Court ladies preparing newly woven silk in China (1082-1135).
The luxurious fibres of silk are synonymous with China and Japan, and more generally the Far East as a whole. The production of silk in China goes back to Neolithic times, over six thousand years ago, and the country is still by far the biggest makers and exporters of this exquisite fibre. Famously, the Silk Road trading route opened up Asian silk markets to markets in Europe. But did you know that there is a silk industry right here in England?
As all English people can attest, the climate of England is too cold for the rearing of silkworms. While the mulberry bushes on which the silkworms depend can be grown here quite easily, the delicate larvae could not withstand the cold and frost of a British winter. However, this country has a long history of weaving high-quality textiles from imported silk thread, from stockings to parachutes. The weaving of silk is synonymous with certain towns in England, and the manufacture of this beautiful fabric continues into the present day.
The Middle Ages
While the climate may not have been suitable for keeping silkworms, the environment for weaving the thread itself was perfect. Dating back as far as the late Middle Ages, the imported thread has been spun into fabric on English looms. The art of throwing silk was perfected in Cheshire (Macclesfield and Congleton), Staffordshire (Leek) and London, where the imported bundles of silk were spun into cloth by way of five processes - winding, cleaning, spinning, doubling, and finally the throwing itself.
References to silk weaving go back as early as the late 15th Century, with a decree banning the import of silk goods in favour of those produced in England. Later on, in the 16th and 17th century, an influx of Huguenot Protestants from France also brought an influx of skilled weavers, bringing significant expertise to Spitalfields, Coventry, Canterbury and elsewhere. Indeed, weaver’s houses from the period can still be seen in England to this day, where large windows both front and back, unusual for the time, provided good light for weaving the iridescent cloth, such as this one in London which has been restored to its former glory.
In particular, Coventry was known for weaving silk ribbons, which were a significant luxury at the time, and were very often woven on small domestic looms in the home, rather than in larger commercial operations. Silk, while expensive, was present at every level of society.
The Industrial Revolution
As with many trades, the industrial revolution completely transformed the way silk was made. New trading routes with Asia, along with the accompanying colonial activities by European kingdoms, intersected with the invention of new technologies, making the production of high-quality cloth easier than ever. The opportunities to make both fabric and money were huge.
New looms and new methods meant that silk-weaving was big business, and imports of the much-needed thread from China were plentiful. Demand for silk garments was also huge, with the luxurious fabric very much in fashion and available. Everything from ribbons to dresses and undergarments could be made easily with it. Silk’s popularity and success in England, however, owed a lot to protectionist policies and a ban on imported silk goods. When this was removed in 1860, many silk weavers suffered from the lower prices and went out of business, with the cheaper imports preferred. Despite this, silk’s popularity remained well into the next century, with the demand for imported silk never falling.
The Twentieth Century
Silk printers during the twentieth century in Cheshire.
At the beginning of the century, silk remained a popular (if luxurious) choice for garments as before, but beginning in the 1920s, the fashion for shorter skirts meant that silk was in especially high demand for making stockings. Indeed, it was very unusual for all but the very poor to be wearing anything but silk stockings, so widespread was their use.
Later on in that century, the outbreak of World War II changed all that in England, as all silk threads that the English could lay their hands on were commandeered for making parachutes. The light and strong silk, with a higher tensile strength than steel, was the perfect material for making parachutes, which needed to be both feather-light and capable of taking the weight of a pilot bailing out. While this purpose has been replaced by man-made nylon fibre today, the exact properties of silk are still replicated in their manufacture, with strength and lightness prized.
While man-made fibres were game changers in regards to the clothes people wore, silk never really went away, as nothing really came close to replicating silk’s luxurious sheen and softness.
The Present Day
While the peak of silk manufacturing in England was in the industrial revolution, silk thread is still woven into fabric here to this day! Makers of luxury goods still use English silk for its incredible quality, soft feel and luxurious finish. Indeed you can find the finest mulberry silk, woven in England, in a whole host of upmarket fashions and goods, from clothes to furniture. Many specialist makers still throw high-quality silk fabric daily, on modern, computer-guided machines.
Some of these fine English silks find their way into Cravat Club’s range of high-quality mens accessories. Our cravats, ascot ties, pocket squares, ties and scarves are made from 100% silk, and every piece is carefully handmade here in England. With both super-soft printed silks, and luxurious woven silks, we believe that it’s the finest material for finishing off an outfit, whether for a formal or casual occasion. With hundreds of years of heritage of silk production in England, you can be sure of the best possible accessory when selecting your attire for the evening.