Sunday, October 22, 2017

Laken a Woolen

There were a number of different types of fabrics made with sheep's wool. One particular type found in both New Netherland and New York is "Laken", but I have yet to of found it in New England. Laken is a tricky word in some respects because the fabric was so popular that the word "Laken" when used in the Netherlands, become synominous with the word for "cloth" in general. When English dictionaries such as the "A copious English and Netherdutch Dictionary" published in 1675  translates Laken into English, it is the generalized term that is used. However, manufacturers continued to use the term "laken" for only "fulled" made with Merino wool fabrics; otherwise it is predicated with the exact type of fabric as in "serge laken". We are lucky to have extant swatches of woolens from the 17th, 18th & 19th century. 

Photo 1: 17th century chair and fabric, fabric is Laken in Green made in the City of Leiden Laken, Museum de Laken

Laken is a woolen,made from Spanish merino wool, woven in the City of Leiden, is thick and "fulled". In a modern experiment to recreate 15th century laken from Leiden by the "Eindhoven" Museum a 2/2-twill was chosen "because fulled 2/2-twills are found in archaeological excavated textiles from e.g. "Groningen" in Holland". ....In a guild guid, different types of laken came in different widths for instance, one type was an 80 twist, which has a 80 port of 30 threads per portee or 2400 threads in the width of the fabric and is 15 quarters of an ell wide with one ell being about 69 centimeters so a finished product was 260 centimeters wide. The study said the fabric was about 9 threads per centimeter. However, the Eindhoven fabric was woven with 10 threads per centimeter in the warp and 8 threads per cm in the weft. The fabric is cleansed with bentonite or "fuller's" earth, then rinsed in a pond. Then a basin is fulled with urine, melted butter and water to create a soapy mixture where the fabric was placed. This mixture does the fulling work over 11 hours and then it is rinsed in the pond again. More can be read in the "Reconstructing 15th century Laken" by Anton Rearing and Katherine Vestergard Pedersen. 

The finished product was fuzzy on the inside, had long smooth threads on the outside making it water resistant, is warmer than woolens and more durable than felt. So, it is not surprising to see petticoats being made out of it. In 1638, a court record states that "Cornelis Petersen [male] declared that "Annetje" [female] had sold him a hog and purchased in return of him purple laken sufficient for a petticoat." In another court record from 1667, Madam Cornelia de Vos is seen wearing on her person, "...a green laken petticoat..." Laken is found in inventories from the 1641 "...a "staal" gray lined petticoat..." to when the English received sovereign control of New Netherland (New York, New Jersey, Delaware) in 1667, through to the 1680s and 90s. 

The definition of "Cloth" according to the Leiden Laken Museum: "cloth noun (pl. cloths) : 1. [mass noun] a woollen fabric that is first woven and next fulled, which renders it warmer than woven fabric, but stronger than felt. Cloth fabric is used to manufacture clothes, but also for upholstery of furniture and walls."

While we can't be sure if the "1 new purple apron" in a 1641 inventory is laken - though we know there was a supplier of purple laken in the colony - in 1643 there was in a man's inventory, "1 old mantle of colored laken". In a 1651 men's inventory laken is found in several garments, whereas, the word "stuff" is also used to distinguish mixed woolens in the same inventory. 

one colored laken coat
1 suit of colored laken with a narrow braid
1 suit of black laken, 
1 remnant of laken
one colored laken dress, half worn
one black woolen stuff for a short cloak 

In a 1659 inventory, there is "a black brocade man's coat, a pair of dark colored laken breeches, a square box with: a pair of gray "fulled" man's stockings...". There is also "dark stuff man's shirt..." and another "pair of "fulled" man's stockings". 

Photo above: a Laken swatch card from 1688 made in City of Leiden, Museum de Laken- Top to bottom: Scarlet, "Dark green", Crimson, "graraas", Crimson (II), beige, "Blummer" (Flower?) Sense, "Caffee" Color. Photo below: a close up of the filled fabrics. 

Later inventories show the continued use of laken despite fashion changes. While silk is in inventories since the 1640s, it is no longer used in only Sunday suits or "best dress".  By the 1650s suits, gowns, and petticoats are made of silk. Cotton is also found since the 1640s as is other thinner weight wool fabrics. But by the 1650s wardrobes become more diverse in their fabric selections. Despite this, laken - often written as "cloth" - is found in inventories while the colony is under English sovereign rule. While the question of whether a garment labeled as "red cloth" is laken or not is not perfect; the listing of other garments and their fabric as was the case with "laken" vs. "stuff" helps clarify its use. In later inventories we see the use of cloth, serge, kersey, and stuff, but not "woolen" unless it is used to describe stockings and caps or as a category header for a list of woolens. 

