The Silk Trade of England - A Talk by Richard Humphries

Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Richard to the Parish Room to share his knowledge of the English silk trade over the centuries and the key involvement of our royal lineage. Reflecting his local silk industry fame, more than 40 guests came along to hear him speak; they all went home delighted as it was a quite superb talk from a man passionate about his craft.

                                                       Richard Humphries MBE FRSA

Richard began by giving us a potted history of his 52 year career in the silk weaving industry, which began in the mid 1960s. Leaving school at an early age he was apprenticed into the trade as a design trainee with Warner and Sons Ltd, learning all areas of the business, and he was the last to graduate when the firm ceased trading in 1971. He saw an opportunity and decided to start his own weaving company with his £50 redundancy money (roughly £600 today), managing to buy the machinery at scrap value. He was just 20 years of age in 1972 when he founded the business, in the same building where the firm operates from today - Ashburton Lodge in Cornard Road, opposite Sainsburys.

Richard then told us the history of silk weaving, which began in China around 3000 BC. According to Confucius, in 2640 BC Chinese princess Xi Ling Shi was the first to reel a cocoon of silk, which had allegedly dropped into her cup of tea - the Chinese had discovered the life cycle of the silk worm which they were to keep secret for the next 3000 years.

                                                                                        Silkworm cocoons on a mulberry leaf

In the 3rd Century BC Chinese silk fabrics found their way throughout the whole of Asia, transported overland to the west along the Silk Road and by sea to Japan. The Romans discovered the wondrous fabrics in Asia, though they knew nothing of their origin, so in 552 AD Emperor Justinian sent two monks on an industrial espionage mission to Asia. They returned with silkworm eggs hidden inside bamboo walking sticks, and from then on, sericulture (silk farming) spread across Asia Minor and Greece.

In the 7th Century Arabs conquered the Persians and captured magnificent silks in the process, helping to spread sericulture and silk weaving through Africa, Sicily and Spain. By the 10th Century Andalusia was Europe's main silk-producing centre. Marco Polo's journeys in China then led to the development of commercial exchanges between East and West, and to an increasing use of silk; in this way, Italy started a silk industry as early as the 12th Century.

Between 1450 & 1466, Lyon became a major warehouse for foreign silks, creating a massive outflow of capital, so in 1466 Louis XI declared his intention to "introduce the art and craft of making gold and silk fabrics in our city of Lyon". In 1536, François I gave Lyon the monopoly of silk imports and trade, effectively creating the Lyon silk industry. Later, in 1598, a French royal decree - the Edict of Nantes - established toleration for Huguenots, granting freedom of worship, legal equality and ending the Wars of Religion. This Edict was later revoked by Louis XIV in 1685 and French Huguenots once again were subject to religious persecution. They fled the country in large numbers, and as many were expert throwsters and weavers, contributed to the development of the silk industry in Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Switzerland. Richard then told us about the history of cloth weaving in England, in which East Anglia excelled in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Before the industrial revolution, most trades were controlled by Guilds and Liveries; the Worshipful Company of Weavers was formed in 1133, and by 1155 had been granted a royal charter. Weaving width of cloth was regulated, along with the weavers who made it; masters were limited in the number of journeymen and apprentices allowed, and paid rent based on the number of looms operated. 

Most wool was sheered locally and hand spun in a cottage industry by hundreds of spinners who supplied the demand from hand weavers from London to Norwich. Spinners in the town of Worsted discovered they could spin finer and tighter yarns by combing the fibres, which meant that weavers could make more refined and stronger cloths in and around the city of Norwich. Most popular were plain weaves and twills, but sadly we were not very good with colour, so a trade developed selling cloth to Holland and the low-countries, to be bought back as coloured cloth at much higher prices.

