Dyeing and the Silk Industry During the Late 1800s

This article is an introduction to the next one which will be about Leek Embroidery

Thomas Wardle (1831-1909) of Leek in Staffordshire was an English dye chemist and printer who devoted much of his life to development of the textile printing industry employing both locally woven and imported fabrics. He had widespread interests, considerable energy and solved many problems associated with the dyeing of fabrics making many technological breakthroughs and innovations in the process.

Colour played a defining role in his life. He developed consistency between dye lots, colour fastness and also the variations of shades in colour ranges. His company printed small runs of fabrics using both natural and chemical dyes. He used wood printing blocks and, with over printing, created extra colours.

William Morris was a protégé, business partner and friend. Together they experimented with dyeing and printing using natural dyestuffs. Morris would create a design which was cut into woodblocks and which were used for short run printing. Morris and several other lesser known artists designed for the Arts and Crafts movement which was hugely influential in developing public taste as it moved forward from the tastes of the Victorian era. Prior to this time, the fashion had been for Berlin work where the colours are vibrant but there are few shades within a colour range. A look at the William Morris designs gives you an idea of their complexity, richness, balance and subtlety of colour.

Design Indain Poppy By Wardle & Co

A label reads:

Design Indian Poppy, c 1884-89, based on a woven French silk, Tussur silk cloth hand-woven in India. Block-printed by Wardle & Co, the Hencroft Works, Leek, stitched with Indian tussur silk yarn dyed with natural dyes by T & A Wardle, the Churnet Works. Leek Embroidery Society. (SMDC Collection)

The Wardle Company also dyed textiles for bulk orders such as for the Admiralty. And they dyed hanks of wool for the carpet industry as well as threads for sewing, embroidery and braids. He was the major supplier of printed textiles to Liberty’s on Regent Street as well as to Harrods in Kensington. And he had a store under his own name on Bond Street.

Tussur Silk became a huge part of the life of Thomas Wardle. Tussor Silk is the product of a large, wild silk moth native to India. The fibres are long and this length creates the sheen in the fabric and in the embroidery threads. Although it is a durable fibre, it is beige in colour and resistant to being dyed.

He spent many years experimenting with ways of processing the fabric and dyeing it to produce a jewel toned range of colours. This silk fabric became enormously popular and fashionable in England as well as France. The discarded (short) fibres were used to create Sealcloth, another invention. This fabric was water resistant and in high demand to make coats and cloaks.

Late in his life, he travelled to Kashmir (India) where there was a famine and the silk industry was failing. His knowledge and experience brought changes, revitalizing the industry and providing employment for thousands of Indians and lifting them out of poverty for decades to come.

The long silk fibres were made into embroidery threads with a range of shades within a colour. In 1879, Thomas took some of the threads home and gave them to his wife Elizabeth, an embroiderer, challenging her to find a good use for them.

The accompanying photos are examples of Leek Embroidery. The design woven into the fabric was typical for its time. The embroiderer then used the Wardle dyed silk threads to enhance the woven design. Note the lustre of the silk thread and the good condition of the next piece. It is thanks to Joan Landon who had collected and stored it at her home, Sunnycroft (Blog dated September 15, 2013)

References: ISSUU – Who was Thomas Wardle.
Thomas Wardle and Tussur Silk

Thomas Wardle and Tussur Silk

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