Macclesfield Silk Heritage Trust

The post-industrial town of Macclesfield, located in the east of Cheshire and close to Greater Manchester was once the world’s biggest producer of finished silk.  At the height of Macclesfield’s production in 1832, over seventy mills were in operation and unsurprisingly evidence of the town’s industrial past is still highly prevalent in its architectural character today.  The town’s football team hold on to the name ‘The Silk Men’ and its buses still run on the ‘Silk Link’.  Preserving this industrial heritage for future generations is Macclesfield’s Silk Heritage Trust. 

Comprising of four venues, the Silk Museum, Paradise Mill, the Heritage Centre and West Park Museum, there is a real community focus and educational purpose to the trust’s activities, but they also care for an important collection of silk costumes, the largest pattern book collection in Europe, and machinery from the silk weaving process, including Jacquard Looms.  A quick scan of previous visitor  reviews on Trip Advisor see the phrases ‘hidden gem’ and ‘well preserved’ occur on numerous occasions, testament to the important work the trust is doing on behalf of both its local residents and driving tourism to the area.

The Silk Museum is housed in the town’s former School of Design.  Established in 1851 and opened by Sir William Morris to educate the town’s silk designers, it’s now crammed full of interactive activities designed to help visitors understand the science behind the properties of silk, the manufacturing process and the legacy the industry has left on the town.  The displays reveal fascinating ‘I never knew that’ type facts, including Macclesfield’s involvement in the war effort making parachutes and the history of the Silk Road that linked the Chinese empire with Macclesfield’s production.

A short walk away is Paradise Mill; a working mill museum which demonstrates the art of silk throwing and Jacquard weaving.  Previously the premises of Cartwright and Sheldon it wasn’t until 1982 that the small family firm finally halted their hand weaving production and with many of Macclesfield’s mills now converted to apartments or creative spaces, it’s an important addition to the trust’s collection.  An in-depth tour from a very knowledgeable guide takes you through the origin of silk, its unique properties, and the design and manufacturing process; including lots of hands on opportunities for those of a more adventurous disposition. 

Looking across the town’s landscape from the mill’s windows you can see rows of terraced houses with garrets that would once have been home to families working within the silk industry.  On the horizon is Macclesfield’s historic Sunday School. 

Built for the town’s silk workers, it’s now the trust’s Heritage Centre.  Chronicling the history of the building and exploring the lives of Macclesfield’s silk industry founders, the centre still maintains a community and educational function.  On the top floor is a purpose built auditorium which hosts a year round programme of activities; from screenings of the latest blockbuster movies to classical concerts from the Northern Chamber Orchestra.  As Penny Asquith-Evan, the trust’s Operations Director explains; “the Silk Heritage Trust has an important role to play in Macclesfield, and aims to provide inspiration, learning and support through a wide range of displays, exhibitions, facilities, activities and events. We are constantly seeking new partnerships and ways of working so that we can increase the impact we have in the local community by reaching new and different audiences.”

Within walking distance is the trust’s fourth and final venue.  Situated in one of the earliest public parks, the West Park Museum was a gift to the people of Macclesfield from Marianne Brocklehurst, daughter of Charles Brocklehurst, a Macclesfield Mill Owner.  A small yet grand red brick building, its interior design is based on a room in Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery.  Specifically built to house Brocklehurst’s distinctive and surprising collection of Egyptian antiquities; a collection not immediately associate with the town’s industrial past, the museum takes visitors on a journey through ancient Egypt.  

Playing a central role in the town’s regeneration and commitment to driving tourism to Macclesfield, there are exciting new developments ahead for the trust.  Sue Hughes, Museums Director explains; “The regeneration plan for Macclesfield puts not only retail, but also heritage, at the heart of the development.  The first phase of work is to assess current museum provision and how this can be built on in the short term to refresh the visitor offer … implemented alongside a much more ambitious long term plan which will develop a distinct offer at each of the museum sites and will hopefully include a major re-development which will provide new, innovative and engaging interpretation of Macclesfield’s heritage.”

Those who live amongst Macclesfield’s historic cobbled streets today are more likely to take advantage of its rail links to cities like Manchester and London than any industry the town has to offer.  A quote from the trust’s visitor book reads; “local and national governments must preserve such good museums.  It would be sociological vandalism if they do not preserve and maintain.”  Demonstration surely of the important work the Silk Heritage Trust is undertaking to preserve the town’s unique and significant industrial heritage for future generations.   

Emma Sumner Artist, Curator and Writer

Tweet Me:  @emmasumnerart