Article by John Baker
The story of silk is a lengthy tale, full of complexities, punctuated by strange and fantastical yarns of mystery and intrigue – far outwith the scope of these notes and, come to think of it, my authority or competence to tell it! Archeologically the story begins in ancient China over five thousand years ago; five hundred or so years later, fabrics from spun silk are known to have been woven in the valley of the Indus.
Certainly silk ‘farming’ and fabric weaving must have been developed to great heights of achievement long before the arrival in northern India of the Mughal leaders in the sixteenth century. For the rest of that century, the rapid and extensive spread of Mughal power suggests these ‘invaders’ from Persia brought with them military prowess, ruthless determination and exceptional administrative skills. Ruling according to Islamic law, nevertheless they practised religious tolerance, giving their peoples – at the height of Empire stretching from today’s Bangladesh in the east to Afghanistan in the west – the great benefits of order and stability under the law. The seventeenth century saw four Mughal emperors – Akbar the Great, Shah Jahan, Jahangir and Aurangzeb Alamgir – preside over one of the greatest dominions ever known. If their imperial customs have ebbed away, Mughal cultural influence is indelible; their legacies include some of mankind’s most prized treasures – the silks of Benares among them.
The city of Varanasi (Banaras) lies in the great plain of the Ganges as it sweeps across hundreds of miles of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar towards Bengal and the ocean. In the surrounding countryside live and work the many hand-loom weavers whose output carried a centuries-old craft tradition forward from before the Mughal invasion right through British colonial rule, until its abrupt end with the partition of India in1947. Weaving – especially to the detailed, highly decorative ‘geometrical’ Islamic designs originating during Mughal times – was overwhelmingly a muslim and a rural occupation. Faced with division of communities and of the nation along religious lines, many weavers chose to flee Bihar for the ‘safety’ of ‘East Pakistan’, taking with them their families, skills and knowledge. But having Urdu rather than Bengali as their lingua franca, they were accepted more as refugees than as citizens, with little access to proper housing, civil rights or liberties. When ‘East Pakistan’ divided between those who would establish the separate state of Bangladesh and those who wanted to sustain Pakistani rule, the Biharis aligned themselves with the latter, the ‘side’ which lost the bitter civil war in Bengal.
A new generation has come to maturity since those turbulent days, and yet another already follows. Bangladesh, still at peace after almost forty years, has granted ‘status’ and civil rights to the Bihari community. Benarasi silk weaving continues, and Benarasi sarees retain their iconic place of importance in muslim social life and, increasingly, throughout the diasporate communities from Bangladesh and the Indian subcontinent. Peace, stability and economic growth quickly prompt changes of aspiration, especially – in the wake of an ‘information explosion’ – amongst the young. There may well be those who, for an indefinite future, will be content to learn and practise the silk-weaver’s trade if their rewards for so doing are sufficiently compatible with family life. But there are others whose education will give rise to quite different ambitions – among them, perhaps, the desire not so much to make these precious fabrics as to design for their use – and present them to a wider world.
Here in England, our forefathers’ knowledge of silks was somewhat restricted. During the periods we call the mediaeval and early middle ages, silk-making trickled through the Middle East into France and Spain, but scarcely to this country. True, there was once a serious attempt to establish a ‘silk-farm’ near the royal palace at Hampton, but the enterprise failed when silkworms declined to ‘perform’ in London’s damp and cool climate; a few similar ventures elsewhere did little better. During the periods we call the mediaeval and middle ages, most silks still reached London from India and south-east Asia overland, by way of the ‘Silk Road’ and the intrepid merchants and traders who used it.
Across the Channel in France, however, a variety of conditions – climatic, economic and social – proved more encouraging. Locally generated raw silk supplemented stock imported by traders to encourage groups of weavers in and around a few mainly provincial cities so that – by the seventeenth century – French silks competed with those imported from the East, and achieved popularity among the wealthier classes not only in France itself but also in the Low Countries, here and elsewhere.
At this point it’s handy to remember the importance, and ubiquitous presence, of the weaver. His was a demanding and essential trade, for without his work there would have been no clothing but hides and furs, no furnishings but boards and shutters, no covers or comforts in the parlour or bedroom. Whatever his style of work, the weaver’s returns always followed the hours he worked at the loom. Invariably, weavers came to rely on local traders to sell the cloth they made; in silks, the master rather than the worker at the loom took first and best share of sales revenues, and over time came also to direct the patterns and designs woven.
The great majority of France’s silk masters of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries happened to support and favour the protestant manner of Christian religious practice, believing that hard work served as well as any other worship towards eventual salvation. Unfortunately for them, royalty, a majority of the aristocracy and prominent citizenry of the day mostly preferred the catholic Church of Rome, its rituals and practices. Violent enmity developed between peoples of these two persuasions. Repeatedly the ‘reformers’, who came to be known as Huguenots, were attacked, with murders and massacres not infrequent..
