Silk in England

Alison Baird

England's first silk-weaving operations were established in the middle of the fifteenth century, and a small industry in ribbons, fringes, and other decorative items was moderately successful. However, it wasn't for another century that the industry would truly be born. In 1685, France's King Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes, which had permitted the practice of Protestant religions in that primarily Catholic nation. Thousands of French Protestants, known as Huguenots, emigrated to neighboring countries to escape religious persecution. Many silk weavers from Lyons settled in a suburb of London known as Spitalfields, where they re-established their trade. The Huguenot weavers brought skills and technology heretofore unavailable to the English, and the British silk industry blossomed. Silk-weaving took hold throughout England, and the cities of Derby, Dublin, Coventry, Manchester, and Macclesfield boasted many silk-weaving looms. However, the industry remained centered in Spitalfields.

The prosperity of the British silk industry was short-lived. Several attempts were made to cultivate silk in England, but the cool and moist climate proved to be unfavorable for sericulture; instead, silk manufacturers relied on skeins of raw and processed silk imported from the East. This reliance crippled the new industry, as a hefty duty was levied on all imported silk. Manufacturers passed this cost on to the consumer, increasing the price of a good that, in most respects, remained inferior to the Italian and French silks that were available for a comparable price.

In 1773, the weavers appealed to the government for assistance. To aid the failing industry, Parliament enacted a ban on the importation of foreign silk goods. The duty on raw silk was reduced concurrently. These laws stimulated a struggling industry, and the English silk industry entered its greatest age; quite ironically, this coincided with a period of war and unrest. For the next fifty years, England would be preoccupied with fighting two unsuccessful wars with its American colonies and a winning campaign against Napoleonic France. Before detailing the simultaneous highs and lows of the industry, however, the system of silk manufacture employed at the time should be described.

When one thinks of nineteenth-century textile manufacture, an image of a large factory filled with the clacking of power looms probably springs to mind. However, the British silk industry, at that time, employed a system of home manufacture to produce most silk goods. The manufacturing firms hand no factories; instead, they employed several hundred weavers, each of whom owned his own loom and workshop. Since the English climate was not well-suited to the raising of silkworms, manufacturers imported skeins of processed silk from the colonies of India and Bengal. The silk was dyed and distributed to weavers in the manufacturers' employ, who wove it into the specified type of cloth. The weavers then took the fabric back to the manufacturer, who inspected and weighed the cloth and determined the wages the weaver was due. The looms of Spitalfields produced fine damasks, velvets, satins, and brocades for both clothing and furniture, and the elegant fabrics produced there were in great demand throughout England. By 1800, silk weaving centers were established in Coventry, Macclesfield, and Manchester, though the quantity of material produced in those cities paled with Spitalfields' output.

George DoreeWith little competition and surging demand, the population of Spitalfields soared. However, the surge in the number of weavers was out-of-line with the demand for silk fabrics; the abundance of labor led to a decrease in wages and the standard of living for the once-prosperous community. Weavers typically worked at the looms for 14 to 16 hours per day, and yet many still couldn't make ends meet. A weaver's loom was often idle for lack of work, and, despite a minimum wage, weavers who procured labor received a pitiful salary. What meager income a weaver managed to receive was reduced further by the income tax Parliament implemented to help finance the war with France. In less than twenty years' time, the character of Spitalfields changed drastically. Cheap housing was constructed on any available parcel of land, and working conditions deteriorated. Nearly all contemporary writings about the town characterize it as overcrowded and unsanitary. One writer described the district as "immoral and dissolute, especially as regards to the younger and poorer sort; insomuch that many of the better sort have removed their habitations in the said hamlet to the great impoverishment thereof." According to a Parliamentary report, "All witnesses concurred in representing the houses and streets occupied by the East London weavers as of the poorest and most unwholesome description. [L]iving in such places and insufficiently fed, the weavers of Spitalfields exhibit a physical condition marked by general feebleness and liability to disease."