After revocation of the Edict of Nantes, around 150,000 Hugenots came to England; they were initially much welcomed, but because they were better weavers, it was not long before there were complaints from the natives about losing jobs, creating much panic. Authorities decided the solution was to bring all the Hugenots together into one area. Spitalfields in London was the chosen area, which at the time comprised fields and nursery gardens, so peasants were removed from the land and streets laid out for the silk weavers. According to Richard, this cost around £200,000, or some £42 million today, but had been repaid by the Hugenots within 10 years, very clearly demonstrating the profitability of the new silk weaving business.

                                                                                Map of Spitalfields showing life in 1887

It seems there then followed a period of rapid development of different fabrics between the Hugenot silk weavers and the Norwich wool weavers, with each trying to outdo the other. Spitalfields produced a lustrous silk fabric, in Prince of Wales green, used as backdrops to paintings; then it was discovered that woollen cloth could be given a shiny look by glazing, or pressing down very hard on the fabric.

                                                                                                Prince of Wales green fabric

Richard then told us a story about a bed his company had recently restored, originally belonging to George II. At that time when a monarch died, the Lord Chamberlain, then the Duke of Devonshire, was entitled to take, as a perquisite for personal use, ‘any furniture from the royal palaces regarded as worn-out or out dated’. A large 4-poster bed subsequently found its way via Devonshire House, the Duke’s London residence, to Chatsworth House where it remains. Working closely with the house curator and independent textile historian Annabel Westman, Humphries Weaving Co reproduced the fabric on the state bed to make new treatments for the headboard and window drapes - pure silk damask in crimson and gold. As Richard commented, “the king must have needed sunglasses when in bed!”

                                     A Royal bed at Chatsworth

He told us how damaging sunlight is to silk, rotting it within perhaps just 10 years if fully exposed to bright sunlight, which explains why so many of our historic houses and palaces have such dark interiors, and why restoration of nationally important fabrics has been at the core of Richard’s work.

We were then treated to see, though sadly not touch (because silk is easily damaged) a great number of samples of many of the restored fabrics Humphries Weaving has produced over the years.

What follows is a small selection from the tremendous range displayed to us, with photos taken from the Humphries Weaving Co website; it is highly recommended readers visit this which also has a superb 10 minute video showing the many stages Richard and his team had to go through to restore the fabrics of the Brighton Royal Pavillion:

Audley End

A largely early 17th Century family country mansion, now under the management of English Heritage and renowned for being one of the finest surviving Jacobean properties in Britain. I have been many times to this superb estate, having no idea that a local firm was so involved with interior restoration - on my next visit I will be sure to pay much more attention to the work done.

The Great Drawing Room

The whole interior scheme of the room was personally designed by Robert Adam, from the furniture to the ceiling and even the pattern for the silk wall hangings and curtains. Silk tissue was narrow woven in crimson, green and straw by Humphries Weaving for festoon curtains, the design being redrawn from the best surviving documents.

                                                                                 Fabric for the Drawing Room

 The Saloon

Previously the King’s Great Chamber, the present Saloon was created by Sir John Griffin Griffin (this really was his name) in the 1760’s to display portraits of the heritage line of of Audley End’s owners. The 19th Century sitting room became a favourite family sitting room and the family were said to take advantage of breakfast in the bay window where the floor is raised to take advantage of the view (I ca personally attest that the view is fantastic). Humphries Weaving supplied silk damask curtains with glazed wool tammy (*) linings in the Saloon to match with the existing mid 18th Century decoration.

(*)        A plain-woven often glazed cloth of fine worsted or woolen and cotton, formerly used for dresses, curtains, and linings

                                                                                                        Silk damask for the saloon

The Library

he family sitting room when there were no guests in the house, with furniture and decoration chosen for comfort rather than elegance (another superb room, though sadly the books are all locked away). Humphries Weaving were commissioned to make silk damask (*) curtains with glazed wool tammy linings for the restoration of the window drapes in the Library.