For the sake of peace in his realm, Henri IV in 1598 proclaimed the Edict of Nantes – lifting fear of persecution from the Huguenots, and granting them civil and religious rights. As his kingdom prospered, so too did the silk masters. But tolerance is far easier to decree than to practise. Violence against reformers continued intermittently until, with religious conflicts and wars erupting all across northern Europe, a later king Louis XIV revoked the Edict in 1685 – forcing great numbers of Huguenots to abandon France for ever, taking with them all their accumulated skills and knowledge.
Thus came many silk weavers to Spitalfields, where they quickly settled and flourished. It’s on record that, in 1687, Parliament voted a massive grant of £200,000 to support these immigrants – in striking contrast, it must be said, with more parsimonious welcomes for immigrants into Britain these days and for the Bihari refugees into Bengal in 1947. Splendid houses in terraced streets (Fournier, Wilkes and Princelet Streets are examples close by Christchurch) were built for the master weavers, just outside the grasp of the Guilds of the City of London, each house typically having its spacious and well-lit topmost floor set out with capacious looms.
In 1688 the English replaced their catholic-favouring monarch James II with protestant Mary and her husband Duke William from the Netherlands. Soon peace reigned at home, the economy grew and prospered – and so, too, did the Huguenot settlers as they laboured to satisfy the stylish aspirations of an expanding middle class with ever more money to spend.
The weaving of silks and quality fabrics was not confined strictly to the Spitalfields district, but spread quickly into Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and Mile End. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, it has been estimated, weaving of some kind was being practised in no fewer than twenty thousand local homes. By that time, however, change had come over the silk ‘industry’. The masters – second or even third generation immigrants – had become thoroughly ‘anglicised’, and had learned how to enjoy both the wealth and distinctive social freedoms conferred on them by the stuffs they traded and their association with those who bought and used them. Through argument and influence they achieved a law suppressing imports – which impeded competition and kept prices high; and, having the power to do so, they held down workers’ wages as well. It must have been good while it lasted, but it could not last for ever.
In 1822, in the grip of a post-war recession, Parliament at Westminster removed the tariff protecting against imports of fabrics including silks. In Lancashire and Yorkshire, mechanised spinning and powered looms began to produce inexpensive but excellent cottons and woollens, some made colourful and attractive through advanced weaving techniques, others by means of novel methods for dying and printing. New centres of specialisation at Stockport, Macclesfield, Congleton, Nottingham and elsewhere increasingly attracted entrepreneurs and innovators away from London’s insoluble labour disputes, resistance to industrialisation and the hardships visited upon weavers’ families with every slight wobble in a persistently unsteady market.
By the 1870s silk-making had vanished from east London. The great houses quickly became workshops for garment-making, smaller homes throbbed to the sounds of outworkers’ machines, and the streets were filled by a new and vast wave of immigrant Jews displaced from Russia and eastern Europe. After only a century and a half, the great Huguenot chapel of Brick Lane was adopted and adapted to become the principal synagogue in a very Jewish – and largely very poor – community. But in rather less than another century, this community too had ‘moved on’ – its tailoring workshops at first taken up by new arrivals mainly from Bengal and Sylhet, more recently making way for a host of activities appealing to multitudes in search of leisure rather than work. The silk-masters’ houses, fully restored, once more are prestigious residences – and the reformers’ chapel, later synagogue, now serves muslim worshippers as the Brick Lane Mosque.
But what of this splendid edifice Christchurch? It was built to the design of Nicholas Hawksmoor, one-time assistant to Sir Christopher Wren, as a result of an Act of Parliament passed in 1711. Following the expulsion of James II in 1688, the English government strongly supported the protestant Church of England as the ‘official’ church in the realm; the 1711 Act facilitated and provided funds towards the building of ‘fifty churches’. Primarily intended to confront catholic adherents, these fifty churches would remind other dissenters and ‘chapel-goers’ that they should preferably acknowledge the ‘true religion’ of the Anglican parish church. Some believe Christchurch was tasked especially to challenge the Huguenots at the other end of Fournier Street – who, in addition to their Calvinist practice, had the temerity to conduct their proceedings in French!
Fashion is a fine field for the exercise of flair and wit, where a designer’s ‘flash of inspiration’ can lift the good towards excellence, the tasteful towards sheer beauty, and the merely memorable into the unforgettable. But whose was the grand sense of irony in choosing to bring fine silks from Bengal to Christchurch in Spitalfields? Did he (or she or they) know of the histories this might recall? Of remarkable similarities in the stories behind what is now presented to us and what confronted London two or three hundred years ago? Or of the mistakes of the past that we cannot change but must conscientiously avoid for our better shared future?
Of irony and wit, close cousins in the lively arts of intellect, irony is perhaps the nobler partner …!
Those who may wish to explore further their interest in the Spitalfields district during the eighteenth century prominence of silk-weaving here are urged to visit the Dennis Severs House at 18 Folgate Street, now maintained by The Spitalfields Trust (telephone 020 7247 4013, e-mail email@example.com, website www.dennissevershouse.co.uk). Experience of this house, meticulously re-created during more than twenty-five years of Dennis Severs’ life, reveals more of Spitalfields’ past than a pile of scholarly books – unless one of those books is 18 Folgate Street; the Tale of a House in Spitalfields by Dennis Severs himself, published in 2001 by Chatto & Windus!