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Creating a Silk Industry in Seventeenth-Century England.

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.(10)

What England lacked were mulberry trees. There were three different types of mulberry trees: black, white, and red. It was the white mulberry on which the silkworms thrived. The red mulberry had been found growing in the wild in Virginia by early explorers. Nicholas Geffe, in his translation of Oliver de Serres's work on silkworms, urged the massive and continuing import of mulberry trees and the imitation of continental nurseries. Geffe offered "within five yeeres to furnish England with ten millions of white Mulberrie plants or upwards which may be generally dispersed, for the good and benefit of the whole kingdome."(11)

The silk worm project was on conspicuous display at court, with the expansion of the Mulberry Gardens, four acres on the current site of Buckingham Palace. One of the Grooms of the Chamber got three months expenses "whilst traveling about with the king's silk worms withersoever his Majestie went."(12) In 1609 Queen Anne had her portrait painted in a gown covered with embroideries of silkworms(13) and in 1616 commissioned Inigo Jones to build a silkworm house at Oatlands. John Bonoeil, author of an important 1622 tract on sericulture for Virginia, was the keeper of the gardens, vines, and silkworms at Oatlands.(14)

While these early efforts to raise mulberry trees did not succeed in England, the sense of the importance of a domestic silk industry remained strong throughout the century. The focus then turned in two different directions: the first to raise mulberries in Virginia to replace the tobacco crop, a view promoted from James I to John Locke, the second, to sponsor the manufacture of "raw-silk into broad silk fabrics." The English silk industry benefited enormously from Huguenot silkworkers who migrated to London during the French wars of religion in the 1580s. They were augmented with another wave of skilled craftsmen after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.(15) Concentrated in Spitalfields, silk weaving became so successful by the end of the century that its exports successfully challenged both the French and Italians. The Crown fostered this skilled labor force and banned imports to improve its market position. By the 1730s Thomas Lombe introduced factories, based on Italian designs, to the English silk industry.


(1.) Thomas Moffett, The silkewormes and their flies (London, 1599), ed. V. H. Houliston, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 61, (Binghamton, N.Y., 1989). The poem was dedicated to the Countess of Pembroke. Moffett relies on Marcus Hieronymus Vida's De Bombyce (Italy, 1527) dedicated to Isabella d'Este. An even earlier poem on silkworms, Bombyx, was published in Rome in the 1490s (introduction, xii-xiii). I am grateful to Albert Braunmuller for this reference.

(2.) Ibid., 70. Moffett's poem drew praise from Nathaniel Baxter in 1606 in his Sir Philip Sydney's Ourania (London, 1606): "Her forme, her life, her foode, her worke, her end, / By Doctor Muffet is eloquently pen'd." Quoted in the introduction, xviii The date is significant since it suggests the mounting interest in the silkworm in the first decade of the seventeenth century.

(3.) During the Alencon courtship in 1581 Queen Elizabeth ordered that cloth of gold, velvet, and silk were to be reduced in price by 25 percent so that lords and ladies could be richly clothed. C. T. Onions, Shakespeare's England, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1916), 1:94.

(4.) Quoted in Onions, Shakespeare's England, 1:20, 102.

(5.) Christopher Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 15001700, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1985), 2:26.

(6.) Ibid., 2:39, 124.

(7.) Ibid., 2:125.

(8.) Ibid., 2:161.

(9.) The Crown "saw it as a means of reducing the large sums spent annually on the import of manufactured silk from abroad." Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change, 2:39.

(10.) The king's letter was "given under our signet at Westminster 16 November 6 James I."

(11.) Oliver de Serres, The Perfect Use of Silk[-]Wormes and their benefit With the exact planting, and artificiall handling of Mulberrie trees whereby to nourish them, and the figures to know how to feede the Wormes, and to winde off the Silke And the fit maner to prepare the barke of the white Mulberrie to make fine linnen and other workes thereof. Done out of the French originall of D'Olivier de Serres Lord of Pradel into English, by Nicholas Geffe Esquier (London, 1607), STC 22249. Geffe's postscript, p.3.

(12.) CSPD 1611-1618, 555; July [18?], 1618; Frank Warner, The Silk Industry of the United Kingdom (Drane's, London, 1921), 537-38.

(13.) T. B. Pugh, "A Portrait of Queen Anne of Denmark at Parham Park, Sussex, The Seventeenth Century, 8, I (autumn 1993), 167-80, 170-71. I am grateful to Helen Payne for these references.

(14.) After his death he was replaced by John Tradescant, who had an annuity of 100 [pounds sterling] a year. The Mulberry Gardens, located in St. James, were tended by the Tradescants, gardeners to Charles I. Quoted in Prudence Leith-Ross, The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen (London, 1984), 93-94.

(15.) Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change, 2:39.

LINDA LEVY PECK is Professor of History at George Washington University. The author of Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I (1981), Court Patronage and Corruption in Early Stuart England (1990), and editor of The Mental World of the Jacobean Court (1991), she is currently completing a book entitled Consuming Splendor: Britain in the Age of the Baroque.
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Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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