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Sudbury’s Woollen Cloth Industry

by David Burnett

(Click on images to enlarge)

Sudbury is an ancient market town with a history going back well beyond the Norman Conquest. By the early 14th century Sudbury was one of only three towns in the county (with Bury and Ipswich) to appear in a list of England’s wealthiest towns; already the woollen cloth industry was a major contributor to that wealth.

Many reasons have been put forward to explain why the cloth industry developed in this part of SW Suffolk/N E Essex. Some have pointed to the large flocks of sheep which could provide the wool but records show that local wool was suitable for stuffing mattresses but not for making quality cloth – the wool used locally came from much further afield such as Lincolnshire, the Essex marshes and the borders with Wales. Others point to King Edward III’s encouragement to skilled Flemish weavers to settle in England but there is little evidence that they settled in this area. Clearly, closeness to a major market in London and easy access across the North Sea to Continental markets played a part as did the many streams and rivers which provided the water needed for fulling and dyeing.

The Chantry - a fine merchant's house on the corner of Stour Street and Plough Lane

Whatever the reasons for its beginning the industry grew and flourished and by the 15th century had entered an unrivalled period of prosperity. Powerful clothiers began to assume control of all the various processes involved in the making of woollen cloth. Some like Thomas Spring of Lavenham became so wealthy that his daughter married into the aristocratic family of the Earls of Oxford at Castle Hedingham. The area produced an eclectic variety of cloth styles and colours including the famous Lavenham blues, heavy broadcloth destined mainly for export, and the lighter-weight straits and kerseys, popular both at home and abroad. The wealth accumulated by these clothiers was spent not just on dowries for their daughters but on the construction of fine timber-framed houses, such as those which still line Stour Street, and in the rebuilding of their local parish churches in the soaring Perpendicular style. This was a way of showing off their wealth in this world and a final resting place where priests would say prayers to speed their souls into Heaven.

However, by the 1520’s the woollen cloth industry was in decline, hit by religious conflicts on the Continent, punitive taxation by Henry VIII and by a change in demand towards lighter, finer fabrics. The hardest hit communities were those such as Lavenham and Nayland where up to 70% of the local population were involved in the cloth industry in one way or another. In Sudbury the figure was below 40% and with a more diversified economy the town was able to withstand the slump in the industry. Indeed, spinning and weaving continued in the town with the manufacture of says, bays and bunting and by the end of the 18th century the silk industry was well established,  continuing the long tradition of textile manufacture in the town.