14.8. Silk Manufacture

The operations in the silk industry, starting from the imported skeins of silk were: a) throwing (twisting and joining 3 or more silk fibres in one thread of yarn), b) spinning, c) weaving, d) dyeing. The production did not pass through any technological advances, the weaving was manual, in the houses of the weavers (which were specially built with well-lighted rooms for the loom). The only improvements were the introduction of the Jacquard loom in about 1822, which allowed the automatic production of complicated patterns, and the invention (Gibson and Campbell) in 1836, of a method of re-forming and using the “silk waste” which was close to 50 % of the silk originally used. 

Silk throwing was originally a hand process relying on a turning a wheel (the gate) that twisted four threads while a helper who would be a child, ran the length of a shade, hooked the threads on stationary pins (the cross) and ran back to start the process again. The shade would be between 23 and 32 m long. Supposing the master to make twelve rolls a day, the boy necessarily runs fourteen miles, and this is barefooted.

From 1820, throwing was done using rectangular frames, manufactured from cast iron, and powered by belts from line shafts.

A simple silk throwing frame, where the continuous filament from the top/horizontal bobbin is pulled onto the vertical/bottom bobbin. A flyer round the bottom bobbin inserts a twist.

(for details of the throwing and spinning processes, see also: Knight,Vol. XII, No. 711, 1843, “A Day at a Derby Silk Mill”, pp. 161-168)   

Comparison of the output of the cotton and silk industries 1770-1870

(Million Pounds)
(Million Pounds)

(Deane and Cole, British Economic Growth, 1688-1959, p. 212; quoted in Jennings, 2014, Table 3.3, p. 59)

The figures given correspond to about 1 pound of silk new each year for the use of each adult female in the country.

The silk industry in England began at the end of the seventeenth century, when the Huguenot workers were expelled from France, and settled in England, particularly in Spitalfields, outside the City of London (the area of Spitalfields, which was totally dependent on silk weaving, had a population of nearly 100,000). There were also groups in Coventry (ribbons), Manchester (spinning and weaving), Macclesfield (spinning and weaving), and some smaller towns. Much weaving was done at home in the villages, and was a useful extra income for the family.

CountyPersons employed
(spinning + weaving)
Chester (a)22,000
Lancaster (b)29,800
London (d)15,700
Stafford ©4,000
Rest UK21,300
Total UK114,600

(Registrar-General of Great Britain, The Census of Great Britain in 1851, 1854, Appendix: Statistics of Counties)

The following table shows the distribution of the silk throwing and spinning factories in the country; it does not include the weaving operations.

CountyMills 1833Persons 1833Mills 1850Persons 1850
Chester (a)8810,7009224,200
Lancaster (b)335,000298,200
Stafford ©111,500103,000
Rest GB5611,7009120,100

(for 1833, Porter, 1836, p. 261; for 1850, McKunnie, Tom, 2005, Table 2, p. 56)

Principal towns, (a) = Macclesfield, (b) = Lancaster, (c) = Leek, (d) = Spitalfields

Numbers Employed in the Silk Industry (only those in silk mills) 

183811,000 23,00034,000

(Jennings, 2014, Table A.3., p. 351, quoting Mitchell and Dean (1962), p. 211)

In 1824, the British Government repealed the high duty on imported raw silk and reduced the tax on silk thread by a half; this made the silk articles woven in the United Kingdom cheaper. In 1826 they permitted the import of finished articles of silk but with a tariff of 30 %; this made French silk articles cheaper than those woven in England. Apparently the idea was to take away the price difference, which was causing a great deal of smuggling. The tariff was further reduced in 1829. This caused great hardship particularly in Spitalfields. In 1860, the Government negotiated a “free trade” treaty with France, which included silk goods at zero per cent, and thus the English silk industry could not compete with the French imports.

