Sunday, 9 June 2013

Macclesfield silk

Less than 40 miles from my home is Macclesfield; a town which has been involved in the silk trade for over 350 years, and which was once the world's biggest producer of finished silk. Given my interest in all things fabric-related, you might think that I would know all about the place; but in fact yesterday was the first time I have visited it properly.

The trip was prompted by the Adamley silk sale. Adamley is one of the few remaining silk firms in the town, and specialises in silk printing. Twice a year it holds a one-day sale of roll ends and printed seconds. Mr Tulip came with me, to fulfil what is clearly the role of all husbands at the sale: patiently holding onto the items already selected while their partners search for yet more goodies!

Adamley silks on sale at the Heritage Centre

Purchases packed in the car boot; we set off to visit the town's museums. As the sale was held in the first of these, we didn’t have far to go.

Macclesfield Heritage Centre, the words "Sunday School" just visible at the top of the building

The Heritage Centre is based in the old Sunday School, where the children working in the silk industry received a basic education on their one day a week off work. The museum tells the story of the silk industry in the town, starting with the button trade.

By the mid 17th century button making was an established cottage industry in Macclesfield. The buttons were made by women and children, working at home. Firstly layers of floss were wrapped around a wooden mould, and then this was decorated by wrapping it with silk and mohair yarns. Chapmen provided the materials, and collected the finished buttons, which were then sold as far afield as London.

1750s sample card of Macclesfield buttons

The trade links to London provided the next stage of Macclesfield's involvement in the silk industry; yarn preparation by the process of 'throwing'. Originally done by hand, the town's first water-powered throwing mill was built in 1744. Raw silk was brought from London for throwing, and the yarn returned to London to be used by weavers in Spitalfields.

Mantua of Spitalfields silk, V&A

As fashion turned from the elaborate figured Spitalfields silks to plainer designs, silk weaving began in Macclesfield. Initially this was done by weavers in their own homes, known as garrets. These had a workshop on the top story, above the living quarters.

1960s photograph of weavers' garrets

In the early 19th century weaving began to move to the factory system, a change which was exacerbated by the development of the more costly jacquard and power looms. Even if a weaver was not directly employed by a mill, he would have to pay to rent a loom.

The silk industry was subject to regular fluctuations in trade, with many of the downturns occurring when Britain was not at war with France. French silks were considered to be superior in terms of both quality and design; so whenever they were more readily available, the British silk industry suffered.

By the 1830s there was a view that more needed to be done nationally to improve British design, and a number of design schools were set up. In Macclesfield this began with the wonderfully-named Useful Knowledge Society, which held drawing classes. In 1852 the Macclesfield School of Art was established, with its own premises. The Art School is now the home of the Silk Museum.

Macclesfield School of Art

By the 1880s it was recognised the technical as well as design skills were needed for the silk industry to be successful, and the Silk Museum contains many examples of the course work completed by students of the Art School and the later Technical School. For example, it was not enough for a woven fabric to have an attractive design; the warp and weft threads must cross frequently enough for the cloth to retain its strength.

Exhibition sample by Cyrus Fytton

Laboratory book and woven sample

The examples of students' weaving were especially interesting to me, as I own part of a sample piece of Macclesfield silk. It is 3.5m long and woven with a black warp and different coloured wefts, in sections approximately 9cm long.

My sample of Macclesfield silk

The Silk Museum also has a section on the development of synthetic fabrics. As well as the weaving and printing of various rayon and nylon fabrics, Macclesfield was the birthplace of crimpelene - but I'm trying not to hold that against the town!

Printed nylon and (shudder!) crimpelene

Macclesfield did not just manufacture fabric; a number of firms were established in the town to make machinery for the mills.

1920s(?) advertisement for a machinery manufacturer

The Machine Gallery contains a number of these machines, including the massive silk picture loom.

The silk picture loom

One of the woven silk pictures

Near to the Silk Museum is Paradise Mill, the third of the Macclesfield silk museums, containing 26 restored Jacquard looms. Sadly the mill can only be visited as part of a guided tour, and all of the places for the day were already booked up by a large party.

There is a lot more to see in the museums, I've only written about parts of them. They are certainly well worth a visit.

Finally, when looking for images of Spitalfields silk to use in this post, I came across a recent photograph of  weavers' houses in Macclesfield. To my surprise it came from the blog of a friend of Mr Tulip's, the writer Clare Dudman. You can read her post about the decline of Spitalfields here.

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