Silk ribbon making
|Historic area of significance||Coventry, UK|
|Area currently practised||Devon, Coventry, West Yorkshire|
|Origin in the UK||1700s|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1-5
(4 remaining companies)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Coventry was the main centre of ribbon production in England. Ribbon weaving was Coventry’s main industry from the early 1700s to the 1860s. During this period about half its population made a living from ribbon weaving.
After 1860 ribbon weaving declined but the weaving companies began producing other narrow gauge woven textiles such as badges, labels, bookmarks and pictures. These are primarily made using synthetic materials. The firm of Toye, Kenning & Spencer remains in production in Bedworth, manufacturing coloured ribbons, braids and laces. They have an early Jacquard loom manufactured by T.E. Wilkinson, Textile Engineers of Coventry, at work in the factory.
Wyedean Weaving (West Yorkshire) was established in 1964 as a manufacturer of braid and uniform accoutrement with a key product being ribbon used for medals and medal bars. Historically these were manufactured from pure silk, but due to silk shortages during the Second World War and rising costs, these are now primarily made from nylon. However, Wyedean does occasionally still manufacture medal ribbon in pure silk on some of its traditional shuttle looms.
The remaining companies making silk ribbons make specialist products for a variety of markets including medal ribbons, military, masonic, police and sport.
Ribbons are usually made on a narrow loom. These can range from historic jacquard looms to modern computerized looms.
Toye, Kenning & Spencer use a punch card jacquard loom dating back to 1801 for making ceremonial ribbons as well as modern mechanised looms.
At Whitchurch Silk Mill ribbons are woven on a broadloom and cut into ribbons, meaning that they don’t have a woven selvedge.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Cost and availability of suitable premises: Looms are big and heavy, and require a substantial footprint. Affordable premises are difficult to find and costs continue to rise.
- Raw materials: Cost of raw materials has increased post Brexit and as the UK silk sector has contracted. Silk used to be available in the UK but now is imported from Europe.
- Cost of equipment: Machinery is still available and supported, but new it is very expensive and there is very little available second hand. So the cost of entry is very high.
- Market issues: Silk ribbons are an exceptionally niche, specialist market and have to compete with synthetics and cheaper imports. There are far fewer haberdashery shops and the public have become accustomed to synthetics being the default for ribbons, which are considerably cheaper. Hence the demand for ribbon is mostly ‘historical’ or ceremonial e.g. costume for film/TV, period dress, re-enactment, medal ribbons etc.
- Global and geopolitical issues: Brexit has undeniably made things more difficult. Raw materials have got more expensive and business to business export costs have increased. The retail market to individual private customers in Europe is the biggest area of concern as this has become prohibitively expensive.
- Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
Craftspeople currently known
- Toye, Kenning and Spencer – the last remaining ribbon manufacturer in Coventry, manufacturing coloured ribbons, braids and laces
- Wyedean Weaving – makes a wide range of ribbon and narrow fabrics from a variety of materials including silk, nylon, cotton and polyester.
- Robert Ely, Papilionaceous – makes bespoke jacquard and plain ribbons for a wide range of products including film & TV, costume and art projects.
- Whitchurch Silk Mill – Makes ribbons on broadcloth loom
There are no formal training routes for ribbon weaving although there are opportunities available for textile manufacturing.
Degrees and postgraduate study
Textile Design Degrees – There are a number of universities and colleges that offer BA Textile Design and some that have specific degrees for weaving. Some will have weaving studios and technicians on hand to support weavers and it is worth checking which ones have the best facilities.
Design Crafts Degrees – Some universities and colleges offer a BA Design Crafts or BA Contemporary Design Crafts that covers a range of craft disciplines, including textiles. These are often focussed on helping you to develop a craft business and your creative practice.
There are a number of universities and colleges that offer MA and PhD opportunities for Textile Design and Design Crafts.
The following apprenticeships are available for weavers working in textiles manufacturing.
- Level 2 Apprenticeship – Textile Manufacturing Operative
- Level 4 Apprenticeship – Textile Technical Specialist