Silk yarn is the longest natural filament yarn in the world. Legend has it that the history of silk dates to year 2500BC when Xi Ling-Shi, the wife of the Yellow Emperor, dropped a cocoon from a mulberry tree into her cup and it began to unravel. Whether this story about the cocoon falling into the cup is true or not, it is certainly the earliest surviving reference to silk history.

For nearly 3 millenniums the Chinese had a global monopoly on silk production. Back then, silk was even considered to be more precious than gold. The trade route, that became known as the Silk Road, took silk westwards and brought gold, silver and wool to the East. The Silk Road was 4000 miles long and stretched from Xi'an to the Mediterranean, passing through Damascus, a major trading market, and from there merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.

Realizing the value of silk, the Chinese kept their manufacturing secrets safe from the rest of the world for more than thirty centuries and anyone, caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons or silk worms out of the country, was executed. So, under the penalty of death the mystery of sericulture remained a well-kept secret for almost 3,000 years.

Images by av320phile/Flickr, New York Public Library Archives

The Roman Empire knew of and traded in silk. According to the legend, in the year 550BC monks working for the Emperor Justinian smuggled silkworm eggs out of China to Constantinople in hollow walking canes, where the trading of silk became a strict imperial monopoly. In the 7th century, the Arabs conquered Persia, and captured their magnificent silks in the process and as such silk weaving spread. Andalucía in southern Spain, central to these cultural changes, became Europe’s main silk producing center in the 10th century. By 13th century, Italy had gained dominance and Italian silk became a significant source of trade. Como still maintains that tradition and indeed Daniel Hanson works with a number of manufacturers there. Italian silk became so popular that the Francis I of France invited Italian silk makers to France to create a silk industry which had its base in Lyon.

By 17th century France was challenging the European market. At the same time, the French Huguenots, who were subject to religious persecution, fled the country in large numbers. Many were expert weavers and their arrival in the UK largely contributed to the development of the silk industry in the UK. Silk took a hold throughout England and the cities of Derby, Coventry and Macclesfield boasted many silk weaving looms. However, the real silk industry remained centered in Spitalfields, where it was plagued by frequent industrial disputes particularly over wages. In the 18th century local magistrates in Spitalfields decided to act and began the first of a series of efforts to regulate the industry deciding to regulate the wages of men and masters. The masters began to move the production of silk to areas within travelling distance from London and so silk weaving arrived from London to towns such as Haverhill, Glenbury and Suffolk.

Vanners, where we have most of our silks woven, originated in Spitalfields and made a late move to Sudbury in 1870’s. Today, much of its output is produced on computerized looms which has dramatically increased productivity. The traditional methods of preparing and finishing silk remain unchanged but dramatically systemized and highly efficient.

Photos by Follow My Wanders

Industrialization saw the downturn in the popularity of silk and as such, the advent of manmade fabrics such as nylon started to dominate the traditional silk products such as stockings and parachutes. After World War II, Japanese silk production was restored and Japan became the biggest producer of raw silk and the only exporter of raw silk until the 70’s when China recaptured their position as the world’s biggest producer and exporter of raw silk and silk yarn.

Jacquard machinery, developed at the end of the 19th century, was the mechanical forerunner of the computer and used binary code to weave. Jacquard fabrics became the staple of the UK silk industry. New & Lingwood silk dressing gowns are manufactured exclusively from Vanners silk jacquards. These cloths are designed in conjunction with the design team who are based in Sudbury. Peacock dressing gown, featured in the BBC drama “The Night Manager”, has originated from the book “Russian Textiles: Printed Cloth for the Bazaars of Central Asia” and was developed by Vanners.

Photos by Russian Textiles, New & Lingwood

We use 300 end silk which produces durable, yet comfortable, heirloom cloth quality. The gowns are all limited editions and we make just 3 to 10 pieces. Sometimes it’s a one-off piece and each dressing gown can be made as a bespoke product in almost any color. Our dressing gowns are made in Nottingham, where we have an extremely skilled workforce, who have a combined manufacturing expertise of more than 200 years of experience. Cutting is undertaken by shears or round knife and large complicated patterns are carefully matched. Piped and corded pipings, which are woven by 19th century ecclesiastical suppliers, are used to trim the garments. Each item has interfacings and stiffeners inserted which support the silk and give the garment ‘body’. Quilted facings are often undertaken by hand which is an arduous process. The whole cutting and making process spans up to 9 hours and contains a large number of manufacturing and finishing processes.

Purchasing a dressing gown from New & Lingwood is not just about taking ownership of something that is timeless, exquisite and beautiful, it is about making a contribution to both our making and weaving industries in the UK.