13 September 2016

Huguenot silk heaven..... in Cheshire

Jonathan Jones warned that as cultural heritage becomes one of the softest targets for financial brutalism, Northern museums and their precious objects will be lost forever, including Derby's Silk Mill-Industrial Museum. So I thought I better publish this post quickly :(

My favourite material for dresses, blouses, scarves and hat decorat­ion has always been pure silk. I wore it for the Matriculation Ball, the going-away coatdress at our wedding, our 40th wedding annivers­ary dinner dance and every other formal occasion. And on a more scholarly level, my favourite lecture series were a] The Silk Route from China and b] The Huguenots In France and In Exile. Yet I did not expect Maccles­field (and its arch rival Stockport, both just south of Manchester) to be silk weaving towns. Thankfully the Macclesfield Silk Museum displays and explains The Silk Road, starting in China then moving ever west.

French Protestant Huguenots brought their silk processing skills to Britain, after they had been expelled from France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. With royal protection they prospered, particularly in Spitalfields in London. Even today we can see where the hand­loom weavers worked in the attic workshops in the top floor of their own Spitalfields homes.

one of the display units
Macclesfield Silk Museum

I am assuming that the two silk worlds of Cheshire and London were interdependent. London was the only legal port of entry for silk, so it seems that London merchants travelled to distant Macclesfield with the raw silk and rather craftily became freemen of that town. As a result, the Huguenots in Spital­field used the yarn supplied by the silk throwers in Macclesfield. However by 1700, only 15 years after the Huguenot Expulsion from France, the most skilled silk throwers in Europe were actually in Italy. So Cheshire mills had to get a hurry-on.

Not everyone chose to work with thrown silk, because spun silk was softer and more adaptable. But eventually Macclesfield did become famous for silk buttons manufacture; within one generation, water-driven mills were established in Stockport (1732) and Macclesfield (1744). The buttons were sent via Manchester and exported through Bristol and London to the rest of the world.

Press on map to see M for Macclesfield

At first silk weaving in Cheshire was almost a cottage industry, done by families who had hand looms in their own homes. They worked as sub-contract­ors for merchants, men who supplied the weavers with silk and bought back the finished cloth. The first structures were rather simple brick buildings with several floors. Families and buildings had to be adaptable - as the economy waxed and waned, fam­ilies might have started working with silk and changed to cotton, or started with dyeing, changed to printing and then to throwing. The more recent the mills, the taller the buildings and the windows had to be. And as soon as power-looms were introduced, the building had to be even stronger to withstand the constant vibrations.

And random, outside events can affect any industry. In 1749 the duty on imported raw silk was reduced and the importers were overjoyed; 15,000 locals got work in the industry. But then two crises happened. Firstly when the Seven Years' War against France finished in 1763, no-one was wanting luxury goods made from silk. And in 1795 buttons from horn became more common and cheaper, so the silk button industry fell over anyhow.

Paradise Mill, Macclesfield 

Silk Museum, 
Old School of Art in Macclesfield

But then the good times returned, still focused on the descendants of the Huguenot refugees. Duties on finished silk and raw silk were reduced throughout the 1820s, to the point where there were 70 silk mills in this small part of Cheshire. And at the Great Exhibition in 1851, Macclesfield firms exhibited as many silk products as they could.

From 1912 Paradise Silk Mill was owned by Messrs Cartwright & Sheldon, and made the decision to concentrate solely on hand-weaving, despite the advance of power looms all around them. Successfully, it would seem. Paradise Mill was home to Macclesfield's last working handloom silk-weaving until its closure in 1981. That was when the industry was once and for all defeated by cheaper imports and new synthetic materials. Virtually next door to the Museum, Paradise Mill now shows how the 26 restored hand looms actually worked.

The main road from Stockport & Manchester to Macclesfield is still called The Silk Road. And the city of Macclesfield (population today: 52,000) is still called Silk Town, a community that had a technical school for apprentices and an art school where designers learned their craft. For social historians and silk lovers, it is well worth visiting The Silk Museum which is housed in the Old School of Art.


Andrew said...

