Dyed in the Wool on Tenterhooks in Lavenham

In Medieval times England's wealth was largely built on the success of its high quality wool and cloth industry. Much of the production was exported, bringing enormous tax revenues to the crown, as well as great riches to the wool merchants and clothiers themselves, some of whose fortunes were equivalent to that of today's billionaires.

But it's the manufacture and export of woollen cloth and in particular Lavenham Blew cloth that really consolidated Lavenham's position of great wealth, with rich medieval clothiers building the houses that characterise the village you see today. 

In the fourteenth century the cloth trade even overtook that of wool, replacing it as England's major export commodity and the picture book village you see today bore no resemblance to the busy working town you would have seen back then.

However, this thriving medieval industry in and around Lavenham became a victim of its own success. Heavy taxes were levied on the rich merchants and clothiers by the crown and just as happens today, those who ran the businesses very quickly moved on to escape the financial burdens. As well as being a centre for the cloth industry in medieval times, the village of Lavenham was also home to one of five catholic religious guilds. 

Religious guilds themselves date back to eleventh century and were originally associated with the monasteries. By the fourteenth century they took responsibility for the repair of bridges and roads and the founding of schools, alms-houses and colleges, such as Corpus Christi in Cambridge. A large number of guilds were formed bearing the Corpus Christi name, one of which was in Lavenham, although the town itself had 5 catholic guilds in all. Their demise though started with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and the appropriation of their wealth with the end finally coming in 1547 when the protestant king Edward VI came to the throne. This resulted in the dissolution of around 2500 guilds and associated bodies.

The Guildhall itself was the meeting place for one of the 5 religious Guilds in Lavenham. Members of these Guilds were often the same Lavenham clothiers who had grown wealthy through the flourishing cloth trade. However, their financial benevolence to Lavenham itself was distinct from their guild-based charity work in and around the village for the benefit of the poor. 

From the earliest beginnings of the cloth industry the opportunity to capitalise on this lucrative trade attracted what we would today call entrepreneurs. Prominent among these was Thomas Spring who became a wealthy clothier. After his death in 1523, his son, also called Thomas, inherited his father’s wealth, became a ‘gentleman’ and retired to the country at a time when the broadcloth industry was already starting to decline.

The Spring family were largely responsible, (through their financial legacies), for the investment required to rebuild Lavenham church and successfully led the industry for around a hundred years. Prominent also was the part played by the powerful and influential De Vere family, Earls of Oxford. At the outset of the trade they were Lords of the Manor of Lavenham and no doubt saw the advantages of an industry attracting investment and hard cash into the local economy; although today De Vere house on Water Street in Lavenham is best remembered for its role in the Harry Potter films. 

Lavenham’s famous high quality broadcloth achieved its blue colour from a natural dye produced from the woad plant, at the time imported from Toulouse. Today we grow this plant in the Guildhall garden and its flowers are yellow, but it's the leaves that produce the blue dye. 

The original Lavenham Blew cloth was dyed at the raw wool stage and subsequently spun into yarn, which is then woven into cloth; hence the expression ‘dyed in the wool’, which has come to mean something that is deeply ingrained. 

During the production process the cloth was often hung outside on a frame. These wooden frames were called tenters, often arranged like a line of fencing and used to hang woollen or linen cloth, not to prevent it from shrinking as is commonly thought, but as a means of measuring, controlling and stretching each piece. Measurements were important since cloths were covered by a strict set of statutes and standards that needed to be adhered to. In the case of Lavenham Blew cloth, the statute was that each piece should be 28 yards 28 inches long and 53 inches wide. Tenterhooks are the hooks on the tenter frame to which the processed cloth is attached, to maintain the correct dimension of cloth in situ until folded for storage or shipping. The expression has come to mean being in a state of tension or suspense. Indeed, the there is an area at the top end of the village not far from the church called ‘Tenter Piece’. 

The demise of Lavenham as a cloth making town was mainly due to the heavy taxes imposed on the rich by Henry VIII. This prompted many clothiers to retire to their country estates and live the life of a gentleman. This, coupled with the influence of Dutch weavers in Colchester meant a change in the type of cloth produced giving way to the ‘New Draperies’. 

Spinning and weaving continued in Lavenham, but never to the same extent as at the height of the broadcloth industry. From being the fourteenth richest town in the whole country it sunk to just forty-eighth richest in the county of Suffolk. Throughout this period the houses were still occupied, but lack of investment meant that they fell into disrepair. There were plans in the 1930s and 40s to demolish the whole village and rid it of its insanitary buildings, but luckily the money was not forthcoming. Eventually of course better times returned, and the buildings were conserved and improved as family homes, showcasing the village as it is today.