Silk Industry

Silk filament is a fine, tough, elastic fibre produced by caterpillars called 'bombyx mori'. For thirty-five days after it has hatched from the eggs laid by its parent moth, the caterpillar, normally referred to as a silkworm, spends its time eating the leaves of a mulberry tree. It then, in the course of two or three days' spinning, it surrounds itself in a cocoon which consists of a continuous and very fine filament of silk. The silkworm then turns itself into a moth, which escapes by making a hole through the cocoon.

The silk filament was first made into cloth in Ancient China. First the cocoons were placed into very hot water to soften the sticky gum, sericin, that holds the filament together. The ends of the filament is found and is then unwound. This process is called reeling. The silk filament, which can be as much as a mile long, is then put on to large reels, known as swifts. Unlike cotton or wool, silk is not spun but twisted. Hence the term throwing rather than spinning. Throwing involves the revolving of two sets of bobbins at different, carefully adjusted, speeds.

The art of producing silk cloth reached France, Spain and Italy in the 12th century. The weaving of silk was introduced to England by Flemish refugees in the 16th century and was greatly developed after 1685 when the Huguenots from France established themselves at Spitalfields in London.

The industry developed slowly because the shortage of raw silk and competition from the cloth being made in Italy, France and China. The main centres of the silk industry in England in the 16th century was London, Coventry and Norwich.

In 1718 Thomas Lombe obtained a patent for a "new invention of three sorts of engines never before made or used in Great Britain, one to wind the finest raw silk, another to spin, and the other to twist". His critics later claimed that his invention was based on a machine that had been used in Italy since the early part of the 17th century.

After making several of these silk weaving engines, Thomas and his brother, John Lombe, built a silk mill in Derby. It was claimed by William Hutton, in the History of Derby, that the Italians were so angry that the Lombe brothers had stolen their invention, that they sent a women to kill the two brothers. John Lombe did die in 1722 and Hutton argued he was poisoned.

By the 1730s Thomas Lombe employed over 300 workers in his large factory in Derby. This inspired others to imitate his success. Silk factories were established in Manchester, London, Norwich, Macclesfield, Chesterfield and Stockport.

In 1793 George Courtauld and Peter Nouaille opened a silk mill in Sevenoaks, Kent. The two men argued over politics and eventually Courtauld opened his own silk mill in Braintree in Essex. Courtauld specialized in crape, a hard, stiff silk, which was used for mourning clothing. Production was increased after Courtauld developed a new silk spindle in 1814.

In the early part of the 19th century, Joseph Jacquard, a silk weaver in France, invented a loom that allowed patterns to be woven without the intervention of the weaver. At first Jacquard's looms were destroyed by weavers who feared unemployment. By 1812 there were 11,000 Jacquard looms working in France, and they were also beginning to appear in other countries.

The growth of the use of the Jacquard loom in the 1820s gave the textile industry a tremendous boost in Britain. By 1833 there were about 100,000 power-looms being used in this country that had been influenced by Jacquard's invention.

After George Courtauld's death the business was run by his son, Samuel Courtauld, Peter Taylor and Peter Alfred Taylor. The industry became more mechanized after the invention in 1836 of a spinning machine which could deal with short fibres. By the middle of the 19th century Courtauld, Taylor & Courtauld employed over 2,000 people in its three silk mills. Overall, by 1851, over 130,000 people were employed in the silk industry in Britain.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Employment in the Silk Industry

Year

Males

Females

Total

1851

53,936

76,787

130,723

1861

43,732

72,588

116,320

1871

29,225

53,738

82,963

1881

22,205

42,630

64,835

1891

19,090

32,937

52.027

1901

13,859

25,176

39,035

(2) The Silk Industry in England and Wales.

Year

Factories

Power-Looms

1850

272

6,092

1861

761

10,635

1870

696

12,546

1878

706

12,546

1885

691

11,966

1901

623

11,464