Whitchurch Silk Mill
PUBLISHED: 10:43 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013
What do Harry Potter and Mary Poppins have in common? Joanne Page went to Whitchurch Silk Mill to find out...
It is easy to pass by the unassumingly elegant red brick building set next to the fast-flowing River Test on Winchester Street in Whitchurch and not realise how special it is.
Whitchurch Silk Mill is one of only four working silk mills in Britain today and it is the only one using original Victorian machinery. Without knowing it you will have already seen the stunning fabrics produced here either locally or in films and on television. There has been a silk mill on the site since 1816 and today they manage to incorporate the working museum with contemporary designs and bespoke commissions.
In order to keep up with demand the mill is now run by electricity. The water wheel can still be seen working, but the former method of gaining power from the river is too slow by modern production standards. The staff at the mill work on several projects at once and this spring were involved in producing a glorious royal blue silk for a reproduction of Queen Victoria's railway carriage which will be on display at Ballater in Scotland. At the same time ties which were designed by the winner of a competition held at Winchester School of Art were being made.
On the decline
The British textile industry began to decline in the 19th century but Whitchurch Silk Mill has managed to keep going. At the moment Stephen Bryers, the general manager, is attempting to piece together a detailed history of the mill because unfortunately many of the archives were destroyed some years ago. He is still trying to identify why some changes were made to the building and an oral history project is also under way.
Eye for detail
Silk production is a dying art and the skills on hand at Whitchurch are much sought after by theatrical costumiers for movies such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Stage productions have included Cats and Mary Poppins while television dramas such as Ruby in the Smoke have also used Whitchurch silk.
It was surprising to hear from Julia Trinder, the visitor services manager, that rather than large single pieces, the fabric seen on screen is often made from silk ribbon which has been sewn together.
With their expert eye for detail the staff can always tell the difference between their high-quality silk and a poor substitute when they see it on screen.
Their fabrics are used internationally within the arts and entertainment world. Upcoming productions include the stage production of Mary Poppins which will tour the USA, and a performance of The Nutcracker Suite by the Australian Ballet in Melbourne.
Within Hampshire the mill has produced stunning banners for historic buildings such as Winchester's Cathedral and Great Hall where the vibrant colours of their contemporary designs complemented the original architecture.
Using their skills and knowledge, they have been invaluable to organisations such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Trust who must demand the finest quality of authentic fabric. Examples of their silk can be seen at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, Knole House and Hampton Court Palace.
The age of the equipment governs the type of fabrics woven at Whitcurch and they produce geometric patterns, warp (vertical) stripes and plains. The colour range available is limitless. Due to the age of the machinery, instead of metric measurements the Imperial system is still used.
Although there would have once been over a hundred people working at the mill today there are only a few in addition to Stephen and Julia. The work done by the designer, weaver and engineer can be seen by the visitor who is first shown a video explaining the history and working of the mill.
During its history the mill has faced closure on several occasions. Most recently, in 1985, it was saved by Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust who bought the building and contents.
They repaired and then sold some nearby cottages to fund the work needed on the mill. It was leased to Whitchurch Silk Mill Trust in 1990. The turret clock was fitted in 1815 to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo.
If you do visit Whitchurch Silk Mill be sure to check in the fast moving River Test. It is so pure that it is used to wash the paper for our bank notes at Overton and you never know your luck! n
DID YOU KNOW?
For the 40 years up until 1985, Whitchurch Silk Mill produced the Ottoman silk for judges' and QC gowns. The weave used for Ottoman silk results in a ribbed effect and greater weight can be added by including cotton and wool to the process.
It takes seven silk worm cocoons to produce one thread. 10,400 threads are needed to make one warp. One silk worm eats the equivalent of a black bin bag full of mulberry leaves every day. Bales are imported from China and no silk worms are kept at Whitchurch. The hanks of silk are sent to Essex and Suffolk for dying.
The mill can now be hired for wedding parties which are held in a marquee in the gardens.
There were once over a hundred people working here, nearly half of whom would have been children. They were used because they had good eyesight and were nimble. Both qualities were essential within the mill at the time.
The mill welcomes school and group visits.
They are currently running a display of work by the hat designer Jane Smith which interests the children who visit because it includes the hat worn by Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts. The mill has also worked in conjunction with Aspreys and Jean Muir.
Until September 2: Colour and Scale - an exhibition of modern art and complementary fabric.
From September 3 until November 4: Fan Fair - the origins and use of the fan.
From November 5: Glazed Silk - a modern approach to silk using a unique combination of silk fibres, gold metal and glass.
Address: Whitchurch Silk Mill, 28 Winchester Street, Whitchurch RG28 7AL.
Tel: 01256 892065
Open: Tuesday to Sunday 10:30am-5pm.
Last admission at 4.15pm; open bank holidays, closed Christmas to New Year.