The Norwich stuffs required worsted yarns made from combed long-staple fleece with good lustre. The wool supply was vital to the entire industry. The different breeds of sheep produce fleeces of varying types and qualities. Each is more or less suitable for particular types of cloth. There is variation in fineness and length of staple, degree of lustre and suitability for dyeing.
Norwich weavers relied on wool from Norfolk and Suffolk medieval times. East Anglia dominated wool production and grew wealthy on its profits, and wool was the most important English Export. In an effort to benefit from this, the idea of a wool staple was created to control and ensure continuity of supply. Norwich operated as a staple in 1353, bringing great business opportunity with it.
As the volume of cloth production grew, the city drew on wool from counties further afield like Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. To keep pace with the 18th century industry, wool was imported from Ireland.
Image of fleece from Norwich Trade token
Different breeds of sheep produce vastly different types of wool. The variations include fineness and length of the staple, softness of handle, crimp, colour and lustre. Different types of cloth required wool with different characteristics.
Wool sorters and wool combers were the craftsmen who processed the fleece before the yarn could be spun.
Wool Sorters identified the correct quality of fleece for a specific cloth. This was essential to ensure top quality fabrics and required a high level of skill. The wool sorter worked at a bench incorporating a wire grill on which the fleece was unrolled. Badly soiled parts were discarded, and then the fleece was sorted by sight and touch into wool of the various qualities found in the different parts of each fleeces. It was a highly skilled job. Best qualities were found on the shoulders, sides and back.
The next trade involved were the wool combers. The sorted fleece was opened up on a bench with a wire grill or beating hurdle. It was beaten with a stick to rid it of impurities. The wool was then washed, scoured, dried and grease such as whey butter was added to it. Hot combs would run through this greased wool (known as tops) easily.
Wool Combers used two large wooden combs with rows of sturdy iron teeth. One comb was set up right on a post and charged with fleece. The other comb was heated by in a pot of burning charcoal and was then was drawn though the fleece to remove the short staple fibres, known as noils. These were used in other cloths such as Dornix. The long staple left after combing was called a sliver. It was long and silky with parallel fibres.
Fleece from short-staple fleeces was treated in a different way wool carders, usually women and children. It was carded to produce rolags for spinning. The resulting yarn was used for broadcloths rather than worsteds.
Fleece on Norwich trade token
Comb for worsted yarn and sliver, Bridewell Museum
Wool cards, Bridewell Museum
Image of wool-combers, enlarged from trade card, Bridewell Museum