• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!



Page history last edited by Jessica.Edwards@warwick.ac.uk 7 years, 11 months ago





Silk: 'the strong, soft, lustrous fibre produced by the larvæ of certain bombycine moths which feed upon mulberry leaves, etc., and by certain spiders; silken thread or filament' - Oxford English Dictionary. 


During the eighteenth century, silk became an increasingly popular and widely available material in Britain, due to increasing trade with other countries and the growing desire for items considered luxuries. Silk was, indeed, perceived as a luxury item, mostly associated with the upper-class and even royalty; the Oxford English Dictionary notes its use 'allusively to indicate the rank of a King's (or Queen's) Counsel, marked by the right to wear a silk gown, esp. in the phrases to receive, obtain, or take silk; also (rare), to have silk'. However, despite this association with the wealthy and status as a luxury, silk was also becoming more available to lower classes who desired its possession as an indicator of a higher status.  Its uses ranged from clothing to furniture, and it was a significant tool in eighteenth century texts for understanding social status and relationships.


Origins and Early Production


Silk found its origins in China as early as 4000 BC, the Chinese being 'anciently famous for the making of silk' (Barham, 'An Essay Upon the Silk-Worm...', 16). It is made by the larvae of silk moths, called Bombyx Mori, which feed on the leaves of, most commonly, mulberry trees. The silk is taken from the cocoons of the silkworms, and woven into a form suitable for clothing or similar uses. Although initially being a product of China, silk production soon spread to other areas of Asia, Europe- particularly Italy and France- and the Tropics, and began to be exported to other countries around the world, England being one of the main recipients. 


Silk’s journey to Britain


‘Come whence they will, from Lyons, Geona, Rome,

‘Tis English silk when wrought in English loom.

Silk! He recants; and owns, with lowly mind,

His manufacture is a coarser kind’ (‘The Universal Museum and Complete Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, for January 1767. Pg 101)


Silk was already considered a part of British culture before the eighteenth century, but the increase in international trade and the growth of London as a centre for trade meant that it was easier than ever for silk to make its way to Britain. Silk continued to be imported to England, both in raw and thrown form, where it would then be manufactured into items of clothing or other desired objects.    

The market for selling silk to Britain became quite competitive. The East India Company was one of the biggest traders with Britain throughout much of the century, with silk being one of its main imports. In 1795, the East India Company published 'Reports of the Committee of Warehouses of the East-India Company, relative to extending the trade in Bengal', focusing on its competition- particularly with Italy- in the importation of silk to Britain. It suggested the main sources of silk for Britain to be 'Italy and other parts of Europe', Bengal, and China (11).


   Figure 1: 'Reports of the Committee of Warehouses of the East-India Company, relative to extending the trade in Bengal' table showing silk imports towards the end of the century



Therefore silk was, while being a big part of the British fabric culture, also an exotic item, since it usually had to travel a long way before coming to Britain. This exotic perception of it can be seen throughout eighteenth century fiction, where silk is often related to travel. For example, 'Indusiata: Or, The Adventures of a Silk Petticoat' follows a piece of silk being taken from Tuscany to London, depicting a long and difficult journey- 'Saboyana was determined to proceed to London in the vessel which bore her littlebale of silk' (Thompson, 163). Silk was a well sought-after item when it did reach these British markets, and the desire for and perceived value of this Italian silk is clear in the attention Saboyana receives: 'nothing was talked of now but the sweet Italian' (158). This narrative depicts well the perceptions of silk in eighteenth century Britain, because while it is desired in this way as an exotic item, it also fits into British everyday life easily, being immediately 'thrown into the bustle and intrigue' (166) of British society as a petticoat. The journey silk took to get to Britain spoke for a big part of its appeal, the fact that it held this feeling of connection with other parts of the world partly explaining why it became so popular and common in Britain.  


Production in Britain


With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and a rising demand for silk, focus was turned to ideas about how silk could be produced in Britain. It had previously always been necessary to import it, due to the unsuitable climate in Britain for growing silk-worms; silk was already only able to be harvested once or twice a year in warmer countries, so Britain was deemed much to cold and wet to be suitable for the initial steps in making silk: 'In England, though the climate is not favorable to the cultivation of the silk-worm [...] yet their manufacture is immense and very lucrative, tho' they depend principally on the importation of raw silk from abroad, for their original materials' ('An essay on the culture of silk, and raising white mulberry trees, the leaves of which are the only proper food of the silk-worm. By a citizen of Philadelphia', 2-3). However, technological advances meant that people began working on ideas about how this problem could be overcome. We can see eighteenth century British attitudes towards industrialisation and towards commodities reflected in these changes made in the silk industry, as Britain focused its attention on methods of quicker and larger production of commodities such as silk. A big part of this was the idea that being able to grow and manufacture the fabric within Britain, rather than having to import it from Asia or other areas of Europe, would be a huge benefit to not only the manufacturing business, but the country as a whole. 