The problems in Spitalfields were only exacerbated with the defeat of Napoleon's forces at Waterloo in 1815. During the protracted war with the French, nearly one in four grown men served in the army, and the end of hostilities led to a great influx of laborers, leading to even greater suppression of wages. The income tax was repealed, but two consecutive years of poor harvests in the fields of England led to an astronomical rise in the cost of food. It was impossible for even fully-employed weavers to buy food to support their families. The weavers of Britain pleaded to Parliament for relief, but the government found no cause for easing the plight of the silk weavers.

Despite the misery of the workers and the whims of fashion, the English silk industry grew immensely in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. However, the technology used in British weaving remained primitive. While other nations, notably France, implemented power looms and fancy Jacquard apparatuses, the English continued to use time-consuming hand-operated looms. The domestic system of manufacture can be blamed for impeding the progress of weaving technology in Great Britain. The weavers, on the whole, were too poor to be able to afford the mechanized looms that could increase their output, and manufacturers would not be put to the expense of purchasing the equipment for their employees.

In 1824, Parliament passed a battery of laws that drastically changed the silk market in England. The high duty on raw silk was repealed, and the tax on silk thread was reduced by nearly one-half. However, these concessions to the silk manufacturers were to serve as a counterbalance for the main provision of the legislation: on July 5, 1826, the importation of foreign silk goods would become legal. A duty of about 30% would be levied on the Continental goods, but their superior quality posed a threat to the artificially-supported English industry. However, the threat of industry-wide collapse was the necessary impetus for change for the British silk weavers. Manufacturers used the money freed by the decrease in tariff to make necessary improvements in their weaving equipment, which also served to increase the output of silk fabric. The demand for silk weaving thread increased so dramatically that even foreign suppliers couldn't keep up with demand. In Spitalfields alone, 17,000 looms were in operation. As July 1826 approached, the weaving districts were filled with excitement and overproduction. However, some weavers and manufacturers retained their fears of the open market and vehemently protested the admission of foreign goods. The government ignored their pleas, and the markets were opened to foreign products as scheduled.

The opening of the market did not have the catastrophic effects that some weavers had predicted. The influx of novelty goods put silk in the height of fashion, and prices were lowered by the increased output from English looms. Even the whims of fashion did little harm to the British industry, for when the patterns of French silks were popular amongst London socialites, English silks would be in fashion in Paris. For several decades, production soared, and silk became one of the country's great industries. Mass production of silk cloth took hold as the power loom became more popular; however, the increase in production came at the expense of quality. In 1846, duties on foreign goods were reduced still further to 15%, making the fine and abundant French silks only marginally more expensive than their inferior English counterparts. The decreased demand and a simultaneous increase in weavers' wages crippled manufacturers, and many were driven to bankruptcy.

Although crippled, the English silk industry managed to hobble along until 1860. The Royal Speech that opened that year's session of Parliament contained one seemingly innocuous sentence that would be the death blow to the British industry: "I am in communication with the Emperor of the French with a view to expand the commercial intercourse between the two countries, and thus to draw still closer the bonds of friendly alliance between them." Legislation that removed almost all tariffs on goods imported from France passed through Parliament quickly and with little opposition; the bill pertaining to silk was approved on March 2nd of that year. Although the English permitted the importation of French silks without duty, the French were not nearly as kind to English silks. Although the astronomical duties on English fabrics were reduced to a 30%, English silks remained expensive, particularly in comparison with their cheaper and superior French counterparts. In Spitalfields, it became cheaper to import French silks than to manufacture them, and the always-struggling weavers were employed only intermittently if at all.

Statistics show just how dramatic was the decline of the British silk industry; in the ten years since the free-trade act, importation of French silks had increased tenfold. In Spitalfields, only 2,000 looms were in operation, down from the high of 24,000 circa 1830. The Coventry industry, which had once employed more than 9,000 looms, now had only 1,500 in use. The English silk industry would not enter a renaissance until the twentieth century.

In the one hundred years from the parliamentary ban on imported silk goods to the French treaty of 1860, the English silk industry experienced wealth and desolation, fashion and folly, success and failure. At the time of its greatest prosperity, the industry's workers lived in abject poverty, while manufacturers reaped wild profits. However, the removal of artificial government supports proved that the industry was neither strong nor efficient, and the laws of economics led to its eventual downfall.

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This page was last modified on Monday, August 26, 2002.