Diss is a thriving market town with a population of nearly 8,000. Recent studies of the mud under the famous Diss Mere have shown evidence of hemp and flax cultivation which first appeared with Anglo-Saxon settlements in the area from the 5th Century AD.
A snapshot of our local textile heritage
Our local heritage and its prominence in the wealth of the nation can be traced back for many centuries. Diss (as a market town) and the wealth of Norfolk (for many years Norwich was the second city of the realm) are due to the importance of textiles and, in particular, to two plant and one animal fibre, both of which ‘grew’ well in the area.
The two important plant fibres are hemp and flax. They both grow well in damp conditions – well suited to the area surrounding the Waveney valley. Linen is often given as the name of the fabric woven from both of these. For many years the production of such cloth was a cottage industry, with many men being both linen weavers and working the land as farmers – even if of a small parcel of land. Hemp appears to have been the main crop and all the family are likely to have been involved in the production. Most of the population would have been involved in this and it has been noted that a rood of hemp would have paid the rent for a year. In earlier times when parishes looked after their own paupers, growing such a crop is likely to have helped the wealth of the county by having fewer poor! In the 1600s Diss is noted as being an outstanding producer, with linen listed as the main item sold at the market, the cloth was mainly for the domestic market. Some of the areas around Diss became particularly well known for the linen, e.g. The Lophams. Many places still retain names associated with this: e.g. Hempnall, Blo’Norton (which is thought to come from ‘blae’ from the woad that was grown there for dyeing blue) and locations: e.g. Flax Farm; also, surnames derive from this: e.g. Webster.
The animal fibre that was so important is wool, and the term ‘golden fleece’ has been coined for this. Many of the great churches in East Anglia are known as ‘wool churches’ due to wealth from wool being used in their construction. The economic importance of sheep to the area was noted as far back as the Domesday Book. The local breed of sheep, the Norfolk Horn was well suited to the poor quality of the Breckland sandy soils. They were important in adding fertility to the soil and contributed to the Norfolk four-course system before the end of the 17th century. What may seem strange to us now is that sheep owners then would not think about eating the meat of these animals until they were elderly and the fleece was worthless.
Which came first the hemp and flax or the sheep in terms of source of fibre locally for cloth making? It is impossible to tell; evidence of linen from pollen has been found as noted above, but such evidence from wool is less easily obtainable as fibres rot. It is likely that the two coincided. There are many associated skills between harvesting the fibre and the production of dyed cloth – spinning, weaving, bleaching, dyeing and also the associated wood working industries in the production of the tools for the different processes. Weaving and dyeing were particularly skilled jobs. Both involved a seven year apprenticeship, followed by being a journeyman before becoming a master weaver. Often the skills were kept in the family with sons learning their trade from their fathers. The dyers in particular guarded their recipes with some being said to have destroyed dye books just prior to death! Of particular note is the importance of knitting in the area with 70,000 pairs of stockings being exported through Gt Yarmouth in the 1620s.
So ‘spinning, weaving, dyeing and knitting’ seems to be in the blood of local people!
Here is a snapshot of what you can see if you visit Diss now – in terms of textiles:
- The The Heritage Triangle area of Diss contains many independent shops e.g. designermakers21 is an historic shop with local design craftspeople (opposite the Corn Hall; open Thursday to Saturday, 10–5) and also interesting buildings – take a look at Weavers Wine bar and Diss Antiques (by the Church) to name but two!
- The Corn Hall is a thriving arts venue run by a trust. It re-opens at the start of May following a £3 million pound refurbishment. It is situated at the ‘top’ of The Heritage Triangle.
- Diss Museum is an award winning community museum in the Market place which is open from mid-March to October 11–3 and contains exhibits about the area
- The market is held on a Friday in the market place
- An auction is held on Friday mornings at Diss Auction Rooms, Gaze’s Saleground on Roydon Road. You might have seen this on TV, and there is usually something of textile interest for sale.
We hope this has sparked your interest, do get in touch if you think we can help you, or you wish to learn about weaving, spinning and/or dyeing. Please contact us if you can contribute more about the history of these skills in the locality.