Putting the Record Straight


Despite numerous concerns being raised recently with Macclesfield’s Silk Museum, about its use of alternate facts, its website continues to broadcast errors relating to Leek’s history.

This situation is not a form of turf wars or a regional version of Brexit that might be subject to reconciliation after dialogue, this is a history that is non-negotiable. Irrespective of the Silk Museum’s proprietorial approach to the Wardle Morris collaboration this history is inflexibly rooted in Leek. Heedlessly and untroubled by evidence, the Museum is doggedly claiming it for the town where it is situated. It has no right to these claims and it is essential, therefore, to put the record straight so that the evidence-based version of events can be recognized before it vanishes.

This week (08/12/2017) the Museum’s website carried two accounts relating to both William Morris and Thomas Wardle in different subdivisions. One, in ‘News and Information’ relates to the recent ‘Inspired by India’ project and a workshop which, we are told, taught the ‘natural dyeing techniques of Thomas Wardle, who revolutionised the use of tussah silk with his methods, and in turn taught William Morris the art of indigo dyes’. It is commonly known that the one dyestuff that Morris failed to perfect when working with Wardle in Leek was the particularly challenging indigo. Secondly, dyeing is not an art it is a craft. There is a difference and the museum should know that. Thirdly, Wardle’s research into tusser silk was not connected to Morris as the juxtaposition above suggests.

This example illuminates how the museum frequently emphasized the name of Morris prior to, throughout and now post, its ‘Inspired by India’ project. As a contact reliably advises me that as Morris’s high-profile name is very valuable it is loath to let go of it in spite of its lack of significance. It is shrewdly used with the aim of grabbing the public’s attention. This strategy is universally used commercially for ‘search engine optimisation’. Anybody researching Morris’s name in Washington, Melbourne or Stockholm can ‘Google’ it and a list of locations will appear, which could lead to ‘hits’ on a Museum’s website. If it is a website of an accredited institution, which is also a registered charity, it is reasonable for information seekers to presume that what they are reading is truthful. The material could then be innocently distributed worldwide in numerous ways via social media, websites and publications.

The second statement under the ‘Silk Museum’ section of the website, explicitly states ‘Famous visitors include the artist, designer, poet, novelist and social activist William Morris who came to Macclesfield to learn more about natural dyes from local silk manufacturer Thomas Wardle.’  This is regardless of concerns having been recorded with the Museum about similar unjustified assertions. Leek, the correct location, is not mentioned and before too long it could fade from a Morris-Wardle history, which has been so stubbornly repositioned to Macclesfield this year.

There is a broader picture that should also be deliberated. Apart from the clear unethical aspects of an accredited museum propagating substitute ‘facts’, the relocating of Leek’s history to Macclesfield suggests that some eminent scholars are wrong. The respected biographer Fiona McCarthy, in her magnificent book on Morris, devotes a chapter to his work in Leek. Should her work now be pulped? Similarly Linda Parry’s erudite discussion of Morris’s textiles must be thought faulty on several counts, although the author was a former President of the William Morris Society. Was Morris deluded when he composed letters to friends, from what he understood to be Wardle’s house in Leek, about the work he was doing in in what he thought was the Hencroft works in Leek? And what about those superb exhibitions which were held in Leek in recent years? Did they bring thousands of visitors to the wrong town? The list is endless.

Of course the burden of proof lies with the Silk Museum, which, to date, has not been forthcoming with any evidence which could confirm its claims for this alternative history.

The instances above are, moreover, framed by a intense irony that should also be discussed. While it is disturbing enough that a silk museum hazes the borders between the history of one silk town and another, there are additional mystifying issues to consider. A conspicuous absence on the Silk Museum’s website suggests that it is unaware of evidence, well-documented by Morris scholars, which plainly links the designer to a ‘real’ Macclesfield manufacturer Joshua Oldfield Nicholson. Given the gratuitous use of his name this summer (2017) it is all the more extraordinary that there is no predictable reference to Morris’s designs for damasks woven in Macclesfield. Museum staff lost a chance to exploit, even celebrate, a strong link with the great designer in a more valid way than the instances debated above divulge.

For the sake of clarity and in order to help the Silk Museum,  it is fitting that a Leek-based website should highlight Macclesfield’s history, all the while ensuring that the right location is known. For evidence-based details on this other silk history please see below. You will also find here a recently posted ‘Corrections and Clarifications’, which corrects numerous errors observed in the ‘Inspired by India’ exhibition at the Silk Museum.


Wiliam  Morris and his links with J O Nicholson a Macclesfield silk weaver.

The well documented facts below are mainly taken from Linda Parry’s renowned, scholarly survey of Morris’s textiles, which included those he produced with Thomas Wardle, a printer, in Leek.  Parry worked at the V & A for over thirty years. She curated a number of high profile exhibitions on Morris’s textiles and published many internationally admired publications. She was a former President of the William Morris Society.

Morris commissioned silk damasks from Joshua Oldfield Nicholson who won a great deal of praise for his woven silks which were either entirely of silk or a blend of silk and cotton. Nicholson started business in 1872 in Prestbury Road, Macclesfield, he then moved to a larger mill in the centre of the town. In November 1875 he was weaving silks for Morris. The two men became friends after Morris visited the town to discuss his designs. ‘Larkspur’ was one design created as a silk damask and Morris recorded that he saw it in the loom at Nicholson’s premises. Some of the silk yarns for this were produced in Leek by Wardle, specifically for Nicholson to weave.

The design ‘St James’ was a silk damask initially power–woven by Nicholson. This was commissioned for use in St James Palace, London. Later it was hand-woven at Merton Abbey by Morris’s own weavers. Morris’s design ‘Oak’ was also initially woven by Nicholson then it too was later hand-woven at Merton Abbey. ‘Oak’ was regularly used as a background for embroideries designed by May Morris and Henry Dearle. Interestingly this was at a time when George Y Wardle was Manager of the Merton Abbey site. The V & A’s website states that the silk furnishing fabric ‘Kennet’, also designed by Morris, was possibly woven by Nicholson’s firm.

Later the East Anglian Weaving Company, which relocated to Macclesfield, produced versions of Morris’s ‘Tulip and Rose’ and ‘Acanthus’ for Sandersons in the 1950s. Acanthus was originally block-printed by Wardle in Leek.

This begs the question: why was it necessary for the Silk Museum to appropriate Leek’s history of Morris when it has a noble one of its own?

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