Creating a Silk Industry in Seventeenth-Century England

By Peck, Linda Levy | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Creating a Silk Industry in Seventeenth-Century England


Peck, Linda Levy, Shakespeare Studies


IN 1599 THOMAS MOFFETT wrote an elaborate poem, "The silk wormes and Their Flies,"(1) describing the silkworms he had seen when he was in Tuscany in 1579 and issuing a nationalist call to his countrymen to raise silkworms and to wear silk clothing, a call that countered contemporary sumptuary laws: "rise hearts of English race. / Why should your clothes be courser than the rest?/ ... Begge countrymen no more in sackcloth base, / Being by me of such a trade possest / That shall enrich yourselves and children more / Than ere it did Naples or Spaine before."(2)

Contemporaries commented on the richness of English clothing. Looking back to 1574 the historian William Camden wrote "In these dayes had very great excess of Apparel spread it selfe, all over England... whilst they jetted up and downe in theyr Silkes, glittering with gold and silver eyther imbroydered or laced."(3) In the 1590s John Stow documented both the production and retailing of silk. "There were more silk shops in Cheapside during the latter years of Elizabeth than there had formerly been in all England.... In the yeere 1599 was devised, and perfected the Art of knitting or weaving silk stockings, wastecoates, and divers other things, by engines or steele loomes by William Lee."(4)

As the income of the landed increased in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, clamor for luxury goods increased.(5) Imports of silk doubled in the 1590s.(6) In 1559 silk fabrics had made up 3.3 percent of the imports to London. By 1622 this had grown to 5.1 percent. The increase in raw materials was more dramatic. In 1559 1.1 percent of the imports were silk; by 1622 this had risen to 7.5%. In the seventeenth century the new silk industry was almost entirely dependent on importation of raw materials. In 1622 London imported silk worth 118,000 [pounds sterling]. By 1640 this had reached 175,000 [pounds sterling], in the 1660s 263,000 [pound sterling] and by the end of the century 344,000 [pounds sterling], amounting throughout the century to 23-29 percent of the total value of imports.(7) Silk, either raw or "thrown into thread for the weavers at Spitalfields and elsewhere to work on," was the most valuable of all the raw material imports throughout the middle and later seventeenth century.(8) It was brought in by the Levant Company from the eastern Mediterranean, later augmented by imports from Italy. Its production, however, was uncertain because it depended on weather in those areas of the Mediterranean where silk worms dined on mulberry leaves.

In response to such uncertainty and because of the increasing cost of imports, the Stuarts, like the Medici and the Valois, tried to create domestic silk industries. As a result, interest in sericulture burgeoned in the first decade of the seventeenth century.(9)The campaign to create the raw materials for the silk industry took place both in print and in orders to local magistrates to ensure that the entire population planted mulberry trees.

King James argued for import substitution and technology transfer. He eschewed his loss of custom revenues in the name of public utility and jobs. In his preface, "Instructions for the increasing of mulberie Trees and the breeding of silk-wormes, for the making of Silke," James stressed how successful the King of France had been in establishing the silk industry. Adopting Henri IV's approach, James ordered "those of ability" to distribute 10,000 mulberry plants at 3 farthings a plant or 6s. a hundred:

   all thinges of this nature tending to plantations, increase of Science, and
   works of industrie, are thinges so naturally pleasing to our owne
   disposition, as wee shall take it for an argument of extraordinarie
   affection towards our own person ... our Brother the French King hath since
   his comming to that Crowne, both begun and brought to perfection the making
   of Silkes in his countrie, whereby he hath wonne to himself honour, and to
   his subjects a mervailous increase of wealth. … 

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