Under The Roof: Textile In The Attic


A silk weavers and his family

In the center of East End London, there was once this prosperous silk industry of Spitalfields. Located in the diverse neighborhood, the weathered brick-built 19 Princelet Street embraces itself in a connectedness to the past. Just another witness of the centuries. Selecting the notable attic windows at 19 Princelet Street as a dynamic locus of the past, this project aims to explore the myriad stories of Spitalfields’ silk workers over a 300-year.

What special about 19 Princelet Street’s attic windows?


No.19 Princelet Street

19 Princelet Street was built in 1719, first housed by a Huguenot family, the Orgier, who escaped from religious persecution from France to enter the silk weaving industry of Spitalfields. Like many other weavers’ houses, 19 Princelet Street was subdivided into lodging areas and workshop spaces. As the draw looms, used for the weaving of figured silks, required large and lofty rooms with a good light, workshops were usually set on the top floor of the building. There, attic windows were altered to be large and horizontal for the special convenience of their job. These ‘weaver windows’ are essential as not only did they provide an ideal lighting condition to produce high-quality fabric but also allowed the weaver to work for the longest time.

Under the roof, multiple interwoven stories of the diverse history aligned reveal the uniqueness of the place. It is necessary to set these stories in a social and economic contexts as the identity of it can only be revealed once the diverse individuals or groups who lived and have lived there linked up with their surroundings in a complex spatial web. Now, you are invited to join in the journey back in time, to discover what life was like for Spitalfields’ silk workers.

attic windows

Attic windows


Arriving in Spitalfields.

After the Revocation of Nante in 1685, a huge wave of French Protestants migrants, known as Huguenots, came ultimately to London. A great proportion of them were silk weavers from region of Lyon and Tours, settled near Bishopsgate, Spitalfields, Norton Folgate and the western border of Bethanal Green. Arrived in the warm welcome of the anti-Catholicism Londoners, these silk weavers brought with them a handful of knowledge and skills in many different arts and craft industries, which was beneficial to the people whom gave them an asylum.

Editor of “Stow’s Survey of London”, Charles (1791) revealed: “Here they have found quiet and security, and settled themselves in their several trades and occupations; weavers especially. Whereby God’s blessing surely is not only brought upon the parish by receiving poor strangers, but also a great advantage hath accrued to the whole nation by the rich manufactures of weaving silks and stuffs and camlets, which art they brought along with them. And this benefit also to the neighborhood, that these strangers may serve for patterns of thrift, honesty, industry, and sobriety as well.”



The Huguenots set up their own society in 1703, having an inclination towards floriculture and gardening. The remnants found nowadays near silk weavers’ windows suggest that they also had an interest in the breeding and training of singing birds. In ‘The silk weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green’, Arthur (1931) described the Huguenots as such excellent citizenships being “industrious, small in physique, cheerful and quite in disposition, but very persistent, and with an inclination towards sound craftsmanship in each branch of their work…”

In 1743, there were approximately 1800 houses and 15.000 people of weavers and their family.  This number was multiplied a few times before the end of the 17th century. In the last quarter of 18th century, 12-15.000 looms were in used in Spitalfields. Each loom represented the employment of at least 3 operatives in various processes of production. That estimates the number of approximately 30.000 silk workers at that time (Arthur, 1931).

Working in the silk industry.

Trading started in Spitalfields in early 1666 but only until 1682, when King Charles II granted John Batch a Royal Charter to open the first market, did the economy of Spitalfields begin to roar. As a result of the successful market, a considerable number of people moved in the area including the arrival of the Huguenots. Perceived as one of the ‘profitable strangers’, it was with these religious fugitives that silk weaving had its actual beginning in the East London region. Although the manufacture of silk had been practiced in neighborhood previous 200 years.


An 18th century French drawloom for the weaving of firgured velvet

Various branches of occupation in the silk manufacture could be carried on under same roof, by different members of the same family. It was very typical for a family to have eight out of ten members directedly engaged in the employment of silk industry. According to an anonymous author in 1804, in the silk manufacture, father and his sons usually took charge of the operation of machines such as punching card machine or the Jacquard. Meanwhile, tasks that required less physical strength like reading card slips, casting, drawing, warping silk and weaving, fell to mothers and her daughters. Sometimes, the assistant of a mechanical draw-boy could be required.