(*)        A firm lustrous fabric (of linen, cotton, silk, or rayon), made with flat patterns in a satin weave (+) on a plain-woven ground on jacquard looms

(+)       A weave in which warp threads interlace with filling threads to produce a smooth-faced fabric

                                                                                      Silk damask curtains for the library

The Dining Room

The current room was made by combining two rooms in 1825, of Jacobean design, less formal and grand, offering comfort and a more intimate dining experience. With stunning double aspect views of the surrounding Capability Brown landscape (which is itself simply stunning and well worth a visit), the walls were painted green to blend both inside and outside. Humphries Weaving produced a Moiré silk and linen green taboret stripe for the pull up curtains described in the house inventory; reproduced from a surviving original fragment discovered in one of the dolls house rooms, where two tiny curtains were made from the fabric.

                                                                                  Dining room moire silk stripe curtains

I was hoping to give definitions of moiré and taboret, but it seems this needs a couple of paragraphs; if you are interested, please visit:

Lancaster House - The Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Entrance Hall

Cotton and wool damask in peach was used for curtains in the entrance hall. The 18th Century Italian design has been much used for both fabric and wallpaper; a flock (*) paper version of it from 1735 was discovered at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich and a  further version at Hampton Court Palace.

(*)         Very short or pulverized fiber used especially to form a velvety pattern on cloth or paper

                                                                        Cotton and wool damask in peach for the curtains

Occasional furniture

A pure silk lampas (*) tissue featuring typical mid 18th Century Spitalfield’s styling, including flower springs intertwined with lace Ribbons woven with a textured ground. The design was woven in two colourways, the crimson ground being used for upholstery of mahogany gilt occasional furniture.

(*)        Lampas is a type of luxury fabric with a background weft (a ground weave) typically in taffeta (+) with supplementary wefts (the pattern wefts) laid on top and forming a design, sometimes also with a brocading weft. Typically woven in silk and often with gold and silver thread enrichment.

(+)       A crisp plain-woven lustrous fabric of various fibers used especially for women's clothing

                                                        Pure silk lampas featuring typical mid 18th Century Spitalfield’s styling

Walling for the Green Room

Silk and Cotton damask, mid 18th century design of French origin, arranged in a naturalistic style with typical Rococo exuberance. The special feature of colouring chosen is the fine Strié (*) texture in the ground of the damask, carefully constructed to imitate a true 18th Century Jaspé (+) effect but actually employing two separate colours of pale blue to create the illusion.

(*)        A striped design used especially in textiles that consists of faint streaked vertical lines of color close in tone to the background

(+)       Variegated in weaving by the use of warp yarns of differing shades together with single-color filling yarns

                                                                      Silk and Cotton damask woven for walling restoration

The Brighton Pavilion

The Saloon

Described as ‘His Majesty’s Geranium and Gold’, and working from a watercolour of the room, Annabel Westman described to Richard that the design included ‘yellow bird flower and scroll pattern’. Diving into the Humphries Weaving archive incredibly Richard found a black and white photo of a design fitting the description. From this small 6×4 image a colleague began redrawing the design by hand to the full scale of 21 inches wide and 50 inches in length. A further 50 hours of CAD work followed, carefully plotting the trellis of rosettes that form part of the pattern and quarter drop repeat.

The Geranium and Gold pure silk tissue woven by Humphries Weaving has been used in wall panels, magnificent drapery and to cover furniture.

The talk now moved ahead in time, to when the weavers of Spitalfields were taxed at the behest of the Norwich weavers who could not compete, in reality a tax on making or weaving silk. It was not long before Hugenots moved out of London to where the new tax did not apply - Braintree, Halstead and Sudbury - also around this time the traditional ‘three hand span’ or 21 inches width of cloth (still the width of wallpaper today) was superseded, with additional hand span widths now being made.

                                                                                      Brighton Royal Pavilion – The finished product

Windsor Castle

Following the huge fire in November 1992, more than 100 rooms were destroyed or damaged at the Castle, including much of the State Apartments.

