This small but exquisite exhibition tracing the history of silk in England from the 18th century to the present day is on until 8 October 2017 at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, Suffolk. It focuses on the diaspora of silk manufacture from Spitalfields in east London to Sudbury and draws together artworks and textiles from national and local collections.
The objects include silk pattern books and historic costume, and paintings and drawings featuring silk fashions of the era but my favourites were examples of the astonishingly beautiful designs of Anna Maria Garthwaite.
Little-known fact: Sudbury is still a centre of silk production. Nearly 95 per cent of the UK’s woven silk textiles is produced by three working mills: Vanners Silk Weavers, Stephen Walters & Sons and Gainsborough Silks.
The silk trade was dominated by Huguenot (Protestant) emigrés fleeing the persecution in France and their descendants. Quite coincidentally, I happened to come across a sweet chapter about the last of Spitalfields Huguenot weavers in Ghosts of London by the journalist V. H. Morton (published in 1939), a book left to me by my father. The life of the elderly brother and sister (whose surname is Poyton) probably has not changed much since that of their ancestors in the 18th century. Morton says that they are among only 16 to 18 remaining weavers:
‘In a neat little house in a dreary street on the boundary of Spitalfields an old man and his sister work all day at two hand looms. Those complicated structures, which even science has not been able to simplify, occupy the entire bedroom space in the house and, as you go in, you must press yourself into a narrow space between the looms.’
The Poytons worked from 8am to 8pm and continued after dark, their work lit by oil lamps. They knew that silkweaving was in steep decline in Spitalfields (their trade was reduced to piece work, and they were then weaving silk for Old Etonian ties) and complained that young people refused to toil from dawn to dark, preferring jobs that allowed them to ‘get off to the cinema and to the dance hall’.