About the author...
Val Baynton is a specialist writer on tourism and culture. She especially enjoys industrial and heritage trips including ceramics, art, historical buildings and landscapes.
Silk manufacture is a strong British tradition and a number of towns justly celebrate this history. There are even places that still produce silk and create unique garments from this very special fabric.
To begin a new series focussing on heritage themes we highlight some of the towns on England's 'Silk Route' and learn more about the traditions behind the industry.
The English silk industry began in earnest when French Protestant Huguenots sought refuge from religious persecution in France in 1685, following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV. The Huguenots were highly skilled in silk weaving, and many settled in Spitalfields, London, creating a substantial community and making the area a prosperous hub for both making and trading – at its height there were 6,000 active weavers in two square miles! Towards the end of the 18th century, wages for London weavers began to be regulated and some silk manufacture moved away to other areas of the UK, such as Sudbury where the silk masters could pay less for labour.
Dennis Severs’ House, at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, is a ‘historical imagination’ of what life would have been like for a family of Huguenot silk weavers. Severs, an artist, restored his house to offer visitors an authentic experience of the Georgian era and imagined it ‘as if passing through a frame into a painting’. He bequeathed the house to the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust shortly before his death in 1999.
Macclesfield, Congleton, Bollington and Stockport in Cheshire share a silk making history dating back to the mid-17th century but Macclesfield was to dominate, becoming known as the 'silk town' by the 1850s. Macclesfield’s involvement began with silk button making and by 1749 it had become the principal industry of the town - only to rapidly decline from then on as horn buttons became prevalent. The town’s pool of skilled silk producers was used instead to man the silk throwing mills, which were built in the town from the 1740s onwards, and, from the 1790s, in the weaving sheds too. By 1826, there were 70 throwing mills but economic downturn meant many failed, and four years later 30 mills had closed. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 silk items from Macclesfield such as ribbons, shawls and handkerchiefs, were all on display.
Macclesfield’s silk story is explained in the town’s Silk Museum in Park Lane, housed in the former Art School, which trained the artists and designers for the silk industry. Here visitors can learn about the mill owners, view an extensive collection of pattern books and find out about parachute silk and printed silk escape and evade maps, which were made during the Second World War. Next door is Paradise Mill, an original silk mill, which offers guided tours three times a day and is home to Europe’s largest known collection of Jacquard silk handlooms in their original setting. Book a tour to see all the stages of the Jacquard silk weaving process, including a demonstration on a restored loom.
Top main image: Macclesfield Silk Museum. Credit: Geni
Bottom main image: Paradise Mill.
Whitchurch in Hampshire had a thriving silk industry and the Silk Mill is still operational. The water mill was built by the River Test in around 1813, and in 1817 it was adapted from finishing cloth for weaving to silk throwing. It changed hands several times but the silk industry was in decline. For a period it wove silk for Burberry and in the 1970s produced Ottoman silk for legal and academic gowns before closing. In 1985, Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust purchased the Mill and after restoration it was opened to the public as a working museum. In 2012, the Trustees recommenced silk production using 19th century machinery and traditional weaving methods to make exclusive fabrics, with members of the Royal Family amongst its many customers.
As well as exploring the Silk Mill visitors can enjoy The Mill Trail. This circular walk around Whitchurch takes people to see five historic mills (although all but The Silk Mill are now privately owned residential properties).
Main image: Whitchurch Silk Mill. Credit: Des Blenkinsopp.
Sudbury in Suffolk, is the only place in Britain where silk is still produced in quantity and its four long-established factories (Vanners Silk Weavers, Stephen Walters & Sons, the Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company and Humphries Weaving) employ highly skilled craftspeople.
Before silk makers moved to Sudbury in the late 18th century there was a long tradition of weaving woollen cloth in the town, and medieval timber framed merchant’s houses in Stour Street mark the wealth this created. Weavers, however, were paid more for weaving silk than wool and were happy to transfer their skills to creating this luxury material. Terraces of three-storey silk weavers cottages, characterised by large first-floor windows to maximise light for the weaving process, can still be found in East Street, Gainsborough Street and other parts of the town.
Sudbury silk was worn by The Queen at her coronation, by former US First Lady, Michelle Obama, and by pop singer Adele, and the businesses work with fashion designers such as Sir Paul Smith and Dior. In addition, some companies make high class furnishing fabrics and regularly receive commissions to reproduce historic designs – such as those used in the restoration of Windsor Castle.
In September 2019, the inaugural Sudbury Silk Festival took place, with a programme of talks, exhibitions and workshops to celebrate 250 years connected to the industry.
Three more places to
1 Hampton Court Palace - following a special exhibition which ran until 23rd February 2020 you can still read about the Lost Dress of Elizabeth I (pictured right). A cloth panel thought to be from a dress she wore, made from chamblet silk, woven with strips of beaten silver and embroidered with plants, beasts and butterflies, found its way to the small church of Bacton in Herefordshire through a link with the Queen’s most loyal servant, Blanche Parry. Here, it was used as an Altar Cloth until its discovery in 2016, when it was loaned to the Historic Royal Palaces. After three years and 1,000 hours of conservation, it was ready for display and in the exhibition it could be seen alongside a painting of the Queen showing her wearing a dress made from similar material. The Rainbow Portrait, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, was also on loan from Hatfield House. The exhibition included other stunning embroidery from the period and explored the artistry of Tudor costume alongside rare books that could have inspired decorative motifs fashionable at the time.
