Every year I visit Winchester with my husband as he attends meetings there and as I’ve seen most of the city many times I decided to explore further afield in 2018 so drove 14 miles north to Whitchurch, where there is a silk mill. I am a member of the Kent Costume Trust and interested in all things to do with costume and textiles. Whitchurch is just off the A34, an easy drive from Winchester and there is a free car park right next to the Silk Mill, by the Gill Nethercott community centre; there is also a railway station for those who want to go by train (just over an hour from London Waterloo). Whitchurch Silk Mill is in a very picturesque setting on the River Test. The entrance leads into a cafe and gift shop and tickets for the Mill are on sale here. It is possible to visit the cafe and/or gift shop without purchasing a ticket for the Mill ; there is also an area for picnics outside. The shop has some lovely gift items for sale, many of them made using fabric that is woven at the Mill.
There’s a long history of mills in the area, all making use of the waters of the River Test. There’s evidence there was a building on the site in 1730 and it is thought the first mill built there was for wool (date unknown). In the early 1800s a silk manufacturer and weaver who had a business in Spitalfields developed the Mill and throughout the 19th century its various tenants and owners had mixed fortunes; after the 1860s the Mill began its decline, coinciding with the abolition of duty on imported French silk.
In the 19th century a long period of weaving for Burberry began – silk linings in 22 colours for Burberry raincoats. Weaving continued during WWI, then during WWII plain silk was made for insulating cables. The Mill changed hands in 1956 but production of Burberry fabric continued, also satin for Ede and Ravenscroft, makers of legal and academic gowns. In 1985 when the then owners waned to sell off land on the front lawn for development The Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust stepped in and bought the entire site, carried out extensive restoration work and then re-opened as a working mill but with an educational role, mounting exhibitions and offering conducted tours. The Mill continues to weave silk to order; it is able to produce highly specialised individually designed fabrics in short runs of 25 metres – taffeta, bombazine, ottoman or gros grain, faille and organza, ribbons, twills and satins – not only of pure silk but also incorporating linen, cotton, wool or metallic yarns. All the yarns are dyed specifically for each order.
I went round the Mill at my own pace, reading the information boards and learning about the process of making silk there. They receive silk on cones or hanks, from China or Brazil. It is then wound on the winding machine onto bobbins in preparation for the warp; the width produced varies with the customers’ orders, but can be 52”. The warp beam is then carried downstairs to the weaving shed and either a knotting machine is used to connect an old warp to a new one (in a few hours), or in the case of organzas the yarn is hand twisted, which can take three days. The weaving takes place on the 19th century power looms, of which there are two types, tappet and dobby. A shuttle then moves back and forth between the warp threads to weave one metre of cloth an hour. Whitchurch does not have a ribbon loom so use an adapted fabric loom, Loom no 9. The machinery in daily use has been at the Mill for a long time and includes the waterwheel, 13 looms, winding frame and warping mill, all of which were made in the 19th century.
On my visit I saw an exhibition of beautiful costumes made using Whitchurch silks and ribbons for period film and television productions, including Cranford, My Cousin Rachel and The Scandalous Lady W. Whitchurch Mill has also received commissions for 17 hangings for Winchester Cathedral and fabric for many country houses and stately homes. At the end of my tour I had a go on an interactive display to design my own fabric; no doubt it was really meant for children but as there were none there that day I didn’t feel too guilty and it was good fun. Close to the Mill is one of the starting points for a Mill Trail; one of several waymarked walks around the town – this one visits the sites of 5 historic mills, of which only the Silk Mill is still in operation. The railway station is another starting point for the Mill Trail.
“Full details including opening times”:http://www.whitchurchsilkmill.org.uk