John introduced himself as the chairman of the Halstead Historical Society and a man with a long-term connection to Courtauld’s. As a child he moved out of London, when his father took a job at Courtauld’s. The family lived in one of the company’s houses opposite the factory and it was this proximity to work, which persuaded John to find work there rather than leave home and find employment further afield.
As an apprentice, John worked in almost every section of the factory, which gave him a first hand understanding of the whole process of silk weaving. When the factory closed, he used that knowledge to set up his own business, which was to commission exclusive fabrics for organisations such as the Royal Palaces and the National Trust. These were such commissions as those with Richard Humphries at Braintree, where he was responsible for organisation the replacement of the textiles lost in the fires at Windsor and Hampton Court.
John began his talk with the medieval wool trade, which was well established in East Anglia with strong links to the Low Countries. This accounts for an influx of Dutch weavers settling in the county in 1500. Chelmsford was the hub for London with many of the spinners working in the surrounding villages. Many family names in the region, such as Draper, Fuller, Burrell and Dyer, have their origin in the woollen trade. Woollens were produced in South Suffolk and Essex, and worsteds came from Norfolk and North Suffolk. In the Book of Trades of 1568, it mentions two different weaves, known as Bays (plain weave) and Says (twill weave), which were the speciality of the region.
He showed us pictures from a variety of contemporary sources. These contained images of such equipment as tenter frames and teasel hands. There is a real teasel hand from Whitney in a museum and Johnson’s of Elgin still use teasels to raise the nap on cashmere.
The wool trade in East Anglia suffered a huge decline with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. All the perfect conditions could be found in the north of England, where the entrepeneurs set up purpose-built factories with near-by housing for the workers.
In France, the Edict of Nantes had allowed people freedom to follow their own beliefs but this was revoked in 1685 resulting in religious persecution for the Huguenot weaving population. They arrived in Spitalfields, where they set up their silk weaving worksops. Even now, the streets bear names relating to the French weavers.
One such family were the Courtaulds. George Courtauld was born in 1761, to the daughter of a Huguenot silk merchant. He was apprenticed to a throwster, where the fine silk threads are doubled and redoubled until they are thick enough for weaving. He later spent some time in the United States, where his son Samuel was born in 1793.
By the time of his return to England, the Spitalfields Acts had come into force, where wages were fixed, which made the production of silk very costly. George, like other silk merchants, looked for places with a weaving tradition and found the ideal locations in Essex. George converted a corn mill in Pebmarsh, whilst Samuel took over a grain mill in Braintree. Samuel later fell out with his father and built a new mill in Braintree. Another silk manufacturer, Daniel Walters then built a new mill opposite, which is now Warners Textile archive.
Samuel then took over the Remington Wilson Mill in Halstead, which became the centre for the production of crepe fabric then used in mourning. In Victorian times there were very strict rules of etiquette in mourning clothes, which fuelled massive production of the fine black fabric. The crimp was achieved by using alternate ‘S’ and ‘Z’ twist yarns in both the warp and the weft. The cloth was then subjected to imprinting with paper or metal rollers.
A census of the work force at the time showed that there were far more women than men. At one time there were only 11 men compared with 1650 women. The girls came from the villages and would lodge near the factory. They had to be very clean so as not to spoil the silk. The Factory Terrace was built in 1872. There were earth closets built behind them. These had buckets, which were lined with wool and grass and had lime sulphur to remove the smell. John read us a detailed account from a young woman’s journal of life at the mill and in a factory house. It was very personal and was most evocative in summing up the period.
As the silk industry declined, Mr Tetley from Yorkshire was brought in to improve production. He bought the right to produce artificial silk and this section of the company moved to Coventry.
The Halstead Mill finally closed in 1982, bringing to an end a long textile tradition in the area. The site has now been developed, by adapting the existing buildings for offices and dwellings.
John finished his talk by showing us some of the wonderful fabrics, which he has commissioned over the years. Because of his experience and expertise, he was able to explain how and why each piece was created.
This was a most interesting talk and it was a pleasure to be able to handle the fabrics, which these silk manufacturers had produced.
We are a group who enjoy learning and improving our skills and are genuinely interested in sharing these skills with each other and any one who would like to join us.