Shepton’s medieval cloth, broadcloth, was most often dyed blue. The dye used was woad, the root of a plant still grown and used by some artisans for dying today. Although ancient Britons used it to colour their faces to scare the Roman invaders, by the mid 15th century Shepton clothiers were importing woad in large quantities via west country ports. In those times, broadcloth was dyed ‘in the piece’, i.e. after the cloth had been woven. You may be interested to know that they used the outdated measure of a ‘pipe’ to measure the quantities they bought. A pipe (also called a butt) was 1008 pints or 126 gallons of liquid.
Shepton was not the only area to produce blue cloth and records exist for Coventry and probably other places too. White cloth was also produced, although we’ve yet to confirm this in Shepton, and the undyed cloth was typically sent to the Continent to be dyed with a range of colours that England couldn’t match at that time. In the middle ages, our country did not have the capability to produce the large range of cloth colours that Flemish people (from Flanders), in particular, could. The dye recipes and techniques used were secret, jealously guarded and passed down verbally from father to son. Once dyed, the coloured cloth was then imported back into England.
Today, Flanders spans parts of present-day Belgium, Netherlands and north-eastern France.
The step-change in our country’s fortunes came about around 1550. After his father, Henry VIII, had dissolved the monasteries, the Protestant Edward VI decided to incentivise land owners to bring over persecuted Protestant artisans – we call them Huguenots today – for the purpose of establishing a fine cloth industry in England. Locally, Edward Seymour, the first Duke of Somerset, brought over 203 people from the Strasbourg area to live on his newly-acquired land at Glasonbury Abbey. They set up a complete manufacturing unit within the precincts of the Abbey itself and it thrived making fine cloth of many colours for a number of years.
But it was not to last; when Edward died in 1553, he was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary I (called ‘Bloody Mary’), an ardent Catholic who set about persecuting the Huguenots and other protestants. As a result, the leaders of the Glastonbury community fled for their lives to Germany and the remainder of the contingent simply melted away into the local community.
Around this time, Shepton clothiers began to produce different coloured cloths, perhaps utilising the dissipated Huguenot skills. The use of diverse varieties of plants, many different techniques of making each dye, a variety of different methods of making the colour fast (i.e. the colour remaining the same after washing) and dying ‘in the wool’, i.e. colouring before weaving to ensure greater permanence, appeared around this time.
Dye houses were places where dyers made their potions; bubbling vats produced noxious fumes. Invariably they were sited next to a river which facilitated the boiling, cooling and washing parts of the processes.