Before the end of 18th centuries, the community had become definitely divided into a section of master weavers dealing direct with the mercers and the other customers. Working for the master weavers at their home was a great number of craftsmen, or the ‘inside’ dependent workers, who provided them with patterns and skeins of silk. The master weavers, or the ‘outside’ weavers had more freedom, as they owned looms in a domestic workshop or garnet. They maintained a considerable good relationship as the working weavers respected their masters while the master weavers treated their workers with sympathy and understanding as they shared the same passion in working with fabric and textile. However, since the industry inclined, the body of dependent fell more and more into the hand of the middlemen, who ran the business and kept the woven silks at the lowest possible rate.

The fall of Spitalfields silk industry: life wasn’t as smooth as the silk they weaved.

The prosperity of Spitalfields’ silk industry was short-lived as it fell into decline in the early 19th century. In examining the degradation of the industry, a few possible causes have been identified, of which the two main are: the lack of encouragement from the government and the failure to adopt new industrial method.

Jacquard loom

Since the serious disturbances of the wearing of Indian calicoes in 1719, the Parliament had passed a several Acts aims to encourage and support silk workers however most of them were often ignored or eventually became invalid. As the tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption points resulted in the dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silk weavers, by 1760s, over 7072 looms were out of employments. Wages disputes, also known as “Spitalfields Riots”, broke out during the period of 1765 – 1769. Such tactics like the prohibition of calico wearing in 1721, regulation to protect and maintain the wages of journeymen at a reasonable level in 1773 or the provisions of working with mixed materials to female weavers were passed to improve the condition of silk workers. However, a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling and the removal of the import duties on foreign silk in French Treaty in 1860 had pushed Spitalfields silk weaving industry into a terminal decline. The disastrous event took away the jobs of more than 30.000 silk workers. Life for them was impoverished than ever.

Beside the lack of persistent and determined tactics, the abandon of industrial technology, which lasted fifty years, also plays an important part in the fall of Spitalfields’ silk industry. Spitalfieds’ silk weavers, were once called the “London’s Luddites” for their long-term fight against mechanisation. It was undeniable that the invention of ‘Jacquard’ machine had led to the replacement of many male weavers. Though, the refusal of machine was also guaranteed for the failure in competition with other high-flying silk industry in Yorkshire or Lancashire at that time.

However, as causes are “multiple and layered, involving both long-term ideologies, instituitions and condition, and short-term motivations, actions and events”, it is necessary to look at the essence of silk weaving. Silk industry in general is a labour intensive industry, which requires specific and complex skills. Thus, only the master weavers who produce distinct silk can remain prospered. However, instead of the rich figured vestings, brocaded dress stuff and heavy furniture silks, at the end of 19th century, most products were small items such as handkerchiefs, tie silk, scarves or wraps of such quality. Though, the smallness and uncertainty of the market still trapped the weavers in the circle of poverty.

In the first quarter of 19th century, silk weavers’ condition grew pitiable indeed with the weekly earning of mere 5 shillings. As the industry fell in to decline in the 1820s, Spitalfields gained its reputation as a cheap area, which resulted in a magnet to numerous waves of immigration. With the rapid population’s growth in such an economic hardship, degradation of the already awful living conditions of Spitalfields’ silk workers was an expected tragedy.



Designs for woven silk for the Leman album

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Spitalfields witnessed the contribution of some of the most talented designers of England. Among those, such names like Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), James Leman (1688 -1745) or William Folliot (1835 – 1925) are the most prominent.

Silks were usually patterned with botanical design such as wild or garden flowers, displayed with rococo asymmetry on lustrous open grounds of satins, taffetas or rich material on heavy brocaded damask. These patterns in this period are distinctively English.


