This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 8th May 1995 (p.7), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)


An indication of the antiquity of breeding silk worms, or sericulture, lies in a Chinese story set about 4,600 years ago, telling how the wife of Emperor Huang Ti found a way to unravel the cocoons of silk worms. Even though it took 1,200 threads laid side by side to cover a single inch (2.5cm), and 1,000 cocoons to make just one gown, there were people in China with patience enough to spin the threads into cloth. The Empress, it is said, was made a goddess for giving silk to the world.

Chinese silk began to find its way into other lands and was highly prized, but the method of manufacture was kept secret, and silk remained a rare and costly luxury for hundreds of years. Under Chinese law, the death penalty awaited anyone who took either silk worms or eggs out of the country, or even the mulberry seeds on which silk worms fed. Outsiders knew so little that they thought silk was a crop.

In time the secret leaked out, and by at least the 15th century raw silk was being imported into England from Italy and France. The Far East remained the chief source, since the breeding of silkworms and the handling of cocoons was only viable where there was an abundance of cheap labour. In the sense that the silkworm has already spun its threads, silk does not need to be spun like cotton or wool. However, the gossamer-like threads have to be combined into larger strands for weaving into fabric.

Attempts at breeding silkworms in England were unsuccessful. Even the great naturalist Sir Joseph Banks had no luck, although the mulberry tree which he planted in his garden at Ashover still survives.

The various preparatory processes of throwing, twisting, winding and dyeing silk thread gradually became well established. By the late 1600s, Macclesfield throwsters were supplying high quality thread to the silk weavers of Spitalfields in London, who had settled and set up their looms here after fleeing religious persecution in France.

In 1702 Thomas Cotchett set up silk throwing machinery in a mill on the Derwent in Derby. By 1789 Derby had 12 mills, while Macclesfield had become the country’s major silk weaving centre. During the Napoleonic wars Macclesfield benefited enormously from a nationwide ban on the import of French silk.

Fine silk demanded the highest quality thread. Inferior grades, known as waste, were perfectly adequate for such items as ribbons, hat bands, fringes, sewing thread, stockings and knee garters, all produced by home workers around Macclesfield and Leek. After the construction of a branch of the Caldon Canal in the 1790s, the number of silk workers centred on Leek reached more than 3,000. Largely working from their own homes, they specialised in gowns, shawls, haberdashery and kerchiefs. Silk dyeing was established in the town in the early 19th century.


From Macclesfield and Leek it was no great distance to villages on the Staffordshire moorlands. A silk mill existed on the River Dane at Gradbach as early as 1640, while 19th-century enterprise led to the establishment of a small industrial village around Gradbach Mill, Quarnford. This mill was operated in the 1860s by Bowden Bower Dakeyn, who also worked Dane Bridge silk mill near Wincle. Gradbach ceased production in the 1870s and the workers’ cottages have since been demolished.

Production had already ended at Gin Clough Mill, Rainow, where hand looms were worked in many homes for over a century. Hollinsclough told a similar story; in the latter half of the 18th century, almost 50 households supplemented their income by weaving small articles of Macclesfield silk. Packhorses crossing Axe Edge delivered the thread to Hollinsclough and took back finished work to the merchants of Macclesfield. In the late 1800s, one solitary, very old silk weaver was still at work in a shed near her cottage on the edge of Hollinsclough Moor.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, a cottage industry thrived at Middleton by Youlgreave, where women wove silk and cotton lace.

A major factor leading to the demise of home weaving was the abolition in 1824 of high import duties on imported raw silk. This was intended to concentrate resources on throwing rather than weaving, with the result that only looms powered by water or steam remained truly viable.

The large Crag Mills at Wildboarclough were purpose-built silk mills with machinery installed by James Brindley. A small silk mill stood on the sheepwash at Peak Forest, and another was recorded at the bottom of Water Lane, Bradwell in 1800. Others stood at Alstonefield, where 64 silk workers were employed in 1838, and at Upper Hulme on the River Churnet, which converted to silk dyeing in 1869. Wirksworth Heritage Centre is housed in the old Crown Yard silk and velvet mill in the market place. This business was established in the late 1840s by Samuel Evans, husband of Elizabeth, the aunt of novelist George Eliot. The mill flourished and Samuel Evans junior followed his father into the business. He appears on the 1851 census as ‘draper and silk manufacturer’ and is known to have employed nearly 30 workers. A general depression closed the mill around 1878.


Meanwhile, Eyam and Tideswell had become active silk weaving centres, with three workshops operating at Eyam in 1857. Yarn was fetched on foot from Tideswell, where an agency had been set up as a collection point by dealers from Macclesfield. Finished goods included brightly-coloured scarves and handkerchiefs for export in large quantities to Africa. A silk workshop at the west end of Eyam, later used as a shoe factory, belonged to Ralph Wain who, after many years of trying, developed a process for reproducing designs on both sides of silk fabric. Wain, an illiterate semi-recluse, was persuaded to sell his valuable invention to the Macclesfield firm supplying his silk.

Handloom silk weaving was introduced to Tideswell as a cottage industry in the early 19th century. Again the silk came from Macclesfield and the trade continued until about 1900. Production at the old silk mills of Derby had already ended, whereas Paradise Mill at Macclesfield continued as a working silk mill until 1981. It is now a museum open to visitors.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 8th May 1995;
Updated 18th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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