King’s Drawing Room

Fabric for restoration of this room was the first project undertaken by Humphries Weaving following return to Ashburton Lodge in Sudbury, supplying a green silk and cotton damask for the room walling.

                                                                                    King’s gallery green

Crimson Drawing Room

The decorative scheme of the Crimson Drawing Room preceding the castle fire was designed by Queen Victoria, in a far more restrained taste than that of the George IV interiors. She favoured an Italian design called the Torcello (from an Italian island in the Venice Lagoon), using it abundantly in many of her residences. Pure silk in crimson woven wide width for the restoration of furniture, window drapes and walling panels. Wide woven fabric was often used to display wealth and opulence as it was more expensive than the standard narrow woven - it required the weaver to hold a much wider stance.

                                                                                                       Torcello damask

Green Drawing Room

A long room with an impressive bay window. A deep green pure silk damask woven wide width for the restoration in ‘George and Mary Damask’. The fabric can be seen in wall panels and on the furniture suite, as well as the restoration of the window drapes.

                                                                                     Windsor Castle green

Windsor green damask                                                                                          
Windsor green damask
George and Mary damas

Grand Reception Room

Crimson and gold damask in pure silk were used for the furnishings and window drapes.  Fragments of the original fabric from the Royal Collection were copied and redrawn in the company studio, with design restoration overseen by Pamela Lewis, Richard Humphries and Derek Chatten. The window drapes replaced the fire destroyed Farleigh Tissue, which was one of the largest most complicated hand woven fabrics ever produced by Warner & Sons at New Mills in Braintree.

Gilt furniture restoration and fabric for walling

The Torcello design is prevalent around the castle in many rooms, and a favoured design of Queen Victoria. Humphries Weaving were commissioned to weave a silk and cotton version in crimson, which was used for the restoration of various pieces of gilt furniture and for the restoration of the State Crimson Drawing Room.

State Dining Room window drapes

Private apartments created for George IV include the State Dining room, amongst the most richly decorated interiors in the Castle now used by the Queen for official entertaining. The room features a large bay window, with pure silk narrow woven damask in crimson and straw for the window drapes.

The Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster is the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, commonly referred to as the Houses of Parliament. The current palace was designed by the architect Sir Charles Barry after an earlier building was ravaged by fire in 1834.

The Speakers House

The Speaker is the presiding officer of the House of Commons, responsible for keeping order in the commons during debates and representing the commons to the monarch. As recognition of the importance of this historical role the Speaker is given use of Speaker’s House, a set of grace and favour apartments in the Palace of Westminster. There is a private apartment to live in and a set of spectacular state apartments for entertaining and receiving distinguished guests.

The Speaker’s State Bed & Chamber

The Speaker’s State Bed was originally intended for the monarch to sleep in the night before the Coronation; it is a state room often used for receptions and entertaining, with the grand state bed acting as a focal point. Humphries Weaving created a silk and linen Brocatelle (*) in geranium and gold, and also a plain geranium lustring (+), both used for hangings on the State Bed and upholstery for two prie-dieus (types of prayer desk). The Cavendish Damask is a Pugin design redrawn at the Humphries Weaving studio - the Loom on which it was woven had to be specially commissioned and built to accommodate the scale of the design.

(*)        A heavy brocade fabric with raised designs - a form of variegated marble

 (+)      A glossy silk fabric, or a satin-weave fabric resembling it.

                                                               The state bed

With great mirth, Richard then told us the history of the Pugin designed state bed:

  • After a few years no one had slept in it;
  • After 50 years, still no one had used it, and it had degraded a lot;
  • Roll on to the 1960’s and it was very dilapidated, so Harold Wilson ordered its sale by auction;
  • Not in great demand it was allegedly purchased, for £2,200 by a Welsh farmer for his five children; he apparently cut off the top of the bed in order to get it into his house;
  • Finally re-acquired by the House of Commons Heritage and Works of Art Trust in 1981 for £31,000 and now back in the state room.

