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Leon Burman

Making Connections: a visit to Macclesfield Silk Museum and Paradise Mill

By admin 28.09.2022

Marion Brinton is a Silk Mill Trustee, a founder member of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, works for Historic England and is a passionate believer in the value of the historic environment in enriching our everyday lives. She recently visited Macclesfield Silk Museum

“The entry of Japan into the Second World War in 1940 was devastating for the British silk industry. The main sources of raw silk were now in enemy hands. Silk was vital to the war effort, famously being used in parachutes, but it had other uses that weren’t quite as well known, such as gloves and jacket linings for airmen, bandages for burns victims, escape maps (in case airmen had to bail out of aircraft over enemy territory) and for insulating electrical cables. Such was the importance of silk that the government controlled all production (no more silk stockings!) and sent a man from Macclesfield on the search for new areas of silk production which eventually opened up trading with Lebanon.

This is a fascinating story of which I had not previously been aware, and it’s all set out in the Macclesfield Silk Museum which I visited recently to learn more about our silk heritage. During the war, all silk was imported into Macclesfield and then distributed across the country to manufacturers. Silk must have been sent to our very own Whitchurch Silk Mill which was employed in making insulation for cables.

The connections between Whitchurch and Macclesfield have given me lots of ideas for possible future exhibitions where the two museums might collaborate. It would be great if the Macclesfield museum could lend us the dress they have which is made from escape maps- an unusual example of ‘make do and mend’. Maybe we could work with the Imperial War Museum to find out more about these maps and how they were used – were any of them crucial in the safe return of an airman? Does anyone in Hampshire have an escape story to tell or a much-treasured escape map?

If you haven’t been to the Macclesfield Silk Museum and Paradise Mill alongside it, do go, it’s well worth a visit. In the museum, which is more extensive than WSM, they have lots of machinery for spinning and weaving processes but also for printing silk, making tassels, cord and ribbons. Currently, they have a special exhibition called ‘Macc Silk’ which is about the conservation of dresses from the 1920s to the 1940s, made from distinctive mass-produced striped silk. The ladies of Macclesfield were considered to be the best dressed mill workers in the country. Are there silk garments, handkerchiefs or scarves made of precious Whitchurch silk squirrelled away in drawers locally? These might make a small exhibition, which we could loan to Macclesfield.

Next to the museum is Paradise Mill. The top floor is an amazing time capsule – it’s the weaving floor of the former Cartwright and Sheldon Company which was set up in 1913 to produce patterned silk on Jacquard looms (which wove intricate patterns into the silk fabric). Astonishingly, despite that steam power was about to be eclipsed by electricity and the internal combustion engine, this mill was set up with hand looms only! This was because they were aiming for an exclusive high-end product and wanted the cachet of ‘handwoven’ silk.

The mill is highly atmospheric and although it is a cliché to claim it’s as though the weavers have just popped out for a tea break; it really feels like that. There must be 20 or more Jacquard looms, the mill office, the design office, all looking exceptionally authentic and complete. Best of all, the visit is brought alive by an excellent guide who demonstrates all the different processes.

It’s really worth the trip. If you are not sure where Macclesfield is – its to the right of the M6, north of Stoke on Trent. I am sorry that I can’t give you a silk map to help you find your way so you will have to rely on your sat-nav.”

You may have seen that WSM have warped two beams for Paradise Mill as they do not have their own warping mill.

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