Pattern designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite


Mrs Charles Willing of Philadelphia was painted by Robert Feke in 1746 wearing a gown of English silk damask woven to a surviving 1743 design by Anna Maria Garthwaite


  1. Two important inventions that paved the way to mechanisation of the figure loom are the ‘Fly shutter’ invented by 1733 by John Kay and the ‘Jacquard’ machine by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801.
  2. Anna Maria Garthwaite used to live in Princelet Street and she might have got the inspiration from flower market and designed the pattern of natural flowers craved on the wall of No.19 Princelet Street.
  3. William Folliot was the one that designed the coronation robes for both King Edward VII and King George V and also Queen Mary’s dresses.
  4. Male silk weavers were often mentioned in books and articles with their drunkeness. They usually celebrated ‘Saint Monday’ by the act of taking a ‘Monday off’ to relax or recover from a hangover, or both.


Draw-boy: a boy, a weavers’ assistant, who operates the harness cords of a handloom

Edict of Nantes: granted the Protestants the freedom to worship as they choose in designated areas, providing a measure of safety.

Jacquard: a device for weaving elaborate designs by a machine invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752 – 1834) in 1801 and 1810.

Journeyman: a worker who has learned a silk and works for a business that belongs to someone else.

Loom: A mechanism on which to weave cloth.

Luddite: someone who does not like new technology and tries to avoid using it.

Mercer: a dealer in textile, especially silks, velvets and other fine materials.

Revocation of Edict of Nantes: In 1681, King Louis overturned the Edict of Nantes, forcing the conversion to Catholicism; this resulted in the heavy-handed laws and severe prosecution of the Protestants in 1685.


Anne, K (2005). Stranger, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1666-2000 (British Politics and Society). London: Routedge.

Arthur, K.S (1931). The silk weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green: with a catalogue and illustrations of Spitalfields silks. London: Bethnal Green Museum.

Flanagan, J.F (1954). Spitalfields silks of the 18th and 19th centuries. Leigh-on-sea: F. Lewis Pub.

Frank, L (1954). James Leman (working 1706 – 1718): Spitalfields designers. Leigh-on-sea: F. Lewis Pub.

Gentle Author (2013). Spitalfields Life: In the Midst of Life I Woke to Find Myself Living in an Old House Beside Brick Lane in the East End of London. Hodder General Publishing Division.

Hazel, C (1987). Design History: a student’s handbook. London: Routedge.

Helen, S.E (1993). The textiles of William Folliott: Spitalfield designer 1835-1925. Essex: The Working Silk Museum.

Issac, A (2012). Bold Defiance: The Spitalfields Silkweavers, London’s Luddites?. Past Tense.

John, F (1990). The story of silk. Stroud: Alan Sutton.

John, Stow (1791). A Survey of London: Reprinted from the Text of 1603. Charendon Press.

Natalie, R (1975). Spitalfield silks. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Richard, J.M (1968). The functional tradition in early industrial buildings. Architecture Press.

Robin, G (1998). The Huguenots of London. Brighton: Alpha Press.

Sydney, M. (1932). The Corpartnership Her


A silk weavers and his family. [online image]. Available at: <http://hildakean.com/?p=1912> %5BAccessed December 6, 2014]

Alfred, B (1878). An 18th century French drawloom for the weaving of firgured velvet.

Dress fabric by Anna Maria Garthwaite. [online image]. Available at: < http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O84541/dress-fabric-garthwaite-anna-maria/&gt; [Accessed December 3, 2014]

Jacquard machine. [online image]. Available at: <http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/textiles_machinery/1914-469.aspx&gt; [Accessed December 6, 2014]

James, J (1711). Designs for woven silk for the Leman album. [online image]. Available at: <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/j/the-leman-album/&gt; [Accessed December 3, 2014]

No.19 Princelet Street. [online image]. Available at <http://www.19princeletstreet.org.uk/&gt; [Accessed December 6, 2014]

Robert, F (1746). Mrs Charles Willing of Philadelphia. [online image]. Available at < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Maria_Garthwaite#mediaviewer/File:Mrs_Charles_Willing_by_Robert_Feke_1746.jpg&gt; [Accessed December 5, 2014]

William, M (1738). Noon. [online image]. Available at <http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Huguenot.jsp#migration&gt; [Accessed December 5, 2014]

Project BTS 

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