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Garenmarket: woven into the fabric of Leiden

From cloth to serge and from ‘frame lands’ to a wool factory. Archaeologist and historian Roos van Oosten was pleasantly surprised by what she found out about Garenmarkt in Leiden. The historical research on the site of the new car park, which opens to the public on 19 February, has added a new chapter to Leiden’s textile history.

In 2017, work began on a new car park in the centre of Leiden, under Garenmarkt. Motorists will be able to use it from 20 February. Alongside compulsory archaeological research at the construction site, historical research was conducted into the square and surrounding area. This research was led by historian and archaeologist Roos van Oosten.

Detail of a map (1581) from a work by Lodovico Guiccardini. Along the canal are three plots with frames to dry cloth. Above the right-hand plot is the Garenmarkt block.

New housing estate

The Garenmarkt block was a 15th-century housing estate, says Van Oosten. ‘The first houses appeared on the street that we now call Garenmarkt, but was then known as Oosterlingplaats. Houses on Raamsteeg, Zijdgracht and Levendaal followed shortly afterwards. At the end of the 19th century, there are just under 30 houses on the four streets and a gateway leading to where the poorest of them all lived.’ Garenmarkt was the chicest of the four streets from the very outset, with grand imposing houses. The houses on the other three streets were much plainer. Garenmarkt was later extended to what today is Hoefstraat.

As the maps show and the name Raamsteeg [literally: Frame Alley] suggests: adjoining Garenmarkt were the raamlanden [literally: frame lands], fields where the manufactured Leiden cloth was stretched and dried. ‘These fields brought life to the neighbourhood,’ says Van Oosten.


Before mechanisation, the woollen cloth produced by weavers – Leiden cloth – was felted by fullers: tough, dirty work. Fulling strengthened the fabric and made it water resistant, but the process itself – pounding the cloth with your feet in fulling tubs filled with water and urine – caused the fabric to shrink. It was therefore stretched on frames after it had been treated to stretch it again while it dried. Many fullers lived on Levendaal and Zijdgracht. They brought the fulled fabric to the raamlanden.

Dr Roos van Oosten is both archaeologist and historian. Her work appears to have more of a historical focus. ‘That might actually be true. I regularly work with Leiden historians, something I enjoy enormously, but then again spatial thinking is something I’ve learned from archaeology. That means that I also have an eye for town development, for instance.’

Van Oosten was awarded a PhD in 2015 for her dissertation The Town, its Waste and the Cesspit (2015), and received a Veni grant in 2016 for research into cesspits and water supplies in a number of Dutch and Belgian towns, including Leiden. That research is ongoing.

Before work commenced on the Garenmarkt car park, she was asked whether she would be able to do historical research into the location. This is an integral part of the compulsory archaeological research that is carried out on this kind of project, in this case by archaeological company ADC-ArcheoProjecten. In her work Van Oosten was assisted by, among others, Arti Ponsen, a former employee of the University’s Administration and Central Services department. She is the first author of The Fatal Event: the Gunpowder Disaster in Leiden in 1807, which was published in 2007.

Lighter fabric: serge

Leiden was famous for its cloth, but this was very thick fabric. Van Oosten explains how once Leiden had been liberated from the Spanish occupation in 1574 the emphasis increasingly came to lie on other, lighter fabrics, including serge. This fabric was brought by the many refugees from the south who, fleeing from the Spanish, set up home in Leiden. Van Oosten: ‘The refugees brought change with them: their knowledge and skills. Their arrival also prompted a surge in building projects: the raamlanden were built upon in 1595 and the frames were banished to beyond the city limits.’ Only here and there on a bastion (a ‘bulge’ in the canal) was room for a few frames. The lively street scenes with fullers pushing their squeaking wheelbarrows to the raamlanden and drapers collecting the dry, stretched cloth disappeared.’

In the background of this painting by Isaac Claesz. Swanenburg (1537-1614) from Museum De Lakenhal is Oosterlingplaats, today’s Garenmarkt. The block of houses that was excavated can be seen on the left.