Although much of the silk being consumed in Britain was imported from Italy, France and India, Britain was keen to find its own methods of silk production without having to import anything. In 1718, John Apletree received a patent, giving him 14 years to try and grow silk in Great Britain. This patent describes the methods by which Apletree intended to introduce silk-worms into Britain, as quoted by Barham, in his 1720 text 'The produce of India, Italy, and France, raised in England, by the silk manufactures'. Since the main problem the silk industry faced in Britain was the wet and cold climate, Apletree planned several techniques for combating this; he designed the 'evaporating stove', a machine in which silk-worm eggs could be kept constantly warm during winter, and the 'egg-cheft', an 'infallible security for the preservation of the laid silk-worm eggs' also to be used for storing eggs, and claimed to have a 'certain and infallible' method of feeding the silk-worms (Barham,10). Apletree argued that this production would be of huge public benefit as it would employ many of the poor; 'it may be a common Good to all the Subjects of Great Britain [...] wealth and honour [...] employing abundance of aged, lame and other distress'd People [...] to increase the Number of Proprietors, and to enlarge their Joint-Stock' (17-18). Sericulture- silk farming- was argued as a type of work suitable for a wide range of people who may not have otherwise worked, such as children, women, and the disabled, being considered a fairly simple job which didn't require much strength. However, Apeltree's project was, in the end, considered 'a complete failure' ('Industries: Silk-weaving'), being unable to get around the problem of the unfavourable weather, meaning that the majority of Britain's silk still had to be imported from other countries. 


Although the growing of silk was not a big success, Britain saw more and more manufacture of silk within its borders throughout the eighteenth century. John Aikin, in his 1800 text 'England delineated, or, a geographical description of every county in England and Wales: with a concise account of its most important products, natural and artificial : for the use of young persons ; with outline maps of all the counties' explores the most central produce of English counties, within this showing the manufacture of silk that was taking place across the country by the end of the century. Nottinghamshire, for example, is noted as 'one of the principal seats of the stocking manufacture [...] chiefly of the finer kinds, as those of silk and cotton' (Aikin, 117). These items were then distributed across the country, either to be consumed within Britain, or to be exported 'to various parts of Europe, America, and the West Indies' (131). This change in the production of silk demonstrates the movement of Britain- with the rise of the Industrial Revolution- from being merely a recipient of these "exotic" imports, to being a centre of trade and manufacture of these items.  


 Figure 2: John Aikin describes silk manufacture in different areas of England


Aikin's account here of silk manufacture in Derby is also interesting; he describes the first large, Italian-inspired silk-mill in England, and the techniques used in silk production, to 'wind, double, and twist the silk, so as to render it fit for weaving' (124).  As the silk manufacturing industry grew larger and larger in Britain, a wider range of silk items became available, although it was still the case that these items were mostly used among the upper-class. 



Uses and Upkeep


 There were many different uses for silk during the eighteenth century, but the most common one was clothing. This ranged from large items such as dresses and waistcoats, to 'sewing silk and small articles of haberdashery' (East India Company, 14).

Corsets  were popular among women at this time, and could be made using a range of fabrics, but some of the more expensive ones were made of silk. These silk corsets were often made to be worn over the top of other clothing rather than as underwear, as a way to showcase wealth and status. 



Figure 3: an 1891 French silk corset 


Handkerchiefs, too, were typically used by women and were often made of silk. In the 18th Century the "handkerchief" referred both to a 'small square of cotton, silk, or other material carried on the person and used for wiping the nose, hands, etc' and to 'one worn on the head or around the neck', as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary. A handkerchief in either sense of the term, when made of silk or containing silk details, was partially used to showcase wealth, as silk was seen as a more luxurious option than something like cotton which may also be used.  

Other items of clothing often made of silk included stockings, petticoats, waistcoats and dresses. In Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded’, we see a range of different silk items of clothing. Pamela describes her 'delicate green mantua silk Gown and Coat [...] thought myself a gentlewoman once more' (302), and observes her master’s clothing favourably: 'My dear sir, in a fine laced silk waistcoat, of blue paduasoy, and his coat a pearl-coloured fine cloth, with gold buttons and button-holes, and lined with white silk; and he looked charmingly indeed' (487). These sorts of elaborate silk outfits would be worn commonly among wealthy individuals.



