I have the unusual hobby of collecting souvenir and commemorative handkerchiefs and years ago was sent a beautiful silk handkerchief that had been presented to Macclesfield schoolchildren to commemorative the 1937 Coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth. It was woven in one of Macclesfield’s many silk mills and bears the portraits of the King and Queen as well as the names of the Coronation Mayor and Town Clerk. I learnt just how famous Macclesfield used to be in the production of silk and eventually, this November, my husband and I travelled by train from the South Coast up to Cheshire and stayed a few days in the town.
The local Information Centre provided us with a free Heritage Guide and of course I was particularly keen to look round the Silk Museum. It’s housed in what used to be Macclesfield School of Art and from 1877 students were trained there as silk designers. It now contains masses of fascinating exhibits and information. We read how during the First World War silk was used for powder bags and burns dressings and then in World War Two it was requisitioned for parachutes, dinghies and lifejackets. Displayed in one cabinet was a WW2 silk escape map similar to ones I have in my collection.
In the various rooms were scores of brilliantly coloured reels of thread on the large industrial devices that had been used for the different processes in silk-weaving and we read about how throwing machines had converted raw silk threads into useable yarn. We saw the plates and rollers for screen printing, shelves full of sewing machines and beautiful old silk button, coloured ribbons and tassels and intricate silk panels. Everywhere we looked there was something of interest and I was intrigued to learn about the mill owners and how at one time the industry was protected by law against the import of cheaper cloth. Apparently two hundred years ago there nearly 70 mills in Macclesfield and as well as adults, children were employed as their supple little fingers enabled them to handle the fine silk fibres.
We could have easily spent much more time looking round but had booked to have a guided tour of the authentic Paradise Mill next door where we were to handle silk cocoons and watch our guide do hand loom weaving on the machinery still in situ.
It was an amazing visit and I now appreciate my own silk hankies even more.