Lavenham 'Blew' Cloth

We take colour for granted, but one only has to look back at the example of the advent of colour television to perhaps appreciate what a transformation from black and white it was at the time, and how much difference colour actually makes to our world.

Of course, this is a simple example, but think about it for a moment. For those of you who can see in full colour, look out your window and try to imagine what it would look like if it was only monochrome. Pretty strange and almost impossible isn’t it?

Well colour, and more especially the dyeing of cloth in particular, has played an enormously significant part in the development and transient fortunes of Lavenham, and by definition the Guildhall. Today the Guildhall garden contains many of the plants used in medieval times as sources of natural dyes, although the use of plants as dyes dates to much earlier times.

In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that as long ago as 4000 BC the art of dyeing was established in India, China and South America and in Egypt garments were dyed using the natural dye properties of the plants woad and madder, giving hues of blue and red respectively.

In the Lavenham of medieval times, the processed woad plant which produces a deep blue dye was imported from Toulouse in France and was used to dye raw wool. This process of dyeing the raw wool prior to spinning is deemed to be the derivation of the expression 'Dyed in the Wool', meaning ingrained, unchanging or inveterate. The dyed blue wool was then spun into yarn and woven into the then famous and expensive 'Lavenham Blew’ cloth. It’s the production of this particular and enigmatic ‘blew’ cloth that established and underpinned the fabulous fortunes of the medieval clothiers who controlled the trade.

They based themselves in and around Lavenham and built many of the fine houses we see today, including the Guildhall for the Guild of Corpus Christi, one of four established religious guilds in the town. So great was the demand for this very desirable and expensive cloth with its rich colour and sought-after quality, that in a relatively short period great quantities of Lavenham cloth were sold as well as being exported overseas.

This made the town one of the wealthiest in England, a fact much appreciated by the Crown as taxes flowed into the coffers. It was perhaps the Silicon Valley of its day, creating rich entrepreneurs amassing wealth through the manufacture and sale of cloth, in the same way as tech giants and their bosses create online empires and control great fortunes today, although perhaps now the tax issues are more complicated and contentious.

The process of natural dyeing though can be unpredictable, determined as it is by many factors. Try and think of it in the same terms as we would consider wine. Soil, temperature, water quality and of course the nature of the plant itself, will all have an effect on the taste of the wine, or as in the case of dyeing, the resultant colour. For just the same reasons, exactly the same dyeing conditions produce varying shades of the same colour on different fibres, such as silk, linen, cotton or wool. 

In fact, wool is a case in point. Fleeces vary from breed to breed, sheep to sheep, year to year, depending on many factors, creating variations in the end product from the same dye base. The mineral content of local water can also affect the end result. The dye colour itself comes from leaves, flowers, bark, roots or seeds and is extracted either by soaking or simmering. The resulting dyebath is then used to dye the fibres, also through the process of soaking or simmering. This resultant variation is what makes natural colour dyeing so exciting and magicaland by using natural sustainable resourses, it's ethically very green.

Contrary to popular opinion, natural dyes do not wash out and fade any more than modern synthetic dyes. The use of a mordant, (from the Latin mordere to bite), is recommended as it creates a bond between dye and fibre, creating a more intense colour and is usually applied prior to dyeing. The exceptions to this rule being woad and indigo which both require a method of reducing oxygen in the dyebath either chemically or by fermentation. The most common mordant is alum, although iron and copper are also used either as mordants or to modify colour.

Today we’re very much concerned with conservation using renewable resources and natural materials; be it for building, manufacturing, energy or clothing, and wool is perhaps one of the most natural and ancient materials we use in the manufacture of clothing and many other products such as blankets, rugs and carpets. 

There are three pieces of blue cloth on display in the Guildhall, though none of them are true replicas of 'Lavenham Blew' cloth, although the cloth itself has probably not been produced for several hundred years

·    The example hanging in reception was handwoven on the Guildhall loom about 25 years ago using synthetic dyed, commercially spun Shetland wool. 

·    The cushion on the settle in the main hall was made by members of Lavenham Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in 2011 as part of the Suffolk Threads project. It is hand spun and dyed in the yarn rather than in the wool, hence it’s rather uneven look.

·    The third example is a piece hanging on the loom upstairs. Half is dyed in the wool and half dyed in the yarn and was made to demonstrate the different finishes.

If you are interested in finding out more about the art of colour dyeing, our resident volunteer spinner Jean, recommends the following books - Wild Colour by Jenny Dean and A Dyers Manual by Jill Goodwin.