We had a small loom at school, but I never understood how it work. Now I would really like to understand how a loom works. The Huguenot part of my family in England worked in furs. I have no idea what they did with them? Tanned them? Sewed them up? What do furriers do?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I always am fascinated by the mechanics behind the ultimate product, so the Silk Museum would be perfect for me. I know that many regions in the United States also processed silk. It's funny how subjects and interests always join up, in this case silk and musical instruments. One of the large silk mill owners in the 19th century was William Skinner, whose daughter Belle gathered an important collection of early instruments, which is now at Yale University.
p.s. You may have come across Belle Skinner's name; after WWI, she helped to rebuild damaged historic areas in France.

Student of History said...

The Silk Route from China was an excellent history course, many thanks.

Hels said...


I would love to be a descendent of the Huguenots .. it is the only way to become a bona fide member of the Huguenot Society of Britain, South Africa, Netherlands etc etc.

King Louis XIV was a moron expelling his half million Protestant population. They were the best businessmen and professionals in the otherwise Catholic country, and were in any case protected by the Edict of Nantes. The Protestant countries surrounding France couldn't believe their luck, absorbing their new and talented citizens from the late 17th century on.

The arts and crafts that Huguenots specialised in were goldsmithing, silk making, fur designing and dressing, wineries, small businesses and teaching. Wine making was most successful in South Africa, furriers may have been most popular in Canada etc.

Hels said...


I too love making historical links, especially when the connections are unexpected and/or accidental. For example think of how many Protestant churches were either built from scratch for the newly arrived Frenchmen or were existing churches shared between the local Protestant communities (main floor) and the newcomers (crypt spaces). English royals clearly offered official sanctuary to the French immigrants.

I have participated in quite a number of guided tours of places like Spitalfields in London, examining both the external architecture of gorgeous Huguenot buildings and the specialist facilities inside eg the attic workshops that maximised natural light. Within a very short time after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, there were nine new Huguenot churches provided in Spitalfields alone. But which came first? And another connection. Silk was always an expensive product, used exclusively by the moneyed classes. So the emergence of silk centres in working cities like Stockport and Macclesfield came as a great surprise to me.

Next task will be to examine the history of William Skinner and his daughter Belle. Thanks for the tip!

Hels said...


I agree - The Silk Route from China was an excellent course, but not just because of a gorgeous product like silk. For centuries before the French diaspora, the network of trade routes had been essential to exploration, religions spreading, languages spreading, population movement etc. For Europeans, the Silk Route opened up a cultural interaction all the way across Asia to China..

mem said...

I had som Huguenot ancestors but they ended up in Dublin and in the leather trade . Last time I was in London I managed to see the Dennis Severs house which is in Spitlefields . So interesting and a silk weavers home from the early 18 th century. It's is the most wonderful small museum and art installation .

Hels said...


It would be wonderful to have Huguenot ancestors. They were the bravest, most talented and most loyal religious community in Europe. The risks were huge - husbands executed or put on galley prison ships, children converted to Catholicism and taken away from their parents.

There were at least two generations of flight: (1) From 1685 on, Huguenots fled to neighbouring Protestant countries that welcomed them over the French borders esp Dutch Republic, Protestant German states, Protestant Switzerland and England (2) After the French exiles felt safer and more settled in their new countries, some would prepare to RE-settle in more distant countries esp South Africa, Sweden, Ireland, USA etc.

Agreed about Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields, by the way. It is not easily for modern visitors to understand what it was like for a family of Huguenot silk-weavers to live in London in the early 18th century. The guide and literature were memorable.

bazza said...

I have seen that some of the houses in Spitalfields still have bobbins or something similar hanging like trade signs above their doors.
In May the BBC showed a three-part documentary series "The Silk Road" which worked eastwards from Venice and back. It cited Marco Polo's book of his travels as 'triggering the Renaissance' - quite a big claim!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Loved that programme!

The Travels of Marco Polo described the renewed link built between China and the West in the late 13th century. The young explorer not only travelled from Venice to Beijing from 1271 on, I would agree with you that the term Silk Road came into common usage. I would also agree that "triggering the Renaissance in Europe" was an overstatement.