other county in England.
“Old Draperies” was the name of the initial ‘Broadcloth’ phase of textile production which reached a peak in the early 16th century. Broadcloth was prickly to the skin, smelled when wet and was coarser than Harris Tweed. Its production declined with the introduction of the spinning wheel in the 1540s and the importation of newer fabrics from the continent.
“New Draperies” was the name given to the second phase of textile production that made use of new skills brought to Suffolk by weavers from Holland in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and who were escaping religious persecution. The new production methods resulted in a lighter and cheaper cloth made entirely from wool and called ‘bays and says’. This material was finer than modern baize with a texture resembling serge.
Flatford Mill continued to ‘full’ wool until around 1700 when the cloth industry started to become concentrated in the larger towns of Ipswich and Colchester before dying out entirely in East Anglia by the end of the century.
From Fulling to Flour
During the seventeenth century, the textile industry moved to the north of the country. Traditional sheep farming and rural textile industries declined and people moved from the country to work in town and city factories.
As the town populations swelled they created a huge demand for bread and Suffolk farmers realised they could make more money from growing grain (to be made into bread) than from grazing sheep for the wool and cloth trade. Fulling mills, including the mill at Flatford, were converted into corn mills so that they could grind grain into flour.
Note: the spelling of 'woolen' with one 'l' is correct for Armley Woolen Mill