Cloth market moves to Garenmarkt

In 1632, the yarn market, which had always been held on Breestraat, moved to Garenmarkt [literally Yarn Market], and the old name Oosterlingplaats was replaced by Garenmarket. This once again brought hustle and bustle to the area. Something of this can be seen in the painting by Leiden painter Isaac Claesz. van Swanenburg (1537-1614), which now hangs in Museum De Lakenhal. In the background of the painting is most probably a view of Garenmarkt. The immense square in the painting may not be historically correct, but the weighing house and the well in front of it are. Van Oosten discovered another document that mentions converting the well into a real water pump, one of the few public pumps in those days. A water pump, probably not the exact same model as the one mentioned in 1601 still stands there, on the corner of Garenmarkt and Raamsteeg.

Street view from Garenmarkt. The synagogue, Levendaal 14, can be seen in 1787. The street on the right has been known as Korevaarstraat since 1922-1924. Before that it was narrower and was called Stinksteeg [literally: Stink Alley]. From around 1870 its name changed to Jodenkerksteeg [literally: Jewish Church Alley]. Photo: Heritage Leiden.

Treasure trove of 19th-century information

The main focus of Van Oosten’s research was on the years after the siege of Leiden (1574). This was because plenty of information was already available within the scope of the Historisch Leiden in Kaart (mapping historical Leiden) project. That is a collaboration project, she explains, between the University, Heritage Leiden and others, that aims to digitalise the history of Leiden and incorporate it in maps. ‘Especially for the Garenmarkt research we widened the scope of the project to include the 19th century,’ says Van Oosten. ‘The 19th century is actually easier to map than the centuries before. In contrast to the 17th century, there was a house numbering system in the 19th century. That made it possible, for instance, to localise registrations from patent registers. Anyone who had purchased a patent, a kind of permit to practise a profession, was registered with their profession, sex and address. The patent tax that was levied is comparable with income tax.’

For Van Oosten, the register was a treasure trove of information because it also shows how the residents of the Garenmarkt area made their money. There were many shops. You could buy milk, meat, kosher meat, bread, fruit, alcoholic drinks and tobacco. Carpenters, tailors, cobblers, merchants, market vendors and even a vet lived there. Garenmarkt was also more Jewish than average; there was a synagogue opposite Levendaal.

There are four painting by Isaac Claesz. van Swanenburg (1537-1614) in Leiden’s Museum De Lakenhal, that feature the cloth-manufacturing process: 1) Washing the Skins and Grading the Wool 2) The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and Combing 3) Fulling and Dyeing (banner image) 4)  Spinning, Warping and Weaving (picture in the middle of the article).

The Van Poole textile factory was demolished in the 1960s. The date in Roman characters can be seen on the facade: 1840. On the corner the Garenmarkt pump. Photo: Heritage Leiden.

Le Poole textile factory

Watching over the houses and shops was the Le Poole textile factory. With business booming, a new factory was built in 1840, next to the family’s house on Garenmarkt. Samuel Le Poole began to develop a social conscience. He held numerous positions in society and wrote articles about ‘the social question’ [Dutch link] in the leading journal De Economist. It was due in part to his efforts that the ‘Van Houten children’s act’ came about in 1874. The business ceased trading in 1936, and the building that was a living reminder of Leiden’s textile past was demolished in the 1960s, just like all the other buildings in the, by then, dilapidated block. What remained was a nondescript car park and events area. But now there is the new underground Garenmarkt car park, which opens on Thursday 20 February at 12:00 hours, and has room for 425 cars.

The new Garenmarkt car park is open to the public on Wednesday 19 February, Construction Day, from 18:00 to 21:00 hours. Many archaeological finds that were made in the area will be on show in display cabinets and archaeologists will be on hand to discuss the finds. NB. Other opening times that have appeared in the press are incorrect.

Text: Corine Hendriks
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The entire map from a work by Lodovico Guiccardini (Lowijs Guicciardijn). This Italian-Low German merchant also wrote history books and commissioned others to provide illustrations, maps for instance.
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