Lavenham's woolly wonders

PUBLISHED: 10:46 23 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:24 20 February 2013

Lavenham's woolly wonders

Lavenham's woolly wonders

The Guildhall of Corpus Christi is one of its most iconic buildings in Lavenham. But what lies behind the walls of this fascinating timber-framed property? The National Trust's Jane Gosling gives a hint of the colours to be seen

Lavenham is one of the best preserved Tudor villages in England and the National Trusts Guildhall of Corpus Christi is one of its most iconic buildings. But what lies behind the walls of this fascinating timber-framed property? Jane Gosling, the National Trusts house manager at the Guildhall, gives a hint of the colours to be seen

To the rear of Lavenham Guildhall is a tranquil courtyard garden, planted with dye plants which would once have been used to colour cloth. The thriving cloth trade in Lavenham, to which dyeing was essential, lasted well into the 16th century and brought great wealth to the village.
For centuries, plants have been used to produce colour. Although modern technology and chemicals have largely taken over, this traditional method of colouring cloth is being preserved by The Lavenham Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. They will be making an appearance at Lavenham Guildhall this month to reveal the secrets of dyeing, using natural (and some surprising) media.
The range of colours produced from each dye plant can vary greatly, depending on what is used as a mordant (chemical substance) to help the colours absorption by the fibre.
As well as dyeing, many of these plants also have medicinal purposes, such as agrimony, camomile and tansy, the stems of which produce a juice that in the past was used as a cold cure.
Explore Lavenhams garden for yourselves. Strategically positioned plant labels ensure that those less familiar with plants can identify the colourful varieties on display.

The dye plants of Lavenham

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)
Flowers produce a range of yellows through to ochre dyes. The leaves were once used as a tea infusion.
Camomile (Anthemis tinctoria)
Bright shades of yellow produced from the flower.
Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)
A member of the artichoke family. Despite its bright purple flower, it is the leaf tips which are used to produce green, yellow or grey.
Dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria)
A source of brilliant yellows which, mixed with woad, produces the traditional Lincoln Green.
Elecampane (Inula helenium)
The root of this impressively large plant produces a blue dye when wood ash is used as a mordant.
Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
A range of yellows from pale primrose to deep gold.
Ladys bedstraw (Galium verum)
The roots produce a striking range of colours from coral pink through to purple-reds.
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)
Simmered in soft water the leaves will produce olive and paler shades of green.
Madder (Rubia tinctoria)
In hard water produces a source of rich reds used for cosmetics and by artists.
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)
When an acid mordant is used the flower stigmas produce a pink or red dye.
Saw wort (Serratula tinctoria)
Picked in full bloom the flower is a source of brilliant yellow.
St Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
The stalks produce brownish-red hues, the flower yellow.
Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
A range of yellows produced by the flower tops. Juice from the stems was used as a cold cure.
Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)
Leaves produce deep oranges through to dark browns, tops bright yellow.
Weld (Reseda luteola)
Also known as wild mignonette, the leaves, tops and stalks are used to produce bright yellow through to dark orange, depending on mordant.
Wild indigo (Indigofera tinctoria/suffruticosa)
Replaced the use of Woad. The tops and leaves are the oldest source of blue colour known to man.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria)
The leaves were used in their first growth year to produce the famous Lavenham Blewes broadcloth. Also used by illustrators, for tinting metals and for cosmetics. Second year leaves produce a violet or grey tint, depending on the mordant used.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
The entire plant is used to produce dark bronze and deep green colours.
Yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus)
The flowers produce a yellow dye, while spinners in the Hebrides still use the root to produce a deep black.

Also grown in the Guildhall garden is Fullers Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum sativus), used by cloth workers fixed to teasel bats, to raise the nap of the cloth. This variety has very hooked spikes which were ideal for the purpose.
Soapwort (saponaria officinalis) was used as an early detergent, to wash wool and cloth to remove grease from the fleece.

Latest from the EADT Suffolk Magazine