Figure 4: a men’s waistcoat made of silk, wool and metallic, 1747 


Silk was not limited to clothing- it could also be used for furniture and household decorations. For example silk damask- a type of fabric that has been woven into a pattern- was often used as a more expensive option for Bed Curtains


Individuals in possession of silk items took care to look after them properly- or, more often for upper-class subjects, their servants did. There were precise techniques for cleaning silk items, as can be seen in ‘The complete man and maid servant: containing, plain and easy instructions for servants of both sexes’, which gives careful instructions on cleaning different types of silk, and removing particularly bad stains. The process of cleaning silk sounds fairly rigorous; servants were first expected to remove any spots by rubbing the stain with chalk or spirit of turpentine. They were then directed to ‘take about a peck of bran, dry it well by the fire’ (38) and rub this over the silk. Alternatively, they could ‘take the crumb of a stale three-penny loaf, mix it with about a quarter of an ounce of powder blue, crumble them well together’ and rub this mixture onto the silk (39). The fact that these instructions are so precise indicates well the value which was given to silk possessions; silk was perceived worthy of a long and meticulous cleaning process, using techniques that might be considered now to be unusual and somewhat unnecessary.    



Increasing Popularity and Changing Social Perceptions


Figure 5: Google Ngram showing the use of the word 'silk' between 1600 and 2000.


It is visible from the Ngram above that the eighteenth century is the period in which the use of the word ‘silk’ rises, and after 1800 its use remains at a similar level for over a century. We can see this as a sign of its increasing availability, through new methods of production and wider distribution, and its popularity, as it became more available to different classes but still maintained its status as a luxury item.


Throughout the century, the importation and consumption of silk in Britain increased. In 1795, the East India Company found that the quantity of raw silk imported to Britain in 1750 was 231,939 lbs. However, by 1767-1771 this figure had increased on average to 327,630 lbs. per annum (East India Company, 14). At the same time, its price dropped- ‘a reduction of a full 25 percent’ (15). This was due to the increases in competition and in imports. As a result, silk became increasingly available in Britain and the market for trade continued to grow. London itself became known as a centre for trade and commerce, bringing in items from all over the world to be sold throughout the country. Addison’s‘The Royal Exchange’; shows how imported commodities like silk allowed feelings of connection to the rest of the world. When at the Royal Exchange he claims to be ‘a Dane, Swede, or Frenchman at different times; or rather fancy myself like the old philosopher, who upon being asked what countryman he was, replied that he was a citizen of the world’ (2651). Moreover, he uses items which would quite possibly be made of silk as an image of the globalisation these industries create ‘The single dress of a woman of quality is often the product of an hundred climates […] The brocade petticoat rises out of the mines of Peru’ (2651).


As silk became more widely available throughout society in the 18th century, social perceptions of it became in some ways conflicted. Silk was still widely perceived as a 'luxury' item, as it was still commonly found within upper-class circles. However, silk clothing also became a common sight among streetwalkers. Corsets and dresses such as those in William Hogarth’sA Harlot’s Progress’ were often worn by prostitutes, as Hogarth mocks in the below image, showing the contrast of the clothing perceived to be luxurious and sophisticated with the content of the scene itself.


Figure 6: A Harlot's Progress Plate Two. 'quite transformed by her experience, she apes the lifestyle of the class to which she aspires; instead of her modest work clothes she wears silk stockings, stylish shoes and a fashionable dress that reveals her arm and breast' 


The combination of the perception of silk as a desirable luxury, and the real incorporation of silk into the sexual through prostitution meant that silk came to hold erotic connotations- particularly in relation to female sexuality. In Richardson’s ‘Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded’, we see the sexual pursuit of Pamela by her master, Mr B; a significant part of this pursuit includes the gifting of luxurious clothing to Pamela, particularly ‘rich’ clothes of ‘fine silk’ (Richardson, 18). In fact, during her time in his presence Pamela’s clothing almost entirely transforms into silken items, to the point where she feels she has nothing else to wear 'Here I shall go home to my poor father and mother, and have nothing on my back, that will be fit for my condition; for how should your poor daughter look with a silk night-gown, silken petticoats...' (Richardson, 44). It is important that this movement into silken clothing falls alongside the development of the sexual relationship between Pamela and her master- silk is clearly the appropriate attire for goings-on of this nature. Even when not related to prostitution or sex, silk was often portrayed as a sensuous item of feminine beauty, as can be seen in this poem, ‘On a young Lady working green Silk on a white Sattin Ground’, by John Waley:


'And lo! how Nature is by Art exprest, That Silk, er'st white and smooth as Lucy 's Breast, 
Now stretch'd beneath her animating Hand, 
Breaks into Flow'rs, and sprouts at her Command' – (Whaley, lines 7-10)


Thompson’s 'Indusiata: or, The Adventures of a Silk Petticoat' gives an account of how a piece of silk could be passed down through society, therefore covering several of the ways it may have been used and showing the range of people who may be in possession of silk. Indusiata, the piece of silk, begins by being 'taken by the Queen's Mantuamaker, and converted into a petticoat for her Majesty' (166), before being passed on to the wealthy upper-class Lady Herringbuss, then down to her daughter, her maid, a bawd, a beggar, and so on, before finally- being now a ‘black rag’ (179) with no value- getting made into paper. This demonstrates several of the possible contexts in which silk may have been found in the eighteenth century, outside of the usual expectations of it only being an item seen among the upper-class.      




