Saturday, 10 May 2008

Thrown silk - and the Macclesfield Silk Industry

I've been lent a most readable history book, East Cheshire Textile Mills, published in 1993 by the Royal Commission on The Historic Monuments of England, now, sadly, out of print.

I live in the west of Derbyshire, close to the Cheshire border, and one of the mills featured is a watermill only 20 minutes walk from our house. This book brings together places and buildings I know with the story of the local textile industry, hence there is much to interest me.

The textile mills of east Cheshire came about because of water power - the streams and rivers running down from the pennine hills made mill machinery possible, and the first mills were built in the 1700s. The silk industry in this area pre-dates the cotton industry.

Silk throwing pre-dates the mills and was carried out in this area in the 1600s to meet a growing demand for luxury and fancy goods. However, the throwing techniques used were not capable of producing organzine for warp threads and until Italian methods of throwing (using water-powered machinery) were introduced in the early 18th century, only the lower quality tram thread (used for weft) was produced and organzine had to be imported from Italy.

The first mill producing organzine was built in Derby (in Derbyshire, not Cheshire) in 1704, on the banks of the river Derwent . It is thought that this was the first powered mill in England.

It was 1744 when Charles Roe, a button merchant, put up the first silk throwing mill in Macclesfield.

So how was the tram thread produced before mechanisation? There's an amazing account taken from an 1841 Parliamentary enquiry:

"... He (the boy) takes first a rod containing four bobbins of silk from the twister who stands at his 'gate' or wheel, and having fastened the ends, runs to the 'cross' at the extreme end of the room, round which he passess the threads of each bobbin and returns to the 'gate'. He is dispatched on a second expedition of the same kind.... "

The twister's wheel was turned to twist the threads, and the threads then wound onto a bobbin. The room the boy ran up and down was between 25 and 35 yards (23 - 32 metres).

When I read this description, it fixed in my mind a clear understanding of what thrown silk actually is, and how / why it is different to a spun yarn.

The process of producing thrown silk - reeling and winding silk from the cocoon, cleaning and throwing - was inefficient and the waste silk from the process was estimated in 1765 to be around half of all the silk. As silk was so valuable, and as the industry increased, there was a great need to find ways of using this silk.

Here there is a link to the cotton industry (for which nearby Manchester and Lancashire are famous).

Machinery created for cotton spinning was adapted for silk. To begin with, the silk was cut into short staples, 25-50 mm in length, which could be spun on cotton spinning machinery.

Then Gibson and Campbell of Glasgow obtained a patent in 1836 for a machine for the spinning of long staple length silk, up to 250mm length. This enabled production of high quality yarn from the better quality silk filament waste. Silk spinning became established in Cheshire, in mills at Macclesfield and Congleton, by the early 19th century.

Macclesfield, Cheshire had not only mills for production of silk thread, but also was a centre for weaving. During the 18th century there was a thriving handloom industry, with weavers either working independently or as outworkers. For example, in 1818, one silk manufacturer, Henry Critchley, employed 140-160 weavers. 50 worked at his factory premises and the rest were outworkers, weaving in garrets. Garret houses were specially built with the top (third) storey having large windows to make good workshops, and two dwelling floors below. Some of the houses were built in terraces with one long garret above several dwellings. It is easy to spot many of these distinctive houses today.

If you have an opportunity to get there, you will find some excellent museums in Macclesfield.

The publications in the late Ralph Griswold's Online Digital Archive include Silk by H. Gaddum of Macclesfield and Luther Hooper's book, Silk: Its Production and Manufacture which I mentioned in my previous post. Use this link for the publications on silk.


Helen said...

Hi Dorothy that is such an interesting report on spinning. Am I right then in thinking that throwsters waste comes from throwing silk? I was always a bit puzzled about how it was produced as sometimes it seems like fine threads and sometimes like spun yarn

Dorothy said...

Thanks for your query Helen. There's a description of throwsters waste on Carol Weymar's web site, scroll down to the bottom of this page:

She says at least as much here as any of my books. My understanding is that
it's anything and everything that the throwster discards in the process of
throwing silk yarn.

Some of it gets used for spun yarns. Before the mechanisation of silk spinning much was used as wadding. You may have seen silk filled duvets offered for sale? They are supposed to be warm and lightweight.

Anonymous said...

Historic silk mills are a bit classier than historic jute mills, which is what we have up here! However, I find all our textile heritage fascinating, and I guess I will have to find my way to Macclesfield sooner or later...