Silk weaving (manufacture of silk fabric)
The manufacture of silk fabric in traditional silk mills. The silk fibres can be mixed with fine denier cotton, wool, and linen weft.
|Historic area of significance
|Originating in China, where the Bombyx Mori moth originated, silk weaving has since spread along the Silk Routes.
|Area currently practised
|Sudbury, Suffolk (2 mills) & Whitchurch, Hampshire (1 mill)
|Origin in the UK
|Medieval (see history section)
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
18-20 weavers at Stephen Walters
2 weavers at Whitchurch Silk Mill
6 weavers at Gainsborough Silk Weavers
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
2 at Stephen Walters
1 at Gainsborough Silk Weavers
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
The English climate is too cold for rearing silkworms, but a silk industry developed in the late Middle Ages processing imported thread and producing silk goods. The art of making silk thread was developed in England by the silk throwsters of London, Leek (Staffordshire), Macclesfield and Congleton (both in Cheshire). Early references to silk weaving in England occur in the trade protection Acts of the last half of the 15th Century banning the import of foreign silk goods.
In England the origin of this important industry was located in Spitalfields, dating from the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, when the French Protestants, driven by persecution from their own country, took refuge in England in large numbers. Long before this, however, silk weavers from abroad had settled in England, and during the reign of Henry VIII a considerable number of silk workers, principally from Rouen, made their homes in this country.
The declaration of the Spitalfields Act in the 1790s had forced manufacturers of silk in the East End of London to consider moving away to evade the act and its consequences. Towns on the Essex Suffolk border such as Braintree, Halstead and Sudbury found themselves outside the scope of the Act. Sudbury is a centre for silk weaving and both Gainsborough and Stephen Walters are based in this historic centre, with the only other manufacturer of silk in Whitchurch, Hampshire.
- Winding: to make a piece of silk two components are required, the warp and the weft. The warp is the silk thread that forms the length of material, and the weft is the thread woven across the material.
- Warping: to construct a warp the industry uses creels to load threads in the correct order. The individual silk threads from the creel are fed onto a warping mill and then wound onto a drum before being transferred to the warp beam which is placed on the loom for weaving.
- Weaving: the warp beam is threaded onto a loom and the threads are secured in order in a harness. Tappet looms have a cam system for lifting the harness from below and controlling the ‘shed’ (space between lifted and lowered warp ends where the weft shuttle passes). The Dobby loom allows for a more complicated weave structure. This loom shows an improvement in technology and gives a raised pattern. Gainsborough uses jacquard looms where each individual thread can be lifted to create intricate patterns. At Stephen Walters they use rapier looms where individual threads can be lifted according to digital designs.
- Pirn / quill winding: the thread for the weft is wound on to a pirn and these then sit in the shuttles that carry the thread across the warp to create the woven fabric.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Training and recruitment issues – Limited numbers of trainees in the industry. The unique machinery that each silk weaver uses also means that skills and experience are not directly transferrable.
- Supply of raw materials, allied materials and tools – Limited engineering (milling) and foundries (casting) have impacted the ability to keep the machinery in full working order. Inflationary prices and the closure of numerous vital suppliers since the pandemic has made this much more difficult.
- Small business issues – Cost of living crisis and increase in energy prices.
- Ageing workforce – The skilled workforce is getting older.
- Global and geopolitical issues – The supply of silk from China has been restricted and has caused shortages of raw materials. Silk mills have invested heavily in stocks to future proof supplies in the short term.
- Silk Association of Great Britain (SAGB)
- The Weavers’ Company
- UK Fashion and Textile Association
Craftspeople currently known
- Whitchurch Silk Mill
- Stephen Walters & Humphries Weaving
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.
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
The craft of silk weaving is at serious risk of no longer being practised in the UK. There is a shrinking base of craftspeople who practise the craft, with only three manufacturers left in the UK. Gainsborough Silk Weavers, Stephen Walters and Whitchurch Silk Mill. There are very few training opportunities and these are limited to learning on the job at each weaving mill, and the industry is reliant on a few practitioners who hold the skills and their willingness to pass them on to the next generation. The industry suffers from low financial viability, with two commercial silk mills having closed in the last decade (Glemsford & Vanners) and Gainsborough was close to closure before a buyout was agreed a few years ago. Both Stephen Walters and Gainsborough report buoyant orders.