Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


This outline is taken from ray as yet unpublished book on The English Silk Industry 1700-1825, and especially from the chapters on raw silk and the distribution of the woven material. In addition, I have widened the scope for this talk to discuss the subject more generally. In terms of general economic history the quantities of silk produced and sold are minuscule but there are a lot of instructive points to be made which are of general importance - as well as some very pretty objects. The latter are "documents" in the French sense as well as works of art - a point that many people have heard me make only too often. One aspect which I shall state now and, no doubt, several more times in different ways is that we must understand for what a particular fibre was used and how that use may change. Since for all clothing and furnishing there were, effectively, four fibres this should seem self-evident but it does not always seem to be. On the other hand, statistics compiled in a period when in no sense were they compiled scientifically or objectively I prefer to treat with great caution. They can point research in a useful direction but not much more. The Customs compiled yearly statistics of imports and exports in the Port Books now in the Public Record Office in London [1], They used the great pound, however, and an out of date Book of Rates. So what ? The statistics did tell me to which countries English silks were exported and which were the most important markets, of which more anon.

Sources of raw silk: The Harp

Even at this first stage an appreciation of the real object is of great importance. The silk for the warp had to be of higher quality than that for the weft since it took the strain of the loom in weaving. Not every country which grew silk could produce a suitable quality. In the 17th-18th century there were two main sources. The first was China and it was imported into Europe with other goods by the English, French and Dutch East India Companies. The quality was usually excellent but it arrived spasmodically [2] making it difficult for silkmen and weavers alike. The second and more important source was Piedmont , an easy market for Lyon in the second half of the 17th century but as the English industry expanded competition in Piedmont between the French and English grew increasingly tense - and the price rose . Raw silk was also exported from Spain in the first half of the 18th century but it is not clear whether it was intended for the warp or the weft. Some silk was exported already thrown as organzine [3]. The pressure of demand led both countries to look for other sources in the 18th century. The English tried growing silk in Georgia and South Carolina but although the climate was suitable slave labour was not. [4] The white mulberry cannot be grown in Northern Europe as a commercial enterprise. Whether or not the myth is true that James I of England encouraged the planting of mulberries is irrelevant because what grows nicely in England is the red mulberry , delicious for humans but not for silk worms. The French were much more practical and began to grow silk in Provence where both labour and climate were suitable. This did not entirely satisfy their needs but reduced French dependence on Piedmont.