Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Spitalfields Silk.

This book is going back to the library now, where it will no doubt return to the vaults.

It waited a long time for its place in the light,

and for about eight weeks I have had it on my desk - dipping in, trying to take notes. It was published around 1912, when colour prints are clearly something precious and rare; each one is faced with some transparent paper, as if the colour isn't quite fast and will smudge onto the facing page if not protected.

It's a huge volume of 664 pages, and it took a great deal of effort to glean the grains from the quite considerable amount of chaff, but what I loved most, I think, were the interviews with silk workers, and then the way the author explored their homes. I concentrated on the silkworkers of Spitalfields in London.

There were three classes of silk worker: the weaver who worked and lived alongside his loom on the upper floor of his house (this photo is from Macclesfield, but I am sure the houses in Spitalfields were very similar).

These people were poor. They were small, badly nourished, pale and ill. They worked continually, the parents and children each with specific tasks: punching out cards for the Jacquard looms, preparing the warp and weft, patterning, threading the looms and of course the business shooting the shuttle back and forth - all in servitude to queen silk. They ate where they worked, tied their children to their stations, and carried on until there was no longer enough light to see. Sundays were their only day of rest, and then the children played for a few hours outdoors while the mother made the only hot meal of the week.

At the other end of the social scale were the merchants. These lived in grand house in Spital Square. They organised the weavers and traded their cloth, and Sir Frank Warner describes going into one of these houses too. In the basement was spare machinery, on the ground floor a warehouse and a place where silk skeins and finished bales were brought in, weighed and then collected. Here the weavers waited on benches in a narrow corridor for their work to be examined. I imagine them nervous and subservient, completely dependent on the mood of the merchant.

On the first floor was where the merchant's family lived - in a room full of Victorian paraphernalia: inelegant large mahogany furniture, window seats, portraits of the family, a few books, and then, along one wall, the ultimate symbol of social advancement: a piano with a fancy silk rosette on the front. Another indication of their affluent life was the fortnight the family spent in Margate each summer in the same boarding house, year after year.

Only one of these houses survives - 37 Spital Square, and here it is on Street View in Google maps (the darker building) - it and its immediate neighbours sandwiched between the modern glass towers of that part of the East End.

View Larger Map

It is headquarters of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings established by William Morris (coincidentally a silk enthusiast and one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement).

Between the weavers and the merchants - geographically, socially and financially - were the skilled craftsmen and tradesmen who also served the silk industry. They made the looms, for example, or bought in supplies for the upper classes.

One thing that comes over clearly is that whatever their income these people were, in general, proud of what they did. They kept samples of their cloth - bits of velvet in rich colours, or a complicatedly patterned brocade, or a shimmering piece of satin - in boxes or in frames and stuck them on the wall.

They also loved the sounds of birds and kept linnets, canaries and fancy pigeons in cages where they worked or in the yards, which were devoted to another of their passions - flowers and mulberry trees. They were a peaceful, conventional and home-loving people - even though these homes became steadily more dismal and impoverished as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth. There were no drains or sewage systems and any rubbish was simply thrown out onto the unpaved dirt track of the street. As the population grew the gardens were converted into pigsties and chicken runs. Sir Frank Warner describes houses with more paper in the window frames than glass, where goods were bought with charity slips, and the only relief was in the escapism and dreams of astrological readings. But in the mid-nineteenth century things became even worse.

In 1861, despite protests from the London silk industry, the government agreed 'free trade' with France. This, in fact, was only free in one direction - no duty on goods going into the UK, but 30% on UK goods going into France. As predicted the effect was devastating on Spitalfields (although beneficial to the UK textile industry as a whole). Cheap silk from France flooded in and the East End could not compete. Only the craftsmen who wove the more expensive silk survived. The majority of weavers had to find other employment - in the textile factories in the northof England perhaps, or in some other trade entirely, and it was this that caused them to disperse: out of Spitalfields to adjacent parishes or to another area entirely.

Within a few years Spitalfields was no longer an area of silk, and two hundred years of a unique British industry ended.


Blogger Jud said...

That is fascinating, Clare. I love finding places mentioned in musty tomes.

Tue Jul 21, 11:57:00 pm  
Anonymous Mary said...

You're touching on a subject close to my heart. I majored in weaving in college.

Wed Jul 22, 04:26:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Jud, I have become a little obsessed with this area of London, and keep wanting to go back. It seems a hugely interesting area.

Mary: Wow, really! I can't find much on weaving, and it is so complicated. Did you come across any good books on the subject?

Wed Jul 22, 07:22:00 am  
Blogger barb said...