A 1678 inventory listed the following:

A broad “cloath” “coats” a “pare” of “Carsy” [Kersey] “Britches” 03:10:00, 
a “pare” “sarg” [serge] “trorosors” e a stuff coat L03:00:00 
a broad “cloath” “coate” a “sarge” [serge] duffet” e “pase” “britches” L03:00:00,  
“seven “pare” of home made stockings  L01:08:00, 
two “pare” of worsted "stock"…L00:10:00, 
a winter coat a “dublet” e a “pare” of “cloath” britches L03:00:00, 

Photo 3: 18th century breeches made of Laken from City of Leiden, Museum de Laken

Considering laken's use as a winter fabric, it is not surprising to see it still being used nearing the end of the 17th century in breeches with a winter coat. Laken mentioned as cloth continues to show up in inventories into the 18th century. The Laken industry was hight through the 16th and into the 17th century, declined for a few decades and then picked back up going into the 18th century and continued into the early 19th century.  The reason Laken made a come back is because it was made from fine merino wool, whereas many heavy woolens were made from good but not great wool. This allowed these companies to survive competition from other nations that did not use merino wool. 

Thank you for exploring Laken with with me !


  1. Great post, I'll follow your blog with interest!

  2. I searched for "laken" & "lakin" in the several sources with no hits. I first thought it might show up in Made in Norwich: 700 Years of Textile Heritage but it wasn't there. Interesting post.

  3. Its possible that because it translates as "Cloth" into English, it is overlooked. It also may turn up in some markets more than others. Laken is found in New York but there was a archeological dig in England that turned up a "cloth" at low rates compared to the other ones in the 16th century. But that it also was not an English made cloth.

  4. What period document describes this fabric as being made of merino wool? I thought you were citing it in "A copious English and Netherdutch Dictionary" but "merino" is not in that book.

  5. The researcher JOHN MUNRO studies wool fabrics from primary sources and archeological digs. He cites that high end fabrics (Those granted a "seal") made in the Netherlands are made from English wool or Spanish merino wool. And lower end wool fabrics are made from domestic Holland, Ireland, and near by sources. But in the beginning only England had good wool, according to archeological digs, textiles made in Flanders using English wool were superior to all other textiles. Prior to 1428, English wools (from March, Cotswold, Berkshire) were the predominant import for fine wool textiles. During this time, "Flemish nouvelles draperies certainly do rank Spanish wools well below the second grade English wools, and sometimes even below Scottish wools." Then in 1428 in a new charter, and at first only low quality Spanish wool was imported for cheap textiles. By 1451, manufacture started importing second grade wool from Spain as noted in the Flemish–Castilian trade treaty. Then Flanders merchants started buying Spanish merino wool textiles, and Leiden also adopted this... then unadopted because the Spanish wool was still not high enough quality. "Subsequently, in 1483, the Hanse kontor at Bruges offered a contract to the Oudenaarde drapery to make woollens of Spanish wool, ‘in the style of those from Poperinge’, to be sold exclusively to Hanse merchants; and indeed the contract specified that the woollens (raemlaken) were to be made solely from good, mature Spanish wools. In 1525, we see Spain improving their breed of sheep, "English merchant named Clement Armstrong, in his Treatise Concerning the Staple and the Commodities of this Realme, similarly contended that Spanish wools had to be mixed with English wools to produce cloths of ‘durable weryng’; but he also voiced the current opinion that ‘Spaynish woll is almost as good as English woll, which may well be soo, by that Spayn hath housbondid ther wolle from wurse to better, and England from better to wurst’." However, English wool was still being blended in with the Spanish because the English wool had better fulling properties. It wasn't until the end of the 16th Century that Spanish merino caught up and began to be imported in high quantities. From the book, " The Rise and Decline of Dutch Technological Leadership" (2 Vols): "It has been estimated that in the middle of the seventeenth century about four-fifth of all Spanish wool exports found its to the Dutch Republic". It is a good book because he translates all the primary sources for English readers. Alternatively, "Leidsche Lakenindustrie" Van Gurp can be referenced. Leiden's Laken industry continued into the 19th Century.