Speaker’s State Dining Room

Host to formal receptions and a grand entertaining space. A silk and linen Brocatelle in crimson and gold was used for curtains. The Pugin design differs from that on the state bed but is in keeping with the Gothic Revival style of the dining room, which includes a set of Pugin designed dining chairs.

                                                                      Silk and linen brocatelle in geranium and gold

Dumfries House, Ayrshire

Dumfries House was commissioned by William Dalrymple, the 5th Earl of Dumfries, and designed in the 1750’s by the Adam brothers, Robert and James. A year after construction began, the Earl’s wife passed away, from which point on the interiors were lavishly decorated in the highest fashions - to attract a new wife to produce him an heir. Dumfries fell into disrepair in the early 2000’s and the house, it’s priceless furniture and works of art were set to be auctioned. The property and estate were saved in 2007 by HRH Prince Charles, who then set about raising funds to restore the house to it’s former glory, safe-guarding it’s unique collection of furniture by Thomas Chippendale.

The Family Bedroom

The Chippendale Mahogany bed was designed for the 5th Earl personally by Thomas Chippendale, with wood carvings said to promote fertility. The widowed Earl spared no expense on the bed, which was originally hung with 18 yards of green silk & worsted damask. The design used in the restoration was taken from remaining fragments discovered on a chair and thought to be original covering. The same design is used in the Blue Drawing Room and the Family Parlour.

                                                                   Chippendale bed

The Family Parlour

The Family Parlour, also known as the Yellow Drawing Room, uses the same design as the Blue Drawing Room and the Chippendale bed in the Family Bedroom.

The redrawing of the design was a challenging process as there was very little pattern remaining on the original chairs in the house. The same design was found in the Humphries Weaving archive, allowing the design to be accurately redrawn at the historically recognised narrow width of 21 inches.

The rich, brilliant historical yellow shade was researched by textile historian Annabel Westman and used for seat furniture and festoon curtains in the room.

                                                                                                    Yellow pattern upholstery

                                                                                     HRH Prince Charles meets RJH at Dumfries House

To complete his Mary Poppins trick by taking so many fabulous large silk fabrics out of one not so large bag, Richard then showed us their most important and expensive silk fabric, hand woven with brass wires, later removed, on an ancient loom for the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels. We were told that it takes a day to produce just 16 inches of this wondrous fabric because its such a complicated procedure, so is hugely expensive but absolutely lovely at the same time. Lastly he told us he a little of his looms, which can now cost £250,000 a piece and need replacing every 20 years - an expensive business - apart of course from the ancient and historic wooden looms which they somehow manage to keep going.

What Richard started as a very small operation has now become a highly prestigious and renowned silk weaving company designing fabrics for many of the most important interiors in Britain and abroad. We had been given a wonderful insight into the restoration world of interiors of international importance that requires research, development and crucial planning, as well as working with architects, conservators, curators and interior decorators - including the crucial colour matching, quality control and finally production which must all be in place for a successful outcome.

Richard’s work at Hampton Court and the Royal Palaces restoring the State Apartments was fully recognised in 1985 when he was awarded the MBE for services to the textile industry, and his company rightfully takes its place with the other local silk weavers, which together ensure that Sudbury really is the capital of silk weaving in the country.


To conclude, Richard brought incredible passion, humour and warmth to a subject of which most people have little knowledge; his brilliant talk was an absolute tour de force thoroughly enjoyed by everyone present, and I for one can’t recall when a speaker had so many questions afterwards, reflecting the interest generated by his magnificent talk.

Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

12th December: Bonfires and Bells

Kate Jewel will tell us all about the rituals and Festivals in the Medieval Suffolk Landscape.

16th January: The Green Man - Our annual Member Only event

Roger Green, a real favourite of LWHS, will tell us about these symbols & motifs which exist in cultures around the world though remain something of an enigma; together we will explore this fascinating subject through his talk, which will include many picture examples.


Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                                        24th November 2018