phone mail2 facebook twitter play

Silk and the City

18 February 2012

Once you know what to look for, it is hard to wander around modern Spitalfields without seeing the shadow of those French silkmen everywhere.

It’s whispering down the catwalk at Somerset House for London Fashion Week. It’s caressed by every tourist nipping into Liberty’s for an iconic paisley scarf.  And it’s the star of the current exhibition at the V&A, in the form of a shimmering golden cape that took 1.2 million Madagascan spiders, eight years and a team of expert handloom weavers to create. 
 
Silk is undeniably associated with elitism, elegance and expense. But according to biological engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto, it is in fact “the ancient material of the future”. In his brilliant TED Talk, Omenetto demonstrates how this “sustainable natural Kevlar” can be used to create holograms, optical fibres, dissolvable body implants, microneedles and LED tattoos. Far from being a heritage fabric, he believes that this “new old material could profoundly impact high technology, material science, medicine and global health.”
 
Silk’s ability to weave together the past and the future is beautifully evident at the Golden Spider Silk exhibition, which exemplifies the coming together of traditional extraction and weaving techniques with the bold vision of British textile artist Simon Peers and US designer entrepreneur Nicholas Godley. The cape itself could equally be a Madagascan antique or the latest piece of McQueen couture.
 
Indeed, the ancient silk industry has helped to shape modern London. But the history of silk and the city is one of violence, folly and persecution that belies the fabric’s refined image.
 
Silkworms, silk goods and the skills of sericulture first came to Europe thanks to a series of brutal conquests of Asia and Persia, from sixth century Romans, seventh century Arabs and medieval Crusaders in turn. France and Italy quickly developed strong silk industries, but our island lagged behind. And so in 1609 the aesthete king, James I, attempted to develop a native sericulture in England, by purchasing and planting 100,000 mulberry trees, partly on a plot beside his own Hampton Court. Unfortunately, James had ordered the black variety. Silk worms feed off white mulberry leaves. The experiment failed.
 
It wasn’t until 1681, when Charles II offered sanctuary to the Huguenots being oppressed by the Catholic Louis IX, that London really embraced silk. The trickle of French refugees became a river when, in 1685 Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes, forcing all remaining Huguenots to convert to Catholicism or face persecution.  From 1670 to 1710, 40-50,000 Huguenots, many of them wealthy and highly skilled weavers, sought refuge across the channel.
 
Most of them headed to Spitalfields, which became the centre of London’s silk trade, otherwise known as ‘weaver’s town’. East London was an ideal destination for the new arrivals, as food and accommodation was cheap, and the area was relatively free from the strict economic control wielded elsewhere by the guilds. By 1700 there were nine Huguenot churches in Spitalfields alone.
 
Once you know what to look for, it is hard to wander around modern Spitalfields without seeing the shadow of those French silkmen everywhere. Fournier Street was named after George Fournier, a master silk-weaver, and its elegant 1720s houses, notorious for their beautiful interiors filled with fine panelling and wooden carvings as well as large windows to let in maximum light for weaving, were built for prestigious colleagues in the trade.  
 
No. 14 was leased the firm of Signeratt and Bourdillon, and its garret attic housed the loom on which the silk for Queen Victoria’s Coronation gown was woven. At the east corner of the street, the London Jamme Masjid (Great Mosque) now occupies a building that was originally built to be a Huguenot church. On the south wall you can still spot a sundial carved with the Huguenots’ inscription from Horace’s Odes, ‘Umbra sumus’ – ‘we are shadows.’
 
As highly sought-after today as it was in the eighteenth century, Fournier Street has retained its artisanal atmosphere. For several years it has boasted the home and workshop of the provocative artists Gilbert & George - whose Deatho Knocko is currently on display on the fifth floor of Tate Modern – and in 2011, artist Gideon Cube-Sherman opened CubeFuture Gallery at No.33, which aims to “host projects exploring the future of art and mankind in the twenty-first century and the next millennium”. This is London at her best: a living melange of history and innovation, horror and beauty, carefully preserved yet also irreverently evolved.
 
Neighbouring Leman Street was named for James Leman, a silk manufacturer, designer and master weaver who took over the family business from his Huguenot father Peter Leman in 1706. When you’re visiting the spider silk cape in the V&A, take time to seek out Leman’s work, also displayed in the museum: 97 watercolour designs, bound in an original Spitalfields design book and dated 1706-1730. Featuring vibrant floral motifs with yellow and orange colours denoting the addition of metallic threads, they remind us that outstanding silk design talent has a long London history. With the upper classes clamouring for unique fashion crafted from the newly available silk, Leman and his colleagues were the Shoreditch trendsetters of their day.
 
By the end of the eighteenth century, London’s silk heyday was in decline.  In 1774 the local magistrates in Spitalfields began a series of attempts to regulate the industry, enforcing wage levels on both masters and workers. Unwilling to give up their freedom, firms started to move out to suburban towns such as Haverhill, Glemsford and Sudbury, where they could pay lower wages to willing country weavers, restriction-free.
 
But the capital is where it all started. So next time you pick up a hand-stitched silk shirt at Spitalfields market or notice an incongruously French street name, give a thought to London’s persecuted pioneers and their ‘new old material’ that helped make East London the style nucleus it is today.
 

Tell us what you think

You may also like

Courses to Inspire this Autumn at Morley College

Courses to Inspire this Autumn at Morley College

Learn a new skill with the wide range of courses on offer at Morley College - from singing to creative writing.

The V&A presents Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

The V&A presents Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

Discover the evolution of underwear design from the 18th-century to the present day, and explore the intimate relationship between underwear and fashion.

Win a Family Ticket

Win a Family Ticket

We're giving away 3 family tickets to Colchester Castle, allowing you and your family to watch history come alive!

London’s Roundhouse presents Ron Arad’s Curtain Call

London’s Roundhouse presents Ron Arad’s Curtain Call

In order to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Roundhouse is once more hosting Ron Arad's Curtain Call, an incredible, immersive art installation that will excite...

Proud Chelsea Presents - Image of an Icon: A Collaborative Exhibition

Proud Chelsea Presents - Image of an Icon: A Collaborative Exhibition

If you’ve ever wished you could be in the same room as some of the greatest and most influential icons of the 20th Century,...

Discover Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle

Discover Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle

Discover four brilliant venues displaying a huge range of gorgeous sculpture across Yorkshire.

A Cultural Guide to Bermondsey

A Cultural Guide to Bermondsey

Despite its very central location, Bermondsey has managed to retain a village-like feel to it, and remains one of London’s best-kept secrets.

Forced Collaborations - An interview with artist Paul Stephenson

Forced Collaborations - An interview with artist Paul Stephenson

London-based artist Paul Stephenson introduced his three newest bodies of work, ‘Watermark Paintings’, ‘Internet Paintings’, and ‘Reflection Paintings’ to a buzzing and eclectic crowd this...

This Week 1st – 7th August

This Week 1st – 7th August

As we move into summer proper, we all need a little break. But it’s not necessary to head abroad to enjoy sun, nature, great...

Win 2 Tickets to an Immersive Exhibition on War Films

Win 2 Tickets to an Immersive Exhibition on War Films

Win tickets to see a brilliant exhibition about war films at IWM London this summer.

More inspiration

“He’s an ordinary man who did extraordinary things” - An Interview with Michael Williams about The Mandela Trilogy

“He’s an ordinary man who did extraordinary things” - An Interview with Michael Williams about The Mandela Trilogy

The Mandela Trilogy is making its London debut at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall this month as part of the Africa Utopia festival, a...

This Week 22nd - 28th August

This Week 22nd - 28th August

With the Olympics over and the back-to-school shadow looming, you might be thinking the summer is well and truly over. Well, we’re here to...

A Guide to Vintage Shopping in London

A Guide to Vintage Shopping in London

Ever feel like there’s just nothing for you on the high street? Do you walk into mainstream clothes shop and despair at the fact...

Interview with Mark Leipacher : Shakespeare at Selfridge’s

Interview with Mark Leipacher : Shakespeare at Selfridge’s

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Selfridge’s has launched The refashioned Theatre, a pop-up space that will host a programme of...

“The Entertainer” - An interview with Sophie McShera

“The Entertainer” - An interview with Sophie McShera

Sophie McShera is no stranger to playing strong, fiery women. Known for her role as kitchen maid Daisy Robinson in Golden Globe winning period drama...

Your inbox deserves a little culture!