Cloth Trade in East Anglia

Phases in the production of cloth

In the production of cloth there are two distinct phases, a) the production of the wool, and b) the processes involved in turning the wool into cloth and marketing it. The Cotswolds produced some of the best wool in Europe and so they became very wealthy as a result. The wool produced in East Anglia was a poor quality and it could not be exported but could be used to make cloth, although not the best quality cloth. As a result north Essex and south Suffolk made their money from making cloth, sometimes with wool brought to the area, and marketing it.

After the Norman Conquest – 15th Century

After the Norman Conquest a little cloth was made for the local market but the majority of the wool was exported and most cloth was imported. After the Conquest the local cloth trade started to grow and cloth making was becoming mechanised in south Suffolk and parts of north Essex by 1300 when fulling mills started to appear. (Langham 1273, Hadleigh 1287). The trade was then given a boost by Flemish cloth workers from Flanders moving to the area during the time of the King Edwards in the C14. The cloth that was produced was a thick, warm and hard wearing broadcloth and this was what is called the Old Draperies.  By 1400 the villages along the Stour Valley were major producers and by 1520 it was the wealthiest area of the country outside London, with most of their cloth being exported through London.  The Old Draperies reached their peak in about 1500 and then declined and had almost stopped by 1600. Among the reasons for the decline were religious wars in Germany and the Low Countries which upset trade to the continent allowing local producers to take over, and a change in the pattern of world trade to trade with India, and Africa and then America and those countries did not want heavy warm cloth.

16-18th Century

In 1567 The Catholic Philip II of Spain tried to subdue the Protestant cloth makers of Holland and Belgium and many fled to Protestant England. They brought skills at producing the thinner and brighter coloured cloths which were then the fashion and were called the bays and says. This was the New Draperies and it gave another boost to the Cloth Trade but from a peak in about 1650 it declined and almost died out by 1800. A major reason for the decline was the refusal of East Anglia’s cloth workers to accept mechanisation. In addition there was the growth of the cotton trade in the north west and the growth of a mechanised Cloth Trade in the west country and Yorkshire and many cloth workers from East Anglia moved to these areas. (The rivers in Yorkshire and the west county were better for fulling as the rivers were faster flowing and so produced more power for the mills and the water had run over a stone bed and so was cleaner.)


During the whole period of the Cloth Trade, Norfolk, north Suffolk and in particular Norwich, were wealthy and they concentrated on producing Worstead, which required a different manufacturing process, but that trade continued until about 1900.  (The Norfolk rivers are impractical for fulling and Worstead did not require fulling). Norwich had the major advantage that it was a wealthy and powerful city and so was able to resist the attempts from the London merchants to take over the trade. In the end the trade in Norfolk also failed because of the resistance from the cloth workers to the increased mechanisation.

The Cloth Trade in Flatford and East Bergholt.

During the period of the Old Draperies, East Bergholt and Flatford became an early centre for the manufacture of cloth using water from the River Stour to drive the fulling process. East Bergholt and Flatford consequently became wealthy.

After the decline of the Old Draperies, East Bergholt and Flatford probably continued to make a small quantity of broadcloth but were much more involved with cottage -based work such as low paid spinning and the other processes involved in producing the yarn. As a consequence their wealth decreased.