Sunday, 2 April 2017

Sumptious Silk - Paradise Mill, Macclesfield

I have long felt a resonance with silk fabric, however, it is only of recent years that I have traced ancestors who were silk spinners and weavers.  Originally living and working in Scotland, my paternal great great grandparents John and Jessie English moved to the North West at the height of the industrial revolution.  I have often wondered about their daily lives working with this sumptuous fabric and I was therefore delighted to have the opportunity to visit the Paradise Silk Mill and Silk Museum in Macclesfield this spring.
Fabric is so readily available in my 21st century life and it is easy to forget that 150 or so years ago it was a highly treasured commodity resulting from huge skill and toil.  Everyday textiles for the majority would have been hard wearing and course cloth and I am sure that spinning and weaving sumptuous silk must have felt very special by comparison.
Macclesfield was one of three towns in Cheshire at the heart of the silk industry in the 19th century.  Prior to industrialisation, the spinning and weaving was a cottage industry which would have involved the whole family.  This weavers 'garret' in Pitt Street Macclesfield is typical of the building style with a large window on the to floor to give maximum light for the loom.
The intricacies of silk weaving were such, that it remained a hand process for longer than wool and cotton weaving. When it eventually migrated into factory premises, Paradise Mill as seen today is typical of how a silk mill with their 'Jacquard' looms would have looked - just a touch complex!  I was very fortunate on the day of my visit to Paradise Mill to meet Ian Richardson, who I cannot thank enough for his time and skill in simply explaining the weaving process in a way that I could understand!
All silk weaving in 19th century England began with imported raw silk which was skein dyed in large vats.  The silk skeins were wound onto bobbins in the mill to create the required thickness (doubling) and twist (throwing) for the 'warp' and 'weft' threads. 
The thread for the weft, usually untwisted, was wound from a bobbin onto a 'pirn' - a small narrow bobbin that fitted into the weaving shuttle. 
The warp thread could have been 'thrown' and/or 'doubled' a number of time before winding evenly across a wooden beam.  The number of threads for the warp in silk production was staggering - over 4000 for a piece of fabric 30" wide.  To avoid having to manage a bobbin for each of the 4000 plus threads, a system was developed to wind on the warp in sections.
The beam was then moved to the loom and fine warp threads had then to be manually tied into the loom through the eyes of tiny 'heddles' to create the warp thread.  This stage of the process alone would have taken a skilled weaver many days to complete.
The development of 'Jacquard' heads in the early 1800s to operate silk looms enabled highly complex designs to be created.  This principle by Joseph Marie Jacquard was in many ways an early computer and informed work later undertaken by Charles Babbage.
The required patterns for weaving were translated onto a series of oblong cards where each card represented a pattern row.  I can only imagine the concentration required to complete this task accurately and the consequences of getting it wrong!
The punched cards were then strung together above the loom and linked up to hooks to control the lifting, or not, of the warp threads beneath.  It was this lifting of the warp threads before the pass of the weft shuttle thread that created the desired pattern.
Even with this mechanisation, the weaving of the weft thread was still a highly skilled job, increasing in complexity with the number of colours required to make up the pattern.  The passion for continuing to weave silk with hand looms was long lasting and Paradise Mill continued longer than most until the 1980s. 

I felt humbled by all that I learnt on a sunny spring afternoon at Paradise Mill.  The skill, concentration and effort required by the spinners and weavers of silk is beyond comprehension in our automated world.  I feel indebted to all those who worked long hours in noisy and grimy mills and I can only marvel at how beautiful silk fabric resulted at the end.
The weaving process today, although now usually automated, still operates on the same principle and it is vital that heritage textile sites like Macclesfield Museum and Paradise Silk Mill continue.  On the day I visited Paradise Mill, there was a party of school children who I am sure will remember Ian's tour and most importantly they will now have an understanding of how textiles are created today. Please do visit if you are in the North West - Macclesfield is a pretty Cheshire town easily reached from Junction 17 of the M6.

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