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 unitsMacclesfield 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
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
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.