Clare, this is a wonderful meditation. I agree, Spitalfields is fascinating, washed as it is by the tides of people coming and going. I was interested in the link with Wm Morris, as I live in Walthamstow where his home as a teenager (housing the famous woodpecker tapestry) still stands. Re weaving, have you tried the V&A's national art library?

Thu Jul 23, 12:41:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thank you Barb, and thank you for coming to this blog. I've not really investigated much about William Morris yet, and am fascinated to hear about his house in Walthamstow. That sunds like it is definitely worth a visit. I have gone to the V&A just recently, but didn't know about their art library - so thanks fro that too! Sounds like I need to make another visit to London.

Thu Jul 23, 07:28:00 am  
Blogger Kay said...

You certainly know how to research stuff Clare! And then you have the generosity to take the time to share the wonderful discoveries you've made with us - I for one say Thank You!

Thu Jul 23, 10:27:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

It is my pleasure, Kay. I very much value your comments.

Thu Jul 23, 12:36:00 pm  
Anonymous Mary said...

There were three books on weaving that I purchased when I was in college. Our textbook was "Weaving: A Handbook of the Fiber Arts" by Shirley E. Held, published in 1973, second edition in 1978.

There's also "The Art of Weaving" by Else Regensteiner. The 3rd edition (my copy) was published in 1986.

Finally, there's "A Handweaver's Pattern Book" by Marguerite Porter Davison, first printing in May 1944, twenty-sixth printing in January 1989.

These latter two books are considered classics and are full of patterns. I think they're classics probably because hardly any comprehensive books are around on the topic.

If you have any questions about the process, Clare, shoot me an email.

Fri Jul 24, 04:18:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thank you Mary! So there really is a dearth on books about weaving - how interesting, I wonder why. I'll certainly take a look at these because it is quite difficult to follow. I think it is something that it is necessary to do for yourself to really understand.

Fri Jul 24, 08:05:00 am  
Blogger Meadowcroft said...

Thank you for this excellent post. Found your blog by searching for Spitalfield weavers in an attempt to learn about the living conditions of my weaving ancestors.


Fri Jul 24, 07:01:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I'm very glad you found it useful, Jayne. There is surprisingly little on the Huguenots, I've found, considering they are the ancestors of so many of us.

Fri Jul 24, 08:05:00 pm  
Anonymous Mary said...

Clare - It really does help to experience weaving first-hand. I took to it right away, which I think is a little unusual. You have to be very organized and patient in order to dress the loom with the warp. Most of the weavers I was in class with hated dressing the loom, but I rather liked it.

There are several steps to the process and typically, once you've started a step, it's best to finish it in one go. After you decide on a project and figure out how much yarn you need, you have to measure out the required number of warp threads on a warping board.

Then you have to wind the warp onto the back beam of the loom, hopefully while someone holds the warp firmly and evenly from the front.

Then it's time to thread the warp through the heddles, which are typically either metal or string and are attached to the harnesses. This takes great concentration because if you thread it wrong, your pattern will come out wrong and you'll have to undo the following 2 steps and come back to this one. (Not fun!)

The next step is threading the warp through the reed. The reed spaces the warp threads evenly across the piece, with there being so many threads per inch.

The next step is to tie the warp strings onto the front beam. This needs to be done with very even tension or the weaving will be messy.

After weaving in some rag strips at the beginning of the piece in order to properly space the warp, the weaver can finally start weaving the pattern.

There is nothing finer than seeing a well-dressed loom, warp threads awaiting the weft.

When it comes to the weaving, operating the pedals, throwing the weft through the shed (opening between warp threads created by lifting harnesses), and pulling the warp firmly - but not too tightly - against the selvage warps takes rhythm and a certain touch. I can feel when the weft is properly placed against the selvage warps. Judging by how messy some beginning weavers' selvage edges were, this isn't necessarily a natural thing.

Sun Jul 26, 08:40:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

This is marvellous, Mary! It makes me realise what a skillful business it is - a lot more complicated than the simple weaving I did at school. I've seen a handloom (a Jacquard) in action, but I didn't really 'get' it to be honest. I think I need to go on a course if I can find one - but what you've written here gives me a real feel for how it must be to a proper weaver. Thank you so much!

Mon Jul 27, 02:45:00 am  
Anonymous Mary said...

You're welcome, Clare. Just writing about it makes me want to dress the loom and weave. Haven't done that in a long time because we have three cats who are very attracted to a dressed loom and we can't close the room the loom is in.

If you can find a class, I'd definitely recommend taking one. If you have any more questions about weaving, feel free to ask.

Wed Jul 29, 02:50:00 am  

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