The History of Silk and Silk Embroidery with Deborah Woodland

On Monday 18 April 2016, Deborah Woodland, accompanied by Sarah Davis, gave us a fascinating talk on the history of silk and silk embroidery.

Deborah is a volunteer speaker and interpreter demonstrator, as part of the Hampshire Cultural Trust and is involved with Whitchurch Silk Mill.

She explained how silk had been discovered more than 3000 years ago by the Yellow Emperor of China. Cocoons were unwound and the fine filaments twisted together to form thread. The emperor's wife, Hsi-Ling-Shih, developed the craft but the secret of silk making was confined to the royal palaces and was originally only worn by royalty.

Much later cocoons were smuggled out of China into India, but again, silk production was restricted to royal households. Gradually the craft of silk making became more accessible and the craft spread throughout the world.

Over time, nations developed their own colours and designs. Many embroideries incorporated designs from the natural world, such as birds and flowers. The stitches used are similar to the ones we use today, including straight stitch, couching, satin stitch, chain stitch, long and short stitch and split stitch.

Some countries developed their own styles, such as Hardanger in Norway, Hedebo in Denmark and Whitework in Madeira. Spanish embroidery was worked with white threads on a black background.

Over the centuries embroidery has gone in and out of favour but was revived  in England by Elizabeth I. In 1861 William Morris opened his first shop and in 1872 the Royal School of Needlework was set up.

Reproduction of silk worn by Jane Austen



The Whitchurch Silk Mill still makes silk to order and is able to reproduce silks from bygones times, including a sample of silk copied from a coat worn by Jane Austen.


Many thanks Deborah, for a very interesting talk. I'm sure many of us will visit Whitchurch Silk Mill to see the processes involved in silk production.