It began with buttons. For centuries, skilled workers in Macclesfield, a bustling market town in northwest England, established a thriving trade by making wooden buttons covered with linen or mohair. Many of them were nimble-fingered women and children who needed to earn extra money to support their families.
Their livelihoods were threatened by the sudden popularity of silk buttons, which were imported to England from Spain in the 17th century. The Macclesfield workers started to make their own versions by wrapping silk thread around wooden discs, made from branches of the holly trees that grew in the woodland around the town. At first their silk buttons were sold at fairs and markets by traveling peddlers, but soon they were distributed by merchants in London and Manchester.
When the fashion for silk buttons waned in the early 18th century, Macclesfield’s industrialists switched to making finished silk. A century later, there were seventy silk mills in the town, which became one of Europe’s finest sources of woven silk and a center of technical innovation. Feisty competition between rival manufacturers to design new types of silks culminated in the development of an unusually robust and stylish textile in the early 1910s—Macclesfield Stripe.
As a length of silk crêpe woven into stripes in unusually crisp, bright colors—thanks to silk’s particular ability to absorb dye and reflect light—Macclesfield Stripe was dashingly distinctive. It also draped beautifully on the body and seldom creased. The original development process was onerous and only succeeded because of the technical ingenuity of Macclesfield’s silk industry and the town’s impressive array of manufacturing resources covering every stage of the production process, from yarn preparation, spinning, dyeing, design, weaving and finishing to making up finished silks. The industry also benefited from the town’s natural resources, including an ample supply of clean water from the rivers, which powered the mills’ machinery while also helping the dyeing process. Even Macclesfield’s damp, drizzly climate was advantageous, by creating the moist conditions needed to store high-quality silk.
Eventually, a process was identified whereby silk was spun, woven, and then boiled to remove the natural gum left by the silkworms. After being submerged in tanks of soda ash, it was boiled for as long as eighteen hours to strengthen the textile and to sharpen its vibrant colors. Macclesfield Stripe’s ability to withstand the boiling process became one of its prime selling points, prompting some manufacturers to incorporate the word “boil” into the brand names of different types of the textile, including the patriotically named “Maccleboil” and the empowering “Ucanboil.”
After Macclesfield Stripe went into production in 1916, sales rose steadily and by the 1920s, it had become wildly fashionable. Among its greatest admirers were the mill girls who made it, because they could buy cheap offcuts from their employers at knock-down prices. They then cut and sewed their bargain lengths of vividly colored textile into dresses, skirts, blouses, and handkerchiefs. A recent exhibition on Macclesfield Stripe at the town’s Silk Museum described how proud the mill girls were of it, and how they were renowned for their colorfully striped clothes throughout northwest England, where they were widely considered to be the “best-dressed” textile workers. Many of them cherished the dresses and handkerchiefs they made and passed them on to their daughters, nieces, and granddaughters.
Macclesfield Stripe’s success was truncated by the outbreak of World War II, when most local mills switched to military production, principally by making parachute silk for Britain’s army and air force. But its fate was also sealed by one of the very qualities that had made it so popular—its longevity. As Macclesfield Stripe seldom showed signs of wear and tear, there was often no logical reason to replace it.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-authored with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon.