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.
"I had a cup of tea with Howard Brenton who I think is possibly the best living playwright that’s written for the Globe. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Keep the story going. This place eats story’."