Clare is a historic market town. It came into prominence in the medieval period as the wool trade expanded, initially as wool was exported to the continent and then as wool was woven into broadcloth and its value rose. It became the greatest export from England to the continent.
The wool trade was an early example of a ‘Buy British‘ campaign. In 1571 an Act of Parliament decreed that all males over six years old should wear a woolen cap on Sundays or be fined. In 1574 the Statute of Apparel declared that the purchase of ‘ unnecessary foreign wares’ contributed to the ‘decay of the wealth of the realm’. Woolen goods made outside the country were forbidden. On the other hand, noblemen were exempt from both laws – one rule for the rich…… In 1700 the Calico Act banned imported such cloths to preserve the woolen industry; in 1721 protectionism continued, cotton being banned (Source: History Today, August 2017, p58-9).
The trade centred in Suffolk: ease of access to ports, a standardised high quality product. Lavenham may have offered the finest material, a deep blue cloth, marked with a fleur-de-lys, sold as far as Russia and Turkey, but all across Suffolk, there were towns, villages and hamlets producing cloth. By the sixteenth century, the industry declined as other sources of wool and finer cloths were established, but left behind some of the finest buildings in England.
Today four places retain their medieval centres, streets lined with timber-frame buildings, elegant churches filled with light: Hadleigh, Lavenham, Long Melford and Clare itself. These are the classic Suffolk Wool Towns. Across Suffolk & Essex, there are many wool-weaving locations, from the greater towns such as Sudbury or Hadleigh to small villages such as Kersey, Cavendish or Coggeshall. Yet it is in the four key wool towns that the medieval heart still beats most strongly.
Enjoy our wool towns – their intimate pleasures of houses and churches amidst modern delights: shops, pubs, leisure pursuits, restaurants, walks, antiques & art galleries………
from West to East
These five towns have formed a Wool Towns Association to promote their locations and surrounding attractions, now with its own website.
The Wool Towns area is the majority of Babergh and Braintree District Council areas, including parts of Colchester Borough, St Edmundsbury, Mid Suffolk and Tendring District Council. A more detailed map is available here on the Suffolk County Council website: note this map is taken from the rural funding programme LEADER to support development in the Wool Towns. Larger non-rural conurbations like Sudbury or Halstead are excluded from the programme though they were historically involved in the wool trade.
The best source for information on the architecture of the Wool Towns is Suffolk: West, The Buildings of England, Bettley & Pevsner, Yale 2015. ISBN 978 0 300 19655 9.
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