Date of this Version
Published in Hidden Stories/Human Lives: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 17th Biennial Symposium, October 15-17, 2020. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/
When looking at seventeenth-century silk- and gold-embroidered jackets or heavily wrought cabinets, most people focus on the embroiderer’s skill. Instead, my interest rests with the makers of the thread used to create such luxuries—silk thread, gold thread, and silver thread. Perhaps surprisingly, many early thread makers were women, owners, and managers of home-based industries in which spinning gold and silver was their business and livelihood.
Unfortunately, the history of gold spinning in seventeenth-century England is one of “scandal and imprisonment,” with women’s prominent role neglected by history. Beginning in the 1620s, women gold spinners were thrown in jail for refusing to pay bribes, their homes were raided by constables, and they were tried in sham courts. Political cartoonists lampooned King James I over patents he imposed on embroidery thread, resulting in a rare impassioned speech apologizing to Parliament. This drama played out in different ways across the century, with repeated accusations of thievery and deceit by the thread makers. The claims were used by competing guilds and budding capitalists to wrest control of the valuable gold spinning workshops, turning thousands of small businesswomen into low-wage earners. Women who had previously spun precious metals, were no longer allowed to practice their craft.
This presentation will reveal the once hidden lives of women gold spinners in seventeenth-century England, documenting with primary sources their gradual evolution from successful businesswomen to hourly workers in an industry they once dominated. It will also argue that some of these women, now barred from working with precious metals, chose to convert their gold spinning factories to factories that produced composite silk threads instead. This, in turn, accounts for the sudden appearance of large quantities of silk embroidery threads later in the century and the subsequent schoolgirl craze for stumpwork and embroidered caskets.