On Saturday 6 August, as an optional extra of the study visit to the ‘Making Space’ exhibition at the Macclesfield Silk Museum, four of us also took a tour of the Paradise Mill with tour guide, Derek.
In 1743 Charles Roe built the first water-powered mill in the town, and Macclesfield soon became Britain’s main centre of silk production. Paradise Mill opened in 1862 and is preserved in the condition that dates to the 1930s.
Our guide first explained how the silk used in the Mill was obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm (fed on white mulberry) Bombyx mori. These insects are reared in captivity (known as sericulture). The unfortunate creatures are killed (by boiling or piercing with a needle), allowing the whole thread to be unwound from the cocoon unbroken. The white fibre obtained is dyed and wound into skeins (seen at the bottom of this machine).
This pirn winder (above) transfers the silk fibre from the skein, to a neatly wound reel, ready for weaving either the warp or the weft of the fabric. Pirn winding could also be worked on manual machines, forming a single reel of thread at a time: a job often carried out by children.
The creel (shown at right of the photo above) is loaded with reels of silk ready for preparing the warp threads.
The creel machine tensions the warp threads onto a beam, ready for warping, when transfered to the loom. 9,200 warp threads are attached for a full width of fabric. Smaller reels of thread are inserted into the shuttles for weaving the weft of the fabric.
The looms in this part of the Mill are Jacquard looms, operated by a series of ‘instruction’ cards with holes punched in them (similar to those used in early computors). The design was drawn out on graph paper with 8 sections per square (shown at right, above). The design was transferred by skilled and highly paid workers to the cards, using four fingers of each hand to work finger levers, while their eyes travel along from left to right of the design, ‘reading’ one line at a time, on a machine that punches the holes. The Jacquard loom has pins that mechanically read the cards, causing the loom to create the appropriate sheds between the warp fibres for the weft to pass through, thus creating the pattern.
To distinguish between the different sets of cards, each has a label with a sample of the cloth produced, and written details on the reverse.
A sample of the very fine pattern that can be produced by this method. A good weaver could produce 15 yards of fabric per week. Many of the looms have been restored to working condition and Derek gave us a demonstation of one in action, involving a foot pedal to select the next instruction card, and manual action to propel the shuttle back and forth and to do the ‘beating-up’, when the weft is pushed down to line up with the already woven fabric.
The Mill produced silk that was used, for example, for covering buttons, in the late 18th century, but was taken over by Cartwright & Sheldon in 1912. The company manufactured hand-woven silk for use in tie making (examples shown above). The Jacquard system allowed for a more intricate design than the power looms could achieve at that time. Nowadays the Jacquard process is performed electronically using CAD (computor aided design).
Paradise Mill ceased production in the 1960s, when cheap imports from China began to dominate the market. It had managed to keep going that long, by manufacturing specialist fabrics. An example of a commission undertaken showed a photographic portrait of a man, converted into a chart on graph paper, transferred into the punched cards and so to a tiny, detailed, one inch version in the finished silk textile.
Two YouTube videos shows tours around the Mill.
This was a clearly explained tour of the Jacquard looms, and, because of the state of preservation of the Mill, it was easy to imagine it in full production, with a busy workforce, 25% of whom were children. Derek had demonstrated some of the machinery and the noise of all of them running at once must have been tremendous. It was poignant to think of the once thriving industry reduced to a museum; with the loss of many livelihoods and skills.
Thinking of my own work, I had tried simple weaving as a child with cardboard looms and wool, and later I had used a table top loom to make experimental textiles out of mixed waste fabrics with string warps. I’m not sure that I have the patience or temperament for the careful warping process required before weaving, and it is not something I have returned to, although I admire the tradition, the process and the resulting textiles.
The silk fibres and textiles are quite beautiful, with their fine handle and shimmering, quality. I love the bright colours that can be achieved by dying the fibre. I was interested to read that the gleaming look of the fibre is due to its structure: a triangular prism-like form that refracts incoming light at different angles. ‘Wild silk’ collected from cocoons gathered in the wild, from which the silk worm pupae have emerged naturally, seems like an ethical alternative to the farmed fibres, but it does require carding to produce a fibre from the shorter lengths of silk obtained from the damaged cocoons, and is therefore less fine in texture.
All consulted 12/08/16