Spitalfields (East End of London)

The piece-rates of the hand-loom weavers in silk working in Spitalfields, were authorized in a Book of Prices. One edition of this was made out in 1784, and the prices were increased (20 to 25 per cent) in an updated version in 1795, due to the high inflation in food and rents. This was further updated in 1805, and these list prices were retained until 1824. Since these prices were fixed values, not maximum values, the masters and weavers could not adjust the prices downwards when there was a general recession in the silk trade; the same case was when production in other parts of the country took over certain types of article. This meant that in those circumstances, the weavers had to go weeks without work, and thus their total yearly earnings could go down by 30 %, but on the other hand there was a “floor” to their incomes (House of Lords, The Sessional Papers 1801 –1833, Vol. 156, 1823, Evidence on Silk Manufacturers Bill; pp. 149-152). Until 1824, the Spitalfields weavers had a very good standard of living, except in some periods when there was a decrease in demand for their goods  (Select Committee on the Silk Trade, 1832, Evidence of Mr. Barrett Wadden, silk manufacturer, Spitalfields, p. 649).

The Spitalfields Act was repealed in 1824, but this did not cause a general change in prices, as at that moment they had full employment. What destroyed the incomes of the silk weavers, was the opening of the country to imported silk goods, particularly from France, as these were cheaper and of better quality. 

The wages for plain designs in 1823 were about 14 shillings the week, and 20 shillings for the best workers; the working day was from 12 to 14 hours. For the “figured” or “flowered” designs, the wage would be about 25 shillings. The situation of the silk industry in Spitalfields was “growing and prosperous”; the yearly import of raw silk increased from 1,100,000 lbs. in 1816/17 to 3,100,000 in 1824/25. But from the introduction of the lowered import duties (which did not stop the smuggling), the industry in Spitalfields entered into a phase of “a miserably reduced rate of wages, and a great scarcity of employment”. The price of labour reduced from July 1826 to July 1829 by 20 per cent, and from July 1829 to 1832 by another 20 per cent; the average earnings went down to 9 or 10 shillings. In 1833, of 16,000 looms in Spitalfields, 5,000 to 6,000 had been without work for 6 months. This decrease in incomes caused horrible poverty and hunger in the area, which had before been prosperous. 

(Select Committee on the Silk Trade, 1832, Evidence of Mr. John Balance, silk manufacturer, London, 8 June, 1832, pp. 475-480).

The reduction in import tariffs for Ireland absolutely destroyed the weaving industry in Dublin, although the government minister was directly advised of the danger (Select Committee …, p. 648)

Macclesfield (Cheshire)

In Macclesfield, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the men in throwing earned 7s. a week, the women 3s. 6d., and the children 6d. the first year of their contract, 9d. in the second year, one 1 shilling in their third year. Between 1793 and 1815, a good weaver could earn up to 18 shillings.

(Wikipedia in English, “Silk Industry of Cheshire”; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_industry_of_Cheshire)

But the throwers and spinners in the town experienced considerable reductions in their incomes due to the opening to foreign silk products in 1826.

(House of Lords, Sessional Papers, 1840, Hand-Loom Weavers, Appendix I, p. 508)

(Select Committee on the Silk Trade, 1832, p. 776)

(Select Committee on the Silk Trade, 1832, p. 791)

From 1830 to 1860, the silk industry in Macclesfield returned to a high level of production, principally due to the introduction of the power-loom for the coarse work, and the town became prosperous again, although this was predicated on low wages for spinners and for weavers. 


The first silk mill was erected in Manchester in 1819, there were 12 in total in 1833. 

Silk weavers in Manchester in 1833 earned 10s. to 12s., 12 to 14 hours in their own houses, 5 days a week.

In Lancashire in the period 1839-1859, the wages of the silk workers in general increased by 10 %, due to the increase in volume of work in industry in general, and thus the need of the owners to retain their workers. Only in those branches where the activity was reduced from “skilled labour” to “unskilled labour” due to the use of machines, such as calico printing, dyeing and bleaching, and printing, was there a reduction.

The mill men and throwers in silk received an increase from 14 shillings a week to 17 shillings from 1839 to 1859, the spinners (young men and boys) from 7s. 6d. to 10s., and the warpers (men) from 21s. to 24s. The calico printers reduced from 35 shillings to 30 shillings. The persons in fustian dyeing had about 20 shillings.

