The past few days has seen the south of England covered in snow and it was beginning to look a bit touch and go as to whether a long-planned trip to Whitchurch Silk Mill ((http://whitchurchsilkmill.org.uk) in Hampshire with my friend Sonia (www.androulaskitchen.wordpress.com); fortunately the weather fairies smiled on us and we were able to go after all. Our route from West Sussex took us across the South Downs which had been dusted with a fresh fall of snow overnight leaving the trees lining the lanes resembling a gateway into Narnia.
The snow and ice at West Harting
It was quite magical driving along through this winter wonderland and a sight not often seen in the south of England.
Arriving at Whitchurch we parked in the small public car park between the pink painted library and the Silk Mill and crossed the wooden footbridge spanning the river which runs through the mill grounds. The small flotilla of ducks which live on that section of river were swimming frantically against the current as the water was in full flow, or maybe they were really just hopeful that we had brought some food for them!
Ducks at Whitchurch
On entry to the mill you find yourself in a well stocked shop area which sells a variety of fancy goods, many made from silk, some being made locally by hand and some bought in commercially from abroad. The centrepiece was the table stacked with corsages, key fobs, manicure cases all made locally from a bolt of Celebration Silk which was woven at the mill during November 2012 as part of a feasibility study when the mill was preparing to recommence weaving again after several months of the looms standing idle. It would be fair to say that I am a complete sucker for corsages and brooches of all types and when I spotted this beautiful two-tone piece I had to buy it!
Above left: my fabulous corsage brooch made from Whitchurch Celebration Silk Taffeta
Above right: cute little mice and other goods made from the Celebration Silk
Whitchurch Silk Mill was built in 1815 by Thomas Hayter although the reason why it was built is unclear. It produced silk fabrics throughout the 19th and into the 20th century weaving specialist silks for shirting and legal gowns as well as casings for electrical cabling during the World Wars. The 1950’s saw electrical motors replace the old water wheels powering the looms and the mill continued to make fabrics for companies such as Burberry and Ede and Ravenscroft (London’s older robemaker and supplier of legal and academic gowns. When you graduate from university it is highly likely that you will either buy or hire your graduation gown from Ede and Ravenscroft). Other uses for the beautiful silks woven here include special commissions for film and theatre and costumes for several BBC productions including North and South (2003); Pride and Prejudice (2005); Cranford (2007); Tess of the d’Urbervilles (2008) and Garrow’s Law (2009). Several National Trust properties have also commissioned silk to be woven at the mill to complete conservation projects at Knole, in Kent, Houghton Hall in Norfolk, Dunham Massey in Cheshire and Erdigg in North Wales.
Whitchurch Silk Mill Mill Race at Whitchurch
Today the mill weaves silk mainly to commission and pride themselves on the quality of colour match and accuracy of pattern matching. Although the looms are powered by electricity the weaving is overseen and checked by hand and it can take up to 17 weeks to complete a 150m order.
On entering the Mill building you climb a steep flight of stairs which lead into the old wheel house. The water wheel power drive is still partially connected and you can see the drive shaft being driven by the river water rushing past. Up another flight of stairs finds you standing in a large room full of winding machines. These machines clatter away winding bobbins of silk from the cops and skeins bought in from India and China onto the small wooden bobbins which fit the looms downstairs.
Above left: view across the bobbin winding room
Above right: fast spinning cogs, wheels and cams drive the bobbin winding machines
Back down stairs and through a small doorway is another large room which is currently being used as a tea room and education and exhibition area. Tea and coffee as well as homemade cakes and sandwiches are a=freshly made daily and are available at very reasonable cost. It is self-service and works on an ‘honesty’ system whereby visitors note down what they have eaten and drunk on a slip of paper provided and pay the receptionist as they leave.
The tea room and view from tea room window
Here, on the walls the visitor can see photographs of the costumes made from Whitchurch silk featured in various film and TV productions as well as an area where children can try weaving on small looms or try on period costumes. A large glass display cabinet was empty on my visit but would normally house items on exhibition. Through a door at the far end of the tea room and down a flight of stairs is the weaving room. Several large looms are set up with sample patterns showing the most popular fabric patterns but sadly these were not running on the day I visited. I am a bit of a machinery geek and it was a real treat to see these machines tightly packed in their space, one could almost hear the noise of the water powering looms and the clatter of the shuttles flying back and forth.
Above left: Powered looms fully threaded
Above right: hand-loom fully threaded for the public to try out
The silk mill at Whitchurch has been operated by a Charitable Trust since 1985 and opened to the public in 1990. It is managed and operated on a day-to-day basis by the Trust and a group of dedicated volunteers and skilled craftsmen and women. The mill aims to
- to retain the skills of weaving on the machinery;
- to care for the building and its contents;
- to inspire the public about textiles.
while still producing high quality silks and being a fascinating venue for visitors from far and wide.
Newly wound silk bobbins Bolts of silk woven at the mill