Although the exhibition has now ended you can still learn the history of the lost dress in the video below.
Top main image: Lost Dress of Elizabeth I. Credit: Historic Royal Palaces.
Middle main image: A painting of Elizabeth I wearing a dress made from similar material. Credit: Historic Royal Palaces.
Bottom main image: Silk Dress 1768-80. Credit: Museum of London.
2 The Harris Museum, Preston - Men’s silk slippers dating from the 1620s plus other items.
3 Fashion Museum Bath - A large collection from the 18th century onward includes many items of clothing incorporating silk made in the UK and elsewhere, including shoes, hats, dresses, men’s waistcoats and parasols.
After publishing the original 'Following England's Silk Road' article in print we received a number of responses from our readers including this one from Helen Fisher.
"You're right! There were (at least) two Paradise Mills producing silk in England: one in Macclesfield, and the one in Braintree, as you point out. In fact, Braintree's role in silk manufacture was rather significant as we've detailed below..."
After George Courtauld finished his apprenticeship to a silk weaver in Spitalfields, he set up as a silk throwster before opening a water-powered silk mill at Pebmarsh, near Braintree in Essex, in 1799. He was joined by family members, who opened further mills in Braintree, and in 1825 Courtaulds began making black silk mourning crape, which was to make the company famous and successful.
The Courtaulds used their enormous wealth to endow buildings, schools, parks and gardens through the Braintree and the Essex district during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Braintree District Museum has an important archive relating to the international Courtauld company. On display are items from this collection including crape mourning outfits and artefacts associated with the production of crape. Other highlights of the gallery include a Courtauld Taylor and Courtauld Loom and personal items of the family. With the museum currently closed there is still plenty to see and learn online about the history of Courtaulds, the family’s pioneering innovations within the textile industry and their love of art -- click here.
As well as Courtaulds, Warner & Sons, a leading manufacturer of silk and velvet and a range of other woven fabrics including the Queen’s Coronation robes, was also based in Braintree from 1895 until 1990. The Warner Textile Archive is housed in part of the original mill building at Silks Way, Braintree. It maintains a publicly accessible gallery, along with rotating public exhibitions, and represents two centuries of UK textile manufacturing history.
We then received this further letter from Sandra Cooper.
A sad loss...
After nearly 400 years of silk production, the David Evans Silk Mill in Crayford closed in 2001. This marked the end of an era for silk making in Bexley in south-east London and, for visitors, the closure of the World of Silk museum. However, you can still ‘explore’ the fascinating history of the mill in this article, David Evans - The Last of the London Fabric Printers, and experience one of the exhibitions that was held at Bexley’s Hall Place in 2013, Pattern to Print: The story of David Evans, Crayford’s silk printers.
Main image: Silk square screen printed at Evans using pattern first produced by Ware in Crayford mid-18th century. Credit: crayfordhistory.org.uk
We'd be delighted to hear from GTOs who visited the David Evans Silk Mill in the past and welcome any stories and photographs you'd like to share.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you'd like to contribute to our discussion
about silk towns, please contact email@example.com
Plan Your Visit...
Please note that these venues will be
Macclesfield Silk Museum
Open on Bank Holidays (except Xmas week), 12noon-4pm.
Paradise Mill Guided Tours are 11.00am. 12.15pm and 2.00pm Monday-Saturday. Open on Bank Holidays (except Xmas week).
Dennis Severs' House
Tours available throughout the week.
Whitchurch Silk Mill
Tues - Sun & Bank Holidays 10:30am - 5pm
Sudbury Silk Festival
Hampton Court Palace
Open daily (except 24-26 Dec). 29 Mar - 3 Nov, 10am - 6pm.
4th Nov - 28 Mar, 10am - 4:30pm.
The Harris Museum, Preston
Mon 11am - 5pm. Tues - Sat 10am - 5pm.
Sun 11am - 4pm
Fashion Museum Bath
Museum of London
School of Textiles, Coggleshall
Events throughout the year.
Braintree District Museum
Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 4pm.
Warner Textile Archive
The Archive Gallery is open every Wednesday and on the first Saturday of the month, 10am to 4pm
Brought to you by
A UK tourism informational
This 'long-form' documentary has been produced from the specialist publishing resource of Landor Travel Publications, its magazine, GTO, and specialist website Discover Britain's Delightful Towns.
It draws on material previously published in print format and as part of a website. This feature is designed to be an enjoyable and instructive in-depth read giving the viewer the chance to immerse in this interesting part of Britain's industrial and creative heritage. We have also suggested places that can be visited with a connection to silk manufacture, the commercial history of the industry and textile and clothing production as well as some important historical items fortunately preserved for prosperity.
We hope you enjoyed your viewing!
Feature designed by Clare Dann
Clare is a designer and, for the last few years, has specialised in publishing. Aside from designing for magazines, she particularly enjoys creating animations and illustrations.
© Landor Travel Publications 2020