Did the Dutch Weavers even exist?

Since our last newsletter we have reinvented our interpretation of the Dutch ‘Weavers’, now understanding that weaving was just one of the many roles they had, and that they are more accurately referred to as the ‘Flemish Bay makers’. This article discusses our recent findings and conclusions on the identity of the previously known ‘Dutch Weavers’.

This project was made possible with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

 

Recent research

Festive finds

Today, many of us tend to be disappointed to receive clothes for Christmas. However, back in the 19th century receiving clothes would have been far more exciting. In 1862, Hyam Hyam, a Jewish migrant from Hamburg, set up his clothes dealer in St Botolph Street, Colchester. His family are regarded as the pioneers of ready-made tailoring. Many other Jewish families accompanied him in establishing ready-made tailoring shops in Colchester. One of which is still running on the high street today: Moss Bros, the well established British menswear company, were one of the pioneers of men’s fashion. The trade began with uniforms for people working on trains and in the forces and expanded out to mens garments, summer blouses, and overcoats. Eventually women’s ready-made tailoring developed under Hyam’s family business in the 20th century.

Another interesting find is that the Flemish migrants did not only bring over the manufacture of bay and say, but introduced some of our Essex traditions. Before the Flemish Bay Makers arrived in the 16th century, Flemish migrants came to Essex from the 12th century. Some came to sell clog shoes. Centuries later these shoes were worn whilst the Flemish Bay Makers were working on the loom and the rhythm created a tune that inspired the first clog dance, a typical Essex tradition. They also introduced farming as an activity that anyone could partake in (previously only the rich farmed), and the act of parchment making. We owe our thanks to the Flemish if any of us are farming our own vegetables, writing letters on parchment or even practicing clog dancing for Christmas.

Dutch Weavers or Flemish Bay Makers?

Further research and meetings with professors from the University of Essex who have researched the Dutch Quarter has revealed that the so-called ‘Dutch Weavers’ are inaccurately named. Whilst we knew that they were not Dutch, (the name came from the language they spoke and the misinterpretation from the contemporary English bay makers) we had assumed they were all weavers. In fact, weaving was just one of the many stages in the process, and only one of the many job opportunities the Flemish migrants brought over. The roles involved wool combers, cloth workers, scrubblers, spinsters, weavers, fullers, throwsters, dyers and merchants. This meant that the bay making process was vast and complex, generating many job opportunities and wealth for Colchester. In order to represent this, we are reframing the Flemish migrants as ‘Flemish Bay Makers’ rather than ‘Dutch Weavers’.

Flemish Court sign in the Dutch Quarter, Colchester.

How are we telling these stories in our workshops?

Textiles Workshop: Threads of History

We have been running a textiles workshop with Kirsta and the Textile Collective in Community 360 where we have learnt many craft skills whilst discussing the textile history of Colchester. It has been an invaluable asset to our project as the textiles experts have helped us understand the terminology used in the research of the bay making process, as well as demonstrating techniques that would have been similar to those the bay makers used. We have practiced spinning fleece with drop spindles and on spinning wheels, cording and rope making, inkle loom weaving, frame weaving, table loom weaving, and felting. The weaving skills particularly helped us wrap our heads around terms such as weft and warp. Whilst gaining skills and experimenting with the research, we theorised over unknown aspects of the process and all developed a greater interest and understanding of the skills the Flemish Bay Makers brought to Colchester.

One of our participants demonstrating the inkle loom weaving technique.

 

Dutch Quarter made from felt alongside information about the bay making process at the Textiles Workshop.

Teasels found near Firstsite, historically used to raise the nap of bay. These were found after we had discussed their use in a Textiles Workshop, and the fact that they were grown in Essex for the bay manufacture. We talked about how they may have used them in the following session. It is fascinating to see elements of Colchester’s history popping up in the town where the concrete has been disturbed.

We would like to say a big thank you to everyone who came along to our Textiles Workshops and practiced the historically significant techniques we have been researching.


 

Workshops with the people of Essex

We have been building a portfolio of the people living in Essex by visiting a variety of communities and teaching them animation skills using felt designs of their faces. The Bangladeshi Women’s Society, the participants at Martello tower (Jaywick), the staff at Level Best, and the community at Bridgeway all expressed their enjoyment of making themselves out of felt and expressing their self-identity through animation. Whilst completing the workshops, we chatted about their experiences in Essex and taught them about the importance of textiles in Colchester, which often encouraged conversations about their textile work or traditions. It has been fascinating to meet many different groups of people and learn about their community and culture.

Participants at our workshops animating their hand-crafted faces.

Want to attend Digital Club?

This term of Digital Club has focused on video game making. We have been learning how games are a powerful way to tell stories, exploring how visual novels can represent real stories and real people in anonymous and emotional ways that have a lasting impact on the player. In one of our most anticipated sessions, we had a video call with Corey Brotherson, who is currently writing the Windrush Tales game. We had a very interesting conversation about how to represent real people and their stories in games, and what elements of gameplay enable the player to understand the experiences of other people. Our current task is to create a game with the theme of ‘journeys’, taking into consideration the lessons learnt about sharing real stories and engaging the player.

Here we were planning a game using BAFTA game idea generator cards to spark our creativity. If you want to give the idea generator a try, you can find their online version here.

Do you want to make your own historical video game? We have a handy guide on how you can do this at home! Click here for more information.

What is coming up and what do we want to learn

Middle Mill oil painting, 1880-1890, Colchester Museum Collections.

We would love to take our textile skills further to understand the process of bay making. We are excited in Digital Club to be making games based on what we have learnt about sharing stories in this medium. We are also looking forward to many upcoming workshops with a range of groups to continue to build our collection of faces whilst learning about the lives and history of the People of Essex. Other exciting opportunities include site visits to the places mentioned in our research, particularly Middle Mill which we walk past in the park every day but have only just learnt about its history. Middle Mill had a fulling mill added to it by 1405, reflecting the expansion of the bay manufacture. We look forward to the new year when we plan on visiting Norwich Strangers’ Museum and Colchester Museum Collections to learn more about bay.

We would love to hear from local textiles and craft artists to learn the history of their craft. We are also looking to get involved with schools, craft groups, migrant communities and anyone who has a relation or interest to our project. If you would like to get involved please email info@signals.org.uk.

By Jenny Harris

Researcher at Signals.