Annotated Bibliography 


Primary Sources 



Aikin, John. England delineated, or, a geographical description of every county in England and Wales: with a concise account of its most important products, natural and artificial : for the use of young persons ; with outline maps of all the counties. London: T. Bensley, 1800. Web.


This text describes the silk manufacturing industry throughout England, giving a good idea of how the industry had grown and how it worked.


East-India Company. Reports of the Committee of Warehouses of the East-India Company, relative to extending the trade in Bengal raw-silk. London, 1795. Web.


This is an interesting account of how the international exchange of silk worked, and gives useful figures for considering the amount of silk traded.


Hogarth, William. “A Harlot’s Progress”. Engravings by Hogarth. Ed. Sean Shesgreen. Dover: 1973. Print.


These images allow us to see silk being used in a different context- that of a streetwalker.


 Addison, Joseph. “The Royal Exchange” The Spectator, no. 69. 19th May 1711: pg 2650-2652. Print.


This piece describes the way in which international trade was deemed to bring people from different countries together. 


Payne, J. “Poetry.” The Universal Museum and Complete Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, for January 1767. 1764: pg 101. Web.


This quote from the ‘poetry’ section of this magazine gives a nice summary of the way the silk industry connected different areas of the world.


Richardson, Samuel. Pamela. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2001. Print.


This text shows silk in an upper-class context and related to sexuality.


Whaley, John, “On a young Lady working green Silk on a white Sattin Ground.” Poems and Translations(1745). Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1992. Web. Accessed via Literature Online <http://0-gateway.proquest.com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:ft:po:Z200534198:2


This poem shows the perceived link between silk and femininity.


Edward Thompson, 'Indusiata: or, The Adventures of a Silk Petticoat',Westminster Magazine, 1 (June 1773), pg 365-8; (July 1773), pg 432-5; (August 1773), pg 469-72; (September 1773), pg 549-51; (October 1773), pg 598-600; (November 1773), pg 640-1; (December 1773), pg. 689-91.Print.


Through this text we can see the journey silk takes to England and some of its possible uses within England.



 Crukshank, Joseph. An essay on the culture of silk, and raising white mulberry trees, the leaves of which are the only proper food of the silk-worm. By a citizen of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1790. Web.


This text comments on the growing of silk in Britain.


J. Cooke .The complete man and maid servant: containing, plain and easy instructions for servants of both sexes. London: 1764. Web.

This text shows the ways in which silk had to be carefully cleaned.


Secondary Sources


'Industries: Silk-weaving.’ A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton. Ed. William Page. London: Victoria County History, 1911. 132-137. Web. Accessed via British History Online <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol2/pp132-137>


This page gave a good overview of the silk-weaving industry in Britain, including information on the project of John Apletree.


Oxford English Dictionary. http://0-www.oed.com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/


The dictionary was useful for its definition of silk.




Figure 1: accessed via Historical Texts <https://data.historicaltexts.jisc.ac.uk/view?pubId=eccoii-1597601700&terms=silkworm&date=1701-1800&undated=exclude&collection=ecco&collection=eccoii&advanced=MUST%7C%7Ctitle%7C%7Csilk&pageTerms=silkworm&pageId=eccoii-1597601700-10>


 Figure 2: accessed via Historical Texts <https://data.historicaltexts.jisc.ac.uk/view?pubId=ecco-0369300700&terms=england%20delineated&date=1701-1800&undated=exclude&collection=ecco&collection=eccoii&pageTerms=silk&pageId=ecco-0369300700-10>


Figure 3: accessed via The Metropolitan Museum of Art <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/C.I.45.27/>


Figure 4: accessed via The Metropolitan Museum of Art <https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/C.I.66.14.2/>


Figure 5: accessed via Google Ngram <https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=silk&year_start=1600&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Csilk%3B%2Cc0>


Figure 6: ‘A Harlot’s Progress, Plate Two’. Accessed via the Royal Collection Trust <https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/811512/a-harlots-progress>


Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.