Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 1765 (1)



Detail of the Exeter cloth dispatch book shows several wool samples and their associated bale-mark. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives. For full reference to this document please see link at foot of page

Late last year I was contacted by a friend with a very interesting proposal. She had been invited to write a chapter on dyes and dyeing for a ‘book about a book’ and asked if I would be interested in co-authoring. A very rare, cloth merchant’s dispatch book had been found in the London Metropolitan Archives by Todd Gray, a well-known Exeter-based historian, and as yet – amazingly – no-one had made a study of it.

Todd was editing a book (Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 5) about his find, to be published by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society (DCRS) this autumn. He was assembling specialist authors to write chapters giving a wide context to the dispatch book. These were to include a history of Exeter’s cloth merchants, the archaeology of the cloth industry in Exeter, fulling mills, Exeter’s dyers, lead cloth merchants’ seals, and tillet blocks (look them up, they’re fascinating). And, of course, a chapter on dyes and dyeing.

A dispatch book is neither a ‘sales‘ book to show potential customers, nor a dyer’s book recording dyestuffs and recipes. It records dyed cloth sold, in this case exported, between 1763 and 1765, and relates to the South West. There are bale-marks drawn on many pages. It is a collection of wool cloth samples (all 2,475 of them) and was the one-time property of a wealthy Swiss émigré of Huguenot descent, named Claude Passavant. Passavant had strong connections to the city of Exeter and in the 1750s established a factory producing high quality Gobelin-style carpets there; he was also a cloth merchant. 

The friend who invited me to co-author is Jenny Balfour Paul, a world authority on indigo. In the early 1990s I attended one of her lectures at the Crafts Council in London and her knowledge and enthusiasm for indigo pushed me in the entirely new direction of natural dyes, and we also became friends. So I wasn’t going to say no, was I?


Four figured fabrics from the Exeter cloth dispatch book. The bale mark from the page reverse can be seen in mirror image, bottom centre. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives. For full reference to this document please see link at foot of page

Colours are hard to describe, but in my vocabulary the range covered in the dispatch book includes scarlets, dusty and dark salmon pinks, russets, golden browns, tans, beiges, and all manner of blues. There are soft watery-blue-greens, olive and grassy greens and there are blacks and greys. There are several figured weaves among the samples. We have no dye analysis for these cloths but we could make educated guesses about how they were dyed by studying contemporary sources, and literature. Together with Dominique Cardon and Anita Quye, Jenny has been researching the Crutchley Archive, an important set of pattern, recipe and account books from the eighteenth century Crutchley dyeing business in Southwark. This source, and Jenny’s knowledge of it, was a vital part of our interpreting the likely dyes and chemicals used in the dispatch book. We also researched Standerwick’s Somerset Pattern Book (c 1760) located in the Somerset Heritage Centre, maps and journals held at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter and other papers located by Todd Gray in Devon archives.


UPDATE January 2021

The publication of this book, originally scheduled for Autumn 2020, was postponed as a result of the pandemic. It is now scheduled for release on 19th February 2021 and can be ordered from the publishers Boydell and Brewer here


London Metropolitan Archives 

Cloth book of an Exeter wool merchant, 1763-1765 (London Metropolitan Archives, City of London reference CLC/B/227/MS09803)

Somerset Heritage Centre

Standerwick’s Somerset Pattern Book at Somerset Heritage Centre: SHC, A/ALU/1, ‘John Standerwick of Rydiness [Buckland St Mary] and Hermitage [Broadway], 1717-1777’

Devon Heritage Centre

Devon and Cornwall Record Society homepage

Extract from full bibliography used in chapter 

Crutchley Archive: Anita Quye, Dominique Cardon and Jenny Balfour Paul‘The Crutchley Archive: red colours on wool fabrics from master dyers in Southwark, London 1716-1744’ in Textile History (forthcoming 2020)

By Dominique Cardon: Mémoires de teinture: Voyage dans le temps chez un maître des couleurs (Paris, 2013); The Dyer’s Handbook: Memoirs of an 18th Century Master Colourist (Oxford and Philadelphia, 2016); Des couleurs pour les Lumières: Antoine Janot, teinturier occitan 1700-1778 (Paris, 2019);  Le Cahier de Couleurs d’Antoine Janot /Workbook, Antoine Janot’s Colours (Paris, 2020).

William Partridge: A Practical Treatise on the Dying of Woollen Cloth, Cotton and Skein Silk (New York, 1823)

Carolyn Griffiths, ‘Woad to This’ and the Cloth Trade of Frome (Frome, 2017)

7 thoughts on “Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 1765 (1)

  1. Pingback: The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 5 | The Rainbow Angel

  2. I lived for 25 years 2 miles from Sheepwash in a grade 2 listed cob and thatch cottage called Duckpool no sign of a pool some said Tucking stool ?
    I would be interested in learning more about the cloth trade in Devon so put me down for a copy of the book when it comes out.

    • Hello Jane, of course – I know the cottage – it’s where Svend Bayer lived. I hadn’t ever connected the name of the cottage with sheep and wool so thank you for mentioning this. The name Sheepwash, however, is too big a giveaway for even me to miss! Sorry, but I can’t put you down for a copy of the book as I will not be distributing them myself. You’ll need to do this online via the publishers here:
      If you want to contact me privately please use the contact facility on my website. Thank you for getting in touch. Best wishes Isabella

  3. Hello Isabella

    I hope this email finds you well.

    I have just read the following article with some amazement:

    Since the first lockdown in 2020 I have been working on a series of collages (one a day) based on Dartmoor landscapes and nature.
    Following a career in design and academia this has been a project that has helped me move through this difficult time.
    It has also helped me make the transition from designer to artist.

    You can see some examples of collages on my Instagram:
    I hope you will spot the similarities with Devon cloth (which until today I knew nothing about)
    I have thought for some time that my work might well translate into fabric/textiles.

    The new finding is so exciting and I’d love to know more about it when you have time.

    Let me know about your new book please

    Best wishes and stay safe

    David Smart
    Artist / Designer

    • Thank you for writing, David. It was very exciting to be involved in the research on this amazing book. Last year, UNESCO inscribed the Crutchley Archive into the UK’s Memory of the World Register: its a dye archive from Southwark, London, of immense cultural and scientific importance. My co-author, Jenny Balfour-Paul, was directly involved in research on the Crutchley Archive so I was very lucky to work with her on an Exeter project of a similar date. Dye archives are precious because they survive so rarely. That the Crutchley archive has achieved such prominence in this past year shows growing realisation that the skilled work of past dyers played a major part in commerce as well as fashion, the development of chemistry etc. The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book gives us more local insights.

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