Suffolk Industry

For a period in the 14th and 15th centuries the dominance of the agriculture industry in Suffolk was threatened by the emergence of textile industry. Unlike its neighbouring counties of Norfolk & Essex, Suffolk was already involved in the broadcloth trade before the arrival of the Flemish weavers in the 1330. The existence of fulling mills in the 13th and 14th centuries at Hadleigh and Sudbury is evidence of this earlier connection.

The main broadcloth area in Suffolk formed a triangle between Hadleigh, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds. With some East Suffolk villages around Eye, Debenham and Woodbridge involved in the production of kersey, these products were collectively known as the Old Draperies. 

Suffolk has been reliant on a basis range of industries. Agriculture, fisheries and textiles have provided the bulk of employment throughout it existence. The rivers and sea which make Suffolk almost an island have provided fish stocks from when the anglo Saxons first set foot on our shores. The land has been tilled and harvested by labourer and husbandman alike for centuries in an effort to produce foods for both home and abroad. While the textile industry in its day made Suffolk just about the richest county in the whole of England. The city of Dunwich ranked alongside London in its standing.

The industrial revolution brought new business to the county, Garretts of Leiston, Ransomes of Ipswich being just two.

In more recent time all these industries have had to diverse in order to survive. Now the high tec work of electronics has brought the likes of BT to the county, with its annual Christmas tree shines like a star over much of east Suffolk.

The Textile Industry:

Wool produced in Suffolk was short and curly, with quantity more than quality the main attribute. It was made up into heavy warm felted cloth. For this reason broadcloth was by far the most significant of the cloths. The market towns of Hadleigh, Long Melford, Sudbury and above all Lavenham were the chief manufacturers of this cloth. However smaller parishes like Bildeston, Clare, Stoke by Clare and Stratford St Mary all contributed to the production and  benefited from the wealth of the industry.

Evidence of this prosperity can still be seen in the magnificent timber buildings and churches in places like Lavenham Long Melford and  Hadleigh.

One of the earliest fulling mills was working at Hadleigh in 1287. After fulling, the cloth was stretched into shape on tenderhooks, dyed with woad or indigo, then ‘fixed’ with allum or cream of tartar. The indigo was responsible for the blue cloths Hadleigh became reknown for. A final brush and trim of any loose wools produced the end product. William Geffrey paid 10 pence a year to the Hadleigh ffeofees for his dyeing house.

The industry was run by the rich merchant clothiers who bought the raw wool from suppliers both home and abroad. They organised production through ‘the putting–out system’, whereby hundreds of small family run cottage industries carried out the various processes. By then marketing the finished products, these merchants ensured they were the main beneficiaries of the wealth generated. An example of this wealth lies in the Will of one of the most eminent of these merchants Thomas Spring III. He left a fortune in the region of £1,800. A huge fortune at the time only surpassed by royally.

To quantify this value we can use the following draper’s accounts. In 1727 Madam Amy & Madam Alice Revit of Brandeston? bought the following items: 2¼ yards of fine cumbrick cost £1-4-9, while ordinary cambrick was 7/6d per yard. Silk was 4/4d per yard. 9 yards of ribbond cost just 1/6d. and 9 yds of callimanco was 19d. with the bill in total amounting to £6.12 5d.

By the end of the 16th century the Suffolk broadcloth industry was in a long slow decline. The arrival of the Dutch clothiers brought fresh materials heralded ‘The new draperies’. These much lighter fabrics proved more popular than traditional heavier woollens. The decline continued throughout the 17th century, by when only 20 per cent of Lavenham people were employed in textiles, compared with 90% at its peak.

Much of the ‘new draperies’ trade was created along the southern banks of the river Waveney. Now towns and villages in the hundreds of Blackbourne, Hoxne and Hartismere became the centre of the important linen weaving industry.

The linen trade did not last for many years. The advent of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the new loom factories in Lancashire sounded the death bell for the Suffolk industry. Unable to compete with the mass production lines, the new draperies virtually faded from the Suffolk scene.

(This is an extract taken from the full article which is available in version 11 of The Family & Local History Handbook).

Main sources:

Tudor and Stuart Suffolk; Gordon Blackwood, Carnegie Publishing, 2001, pp14-19 

Hadleigh Thro the Ages; W. A. Jones  E. A. Magazine Ltd. 1977.  

The following sources from Ipswich Record Office:

S1/17/3; Branwhites general papers;

HA10/50/18/14.3 (1) Draper’s Accounts; catalogue of the Austin family of Brandeston

FB94/G1/6,7,& 8; (formerly K6/5/2.4); Ipswich St Nicholas App indentures

HA246/G/6; letter book of William V Commyns,S1/17/6; Branwhites Apprentice Indentures

S1/1/31.2; Boxford clothiers bond