Spitalfields was once famed for its silk, and, to this day, you can still see examples of the old weavers houses as you make your way along Fournier Street, Wilkes Street and Princelet Street.
But, by the early 20th century, the weaving, such as it existed at all, had moved to Bethnal Green.
On Friday, 12th September, 1902 The Dundee Evening Post provided its readers with a little insight into the lives of the Spitalfields weavers, who were then following a declining trade:-
HOW SILK IS WOVEN IN SPITALFIELDS
Few crafts owe less to modern invention than that of the Spitalfields weaver.
Although Spitalfields silk is now woven in Bethnal Green, the process and conditions of the manufacture have hardly altered since some French Protestant workers, expelled from France when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, built themselves houses suited to their labours in the “Fields” of a “Spital,” hospital for old people, founded just outside London by Walter and Rosia Bruno in the twelfth century.
WEAVING AT HOME
In the old days the master weavers lived in Spitalfields, too, and the weavers worked their looms at home in the neighbourhood.
Most of the weaving is still done in weavers’ homes to this day, though the silk merchants have moved away, and the silk has to be fetched and carried from Wood Street, off Moorfields.
A DWINDLING INDUSTRY
Powerlooms produce silk that is not, indeed, as good, as beautiful, nor as nearly everlasting in wear as Spitalfields silk, but that looks very much like it. Consequently the Spitalfields industry has dwindled away. There were 40,000 weavers in Spitalfields half a century ago. To-day there are only about 300 – half of them in the employ of a single firm – Messrs Buckingham’s.
Probably the craft will be extinct in a few years, for it is no longer passed down from generation to generation as it used be. The sons of weavers drift out into other trades. It is only the daughters who sometimes inherit it.
Many women, the wives of artisans and labourers, have brought a loom with them as a sort of dowry, and weave silk or satin in the intervals of their housework, earning perhaps fifteen shillings a week it.
PLAIN AND FIGURED SILKS
These women usually work a “harness” loom, which only produces plain silk or satin without a pattern.
The skilled work design-weaving yields higher wages, perhaps £3 a week.
The process is slow, for every strand of silk in the woof is separately thrown in a shuttle from one side of the loom to the other.
The art and mystery of the silk weaver is comprised in the unerring selection of the different colours, which have to be thrown in the proper order, so as to maintain the pattern.
A weaver who sits all day at the loom will produce perhaps a yard and a half of silk in a good day’s work.
WARP AND WEFT
Any woven fabric – and Spitalfields silk is the noblest of them all – consists of warp and weft.
The warp runs the long way of the fabric, and the woof, or weft, runs across it.
The warp is tied first on the machine, and, by the working of the pierced cards which are the characteristics of the Jacquard loom, different strands of warp are lifted above the rest, so that the shuttle, containing the weft, may be thrown between them.
The winding of the warp is a very important operation, and, though it is done in the warehouses of the silk merchants, the process is almost exactly the same when the Jacquard loom was first invented.
BOBBINS AND SILK
The silk as it comes from the dyers, on skeins, is first wound on bobbins, kept in motion in a long row by an engine.
From the bobbins this silk is either wound upon smaller bobbins (called “quills”) to go in the shuttles which the weaver throws on the loom, or else upon a large vertical wheel, called a warping mill, to form the warp.
In the width of a piece of silk or satin (24 to 28 inches) there may be as many 10,000 strands of fine silk, each of which has to be tied separately on the loom.
Such is the dexterity of the warpers that they will tie a warp of ten thousand strands in a day and a half.
If the reader will attempt the experiment of passing a piece of the very finest silk he can obtain (which is much coarser than warp silk, however) through a tiny needle hole, and then knotting it securely, he will appreciate the skill required to tie a warp at the rate of about 700 knots an hour and never get it into a tangle!
A DYING INDUSTRY
The most prosperous state of affairs for a Spitalfields weaver is when the whole family can work together at their own loom for a good master.
A weaver’s house in Bethnal Green can be easily recognised by the large windows on the upper floors, which give light to the looms.
Streets upon streets of very old houses with such windows may be seen at the East End, but the weavers for the most part are, alas! no more, and the industry is near its extinction.”