(Chadwick, 1860, Section III, pp. 10-11)


From the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century, ribbon weaving was by far the most important source of livelihood in Coventry; Coventry and its region were the largest producers of ribbons in the country. The ribbons were generally used to decorate women’s dresses and hats. 

Wages were 8 to 12 shillings for ribbon weavers in 1797 (Eden). In the war years from 1793 to 1815, there was enough demand, and the wages could be kept up. But there was an increase in workers and a contraction in sales volume from 1817 onwards. In 1814, engine-loom weavers had earned 1 pound a week, but in 1818, only 12 or 14 shillings. 

Many of the types of ribbon were woven on the “engine-loom”, which was in fact not automated, but was a foot-driven machine with multiple thin ribbons set in a parallel position. The Jacquard loom, used for pre-programming of complex designs, was introduced in Coventry in 1823.

In 1818, there were in Warwickshire 3,000 engine looms and 5,500 single hand looms, totalling 8,500, worked by 5,000 men and 4,400 women. 

The general rate of wages in Coventry in 1833 was 9s. to 12s. 6d. per week for plain branches, and 14s. to 16s. in the fancy branch. But this was for those weavers who had employment; many had no work, or only for a few hours. From 1804 to 1824 the level of wages did not move by more than four or five per cent. There was very great distress in 1816/17, due to the arrival of the soldiers disbanded after the French Wars, which increased the amount of labour. 

Average weekly earnings of weavers, having full employment in the plain ribbon trade.

181518s. 1 ½ d.
1816/17/1814s. 6d.
181918s. 1 ½ d.
182910s. 10d.

(Select Committee on the Silk Trade, 1833; Evidence of Benjamin Poole, ribbon weaver, Coventry, pp. 52-55)

Coventry was much affected by the opening of imports in 1826. Weavers on the single-loom, with this same master, earned from 6s. to 8s 6d. a week, with a work week of 6 days of 12 to 14 hours. There was very considerable poverty. It was estimated that half of the population of the city were receiving outdoor relief. (Searby, 1972, pp. 43-45). The situation continued to be problematic, as after the opening to imports in 1826, there was much competition in the domestic market from the French.   

There was a reduction in the list prices in Coventry of 30 per cent in various stages from 1824 to 1829 (Poole, p. 59)

The first Jacquard looms were used in 1822-1823. From 1834, steam power was introduced in the city, and therefore also power-looms; however, this did not immediately decrease the number of outdoor weavers. In 1838, the number of looms in the Coventry region had been increased by new investment to 3,500 plain engine looms, 2,200 Jacquard engine looms, and 7,500 single hand-looms, giving a total of 13,200.

From 1835, the industry recovered, and with it, the wage levels. With time, the number of in-house weavers increased, and also their remunerations. A man and his wife, working two looms, could earn 21s. a week. Weavers on Jacquard looms earned from 14s. to 21s. The situation improved still more in the 1850’s. The weavers of normal fabrics earned 14s. to 17s., and after 3 negotiated increases in 1855-1858, these went up to 20s. to 22s.  (Searby, 1972, pp. 215-223).  

With the complete opening to French goods in 1860, and thus the loss of practically all the sales volume, the town experienced horrible poverty and hunger (Searby, 1972, pp. 560-565)

(Penny Cyclopedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Vol. XIX, Charles Knight, London, 1841, “Riband”, p. 494)

Jacquard silk loom, 19th century, Stonehouse, Lanarkshire (the control cards are hanging down in front); National Museums Scotland, Science and Technology; http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/stories/science-and-technology/jacquard-loom/

Silk Industry (shillings per week)

WeaversWeaversMill MillWeavers in-houseWeavers Ribbons
182014 8

Silk industry (loaves per week)

WeaversWeaversMill MillWeavers in-houseWeavers Ribbons
182017 10
183514 15
1840 9161924 

Silk industry (shillings per week)

Silk industry (loaves per week)

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