Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Salon: The Wardle Story

A year or so ago, I came across a book called Silk and Empire by Brenda King. I made 27 pages of notes. It dealt with a little-known story of how a man called Thomas Wardle was responsible for the invigoration of the silk industry in India.

Last year was the centenary of Wardle's death, and this was marked by an excellent exhibition of textiles in Macclesfield Silk Museum showing the beautiful silk embroidery and design of Elizabeth Wardle, Thomas's wife, using silk provided by her husband's dyeworks. Brenda King also published a book which seems to be an ideal accompaniment to the exhibition called Dye, Print, Stitch,

which is an appreciation of the Wardles' life and works and is sumptuously illustrated with pictures of the silk embroidery.

I admire anyone who has the patience to embroider. It was something we had to do at school, a girls-only occupation, a sexism I immediately resented. We were given pieces of felt to make needle-cases and had to practise embroidering our names on the front of them in various stitches, including a girl called Jadwiga, whose second name was so long it wouldn't fit and had to be curled around the outside. I remember her being told-off for inadequate planning, and then being ticked off again when her piece of embroidered gingham stood up in a dome because her daisy chain stitch had been drawn too tight. Poor Jadwiga, she bore all the humiliation in her usual stoic manner: I felt a certain camaraderie with the girl because she and I were always the last to be picked for teams during games.

However, the grubby little bits of gingham we produced were nothing like the works of art produced by Elizabeth Wardle. She started the Leek Embroidery Society, and using just a few simple stitches, managed to achieve some stunning effects. Faces were her particular speciality; for these she used just one colour, evoking the features by the changing the direction of the stitches. The silk she used was an especially reflective sort called tussore, one of the wild silks of India. Yesterday, I borrowed both these Brenda King books from the library, together with an older book called The Wardle Story by Anne Jacques. This turned out to be a straightforward and fascinating biography, and I spent all day yesterday reading it.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Joshua, Thomas Wardle started life as a dyer, and, also like his father, become interested in the challenge of getting tussore silk to take up dye. Although a strong and particularly gleaming yarn, it was difficult to colour, which limited its use. The solution lay in removing the excessive gum or seracin of the Tussore cocoon. He also became interested in natural dyes, and in particular the ancient natural dyes and patterns of India. He discovered that by improving the mordant, which causes the dye to penetrate the silk, he could improve the fastness of the dye (and thereby cause it to become less 'fugitive').

The natural dyes gave more subtle, harmonious colours than the recently discovered aniline dyes, which was something William Morris, of the Arts and Crafts movement appreciated. He came to Wardle's dyeworks in Leek to learn for himself how to dye with natural colours. For several years the two co-operated to extend the range, the colour indigo proving particularly problematic. As William Morris learnt the craft of dyeing, so Thomas Wardle learnt much about design and block printing. It was a fruitful relationship for them both. Morris sold Wardle's silk in his shop and encouraged Liberty's to buy it too, and when Elizabeth Wardle's embroidery became popular, he produced designs for her embroidery school. Morris was very friendly with the Wardles, and they stayed in contact until William Morris died twenty years later.

From the start Thomas Wardle seems to have had philanthropic tendencies, sharing what he discovered with the people of India. His interest in dyeing led to an interest in the silk itself, finding that the quality of the Indian silk depended on the way it was reeled from the cocoon and the sericin gum binding the strands together was loosened.

At first he concentrated on helping the more established silk producing areas in Bengal, and encouraged the popularity of Indian silk, particularly tussore. However, he then heard that in Kashmir, on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, bombyx mori, the domesticated silkworm of China, could be found wild and the climate was ideal for cultivating silkworms. So, towards the end of his life he advised the Indian government on what improvements in sericulture could be made there, using what he had learnt on visits to Lyon and Milan. Eventually, an industry which had been on the verge of dying out, was rejuvenated and employed tens of thousands of people who would otherwise have starved. Eventually, at the age of 72, and after his wife had died, Wardle visited Kashmir in triumph, completing the arduous journey into the mountains sometimes on an elephant.

Like William Morris, Thomas Wardle was interested in many different areas, wrote books on geology, drainage, and sewage, as well as writing music, heading field exhibitions and giving popular lectures. He was knighted for his contribution to the British silk industry, and yet, the book concludes, made no lasting legacy. His impressive achievements in silk - both in the UK and India - did not last very long because of the advent of artificial silk and fibres which were soon to radically change the textile industry. As I think about this I wonder if it is that which really matters, or is it the way he changed so many lives which, through subsequent generations, must be an enduring legacy.

Thomas Wardle with his 10 surviving children (although the child on his lap, Francis, lived only until he was aged 10).


Blogger D said...

This is fascinating! I'm so keen on embroidery but never thought of silk embroidery as a sub-genre within the needlework realm. Thanks for sharing.

The thing about traditional ways of producing silk is all about delicacy and the experiences associated to its different stages. I kept in my mind, since I've read Baricco's "Silk" many years ago, the careful procedures silkworm eggs require - and now I learn from you that dying silk threads was also a fragile and time-consuming technique.

I do agree with you about the Wardle's legacy. Humans still have difficulty in worshipping intangible legacies in economic activities. It's a shame.

Sun Nov 21, 01:17:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Ah yes, Andréia I've read Baricco too! It's a very sweet tale - almost like a farystory. And yes, very good on the conditions required.

Have you read W G Sebald's Rings of Saturn? It is very interesting about silk. And just recently I read Rose Tremain's Trespass which also had a lot about silkworms, and now someone has written to tell me they feature in Tom McCarthy's I am going to have to read that too. There's silkworms everywhere in literature, it seems (or maybe I am just noticing them more after my experiments last year)!

Sun Nov 21, 02:36:00 pm  
Anonymous Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Wow, what fabulous looking pieces! I, too, was taught to embroider as a child (one of the womanly arts, lol), but actually enjoyed some of it. I always wanted to know how to do needlepoint, but I wasn't that good at embroidery, so I don't think I could have mastered that.

Here's my Salon:

(click my name)

Sun Nov 21, 02:58:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

No, I don't think I would master needlepoint either, Laurel-Rain - I have no patience.

Sun Nov 21, 03:05:00 pm  
Blogger D said...

Yes, I did! It's beautiful. I've also read early this year a post about Sebald's fascination with the biology of silkworm moths. Perhaps you've read it, but just in case: it is called "Writing as weaving" and can be read at the blog Vertigo (
The curious thing about you mentioning Sebald is that his writing, alongside Murakami's, are my favourites literary desserts (I think you know what I mean).

I don't know Rose Tremain's Trespass or Tom McCarthy's C, perhaps I'll have time to catch up with them in 2011. I'm looking forward to reading your comments on Tom McCarthy's book.

Hope you have a productive week!

Mon Nov 22, 09:28:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

No, I hadn't read that post - thanks for the link, it's a good one.

I think we have very similar tastes, Andréia! Sebald is one of my favourite writers too.

I'm a little wary of C for some reason, I'm not sure I'm going to like it, but I think I had better give it a go.

Mon Nov 22, 09:39:00 am  
Blogger Derby Tup said...

I saw Brenda King speak on Waddle last week. Fascinating post. Thanks

Mon Mar 09, 07:04:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Derby Tup! I bet that talk was fascinating too.

Mon Mar 09, 08:05:00 am  

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