Fulling at Flortfordmelle

Engraving of a man operating an ancient fulling paddle

Ancient fulling paddle

The Domesday Book of 1087 mentions a mill at Flatford and records William the Conqueror’s decision to keep  it  for himself.  So there was a mill at Flatford in Anglo Saxon times when it would have been a corn mill.

In the late 14th Century the Manor Court Rolls contain a record of a fulling mill at Flatford that was called Flortfordmelle. Fulling was a cleaning and pounding process that made woven cloth whiter, more compact, thicker and more durable.  Earliest methods of fulling involved sprinkling woven cloth with fullers’ earth. The cloth was then folded into a tub or ridged board with water and people would pound it with their feet.


diagram of fulling wheel and paddle

Fulling Wheel & Paddle

Mechanised Fulling

Newly woven (but dirty) woolen cloth was placed into fulling stocks along with water and fullers earth

Fullers Earth is a powdery, soapy clay that absorbs grease. It is still used today in cleaning products and cosmetics such as mudpacks

River water was channelled into the fulling stock under the tappet wheel causing it to rotate. The rotation drove the wooden hammers attached to the tappit wheel onto the fabric, pounding the dirt out of the cloth and closing the weave.

Photo of tenter hooks

Tenter Hooks

Once ‘fulled’, the cloth was dried and stretched – called “tentering” –  on tenterhooks.

When dry and fully stretched  the cloth was dyed, brushed with teasels to raise the pile and  trimmed of loose threads.

Cloth produced by Fulling

Old Draperies was the name given to a type of rough broadcloth produced by ‘fulling’

  • Old Draperies was coarse, prickly to the skin, smelled unpleasant when wet but thick, warm and hard wearing
  • By 1400 villages along the River Stour were major producers of this type of cloth
  • By 1520 this area in East Anglia was the wealthiest in the country outside London with most cloth being exported through London
  • After peaking in the early 16th century it then declined.  By 1600 production had almost ceased  due to the introduction of the spinning wheel in the 1540s, religious wars in Germany and the Low Countries which upset the East Anglian trade and allowed local producers to to take over, a change in world trade patterns to India,  Africa and then America (these countries didn’t want heavy warm cloth) and the importation of newer fabrics from Europe

New Draperies was the name given to a lighter and cheaper cloth produced in the late 16th and early 17th century.

  • New Draperies was produced by Protestant Dutch weavers arriving in Suffolk to escape religious persecution –
  • These weavers brought skills unknown to England at that time resulting in lighter, finer, brightly coloured cloths often referred to as ‘bays and says’.
  • The New Draperies peaked around 1650 before declining slowly – by 1800 New Draperies had almost died out
  • The reason for the decline was the refusal of East Anglia’s cloth workers to accept mechanisation,  the growth of the cotton trade in the north west of England, the growth of mechanised cloth production in the west country and Yorkshire – many East Anglian cloth workers eventually moved to these areas

Flatford Fulling Mill

  • The wool produced by East Anglian sheep was very poor quality and not suitable for good quality cloth.
  • So East Anglia, unlike the Cotswolds, cound not make money from rearing sheep – East Anglia made money by making cloth using a process called ‘fulling’.
  • The Manor Court Rolls contain a record of a fulling mill at Flatford that was called ‘Flotfordmelle’ in the late 14th century.
  • By the 1470s Suffolk produced more cloth from its mechanised fulling mills than any other county in England.
  • Flatford Mill continued to ‘full’ wool until around 1700 when the East Anglian cloth industry died out – it first concentrated itself in the larger towns of Ipswich and Colchester before moving north to Yorkshire

Rise of Flour Mills 

  • As sheep farming and rural textile industries declined, people were forced to move from the countryside to work in new towns and city factories.
  • As the town populations swelled a huge demand for bread was created.
  • Suffolk farmers could make more money from growing grain (to be made into bread) than from grazing sheep for the wool and cloth trade.
  • Mill owners (including the owners of Flatford Mill) converted their mills so that they could grind grain into flour.

Fullers Teasels

Dried Teasel seed heads were inserted into ‘teasel frames’ and used to scrape the ‘fulled’ woollen cloth to raise the ‘nap’, making the surface fluffier and softer. The name ‘teasel’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon meaning “tease wool”.  Fullers Teasel  (Dipsacus Fullorum syn. sativas) differs from the wild type of teasel we see growing today in having stout, somewhat recurved spines on the seed heads (see 2nd and 3rd images below).