It’s whispering down the catwalk at Somerset House for London Fashion Week. It’s caressed by every tourist nipping into Liberty’s for an iconic paisley scarf. And it’s the star of the current exhibition at the V&A, in the form of a shimmering golden cape that took 1.2 million Madagascan spiders, eight years and a team of expert handloom weavers to create.
Silk is undeniably associated with elitism, elegance and expense. But according to biological engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto, it is in fact “the ancient material of the future”. In his brilliant TED Talk, Omenetto demonstrates how this “sustainable natural Kevlar” can be used to create holograms, optical fibres, dissolvable body implants, microneedles and LED tattoos. Far from being a heritage fabric, he believes that this “new old material could profoundly impact high technology, material science, medicine and global health.”
Silk’s ability to weave together the past and the future is beautifully evident at the Golden Spider Silk exhibition, which exemplifies the coming together of traditional extraction and weaving techniques with the bold vision of British textile artist Simon Peers and US designer entrepreneur Nicholas Godley. The cape itself could equally be a Madagascan antique or the latest piece of McQueen couture.
Indeed, the ancient silk industry has helped to shape modern London. But the history of silk and the city is one of violence, folly and persecution that belies the fabric’s refined image.
Silkworms, silk goods and the skills of sericulture first came to Europe thanks to a series of brutal conquests of Asia and Persia, from sixth century Romans, seventh century Arabs and medieval Crusaders in turn. France and Italy quickly developed strong silk industries, but our island lagged behind. And so in 1609 the aesthete king, James I, attempted to develop a native sericulture in England, by purchasing and planting 100,000 mulberry trees, partly on a plot beside his own Hampton Court. Unfortunately, James had ordered the black variety. Silk worms feed off white mulberry leaves. The experiment failed.
It wasn’t until 1681, when Charles II offered sanctuary to the Huguenots being oppressed by the Catholic Louis IX, that London really embraced silk. The trickle of French refugees became a river when, in 1685 Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes, forcing all remaining Huguenots to convert to Catholicism or face persecution. From 1670 to 1710, 40-50,000 Huguenots, many of them wealthy and highly skilled weavers, sought refuge across the channel.
Most of them headed to Spitalfields, which became the centre of London’s silk trade, otherwise known as ‘weaver’s town’. East London was an ideal destination for the new arrivals, as food and accommodation was cheap, and the area was relatively free from the strict economic control wielded elsewhere by the guilds. By 1700 there were nine Huguenot churches in Spitalfields alone.
Once you know what to look for, it is hard to wander around modern Spitalfields without seeing the shadow of those French silkmen everywhere.