After salt the most typical of Cheshire’s historic industries was mechanised textile production. This was focused in eastern Cheshire, which was one of the chief centres of hand and factory silk production in England from the late 17th to the mid-20th centuries. With Leek in north-eastern Staffordshire and the silk mills of Derby and the Derwent Valley it formed the western end of a silk manufacturing belt that supplied the textile merchants of London. Initially, silk cloth was supplied to the home-based button makers by the Congleton and Macclesfield button merchants, who sourced it from the markets in London and Flanders (Belgium and Holland). By the mid-17th century yarn preparation, hand silk throwing and hand silk weaving were all taking place in Congleton and Macclesfield.
The big change in production came with the establishment of mechanised silk throwing techniques. Italian methods of winding and throwing organzine were introduced into Britain by John Lombe in 1718 (by espionage) and successfully demonstrated at his water-powered silk mill in Derby in 1721. When his patent expired in 1732 Lombe’s designs were used to build a number of silk mills across the north midlands, including Cheshire. The earliest one in eastern Cheshire was built in 1743. This was the small water-powered Button Mill erected in Macclesfield at the top of Pickford Street by Charles Roe, a button merchant. The first silk mill in Congleton was established in 1755, with water-power systems designed and installed by James Brindley. A reduction on the duty of Chinese raw silk in 1749 encouraged further mill building and by 1765 seven mills had been built in England using Lombe’s designs: four of these were in Cheshire (including Stockport). None of these early mills survive, although since the building-form was influenced by the processes it housed their early design, of long, narrow, multi-storey manufacturing blocks, had a significant impact on later textile mill design throughout Britain.
There are good examples from the late 18th century and 1820s building booms in silk throwing mills. These silk mills showed limited classical influences such as shallow projecting central bays topped by a pediment and a clock as Dane Mill in Congleton and Regency Mill in Macclesfield. Internally, they often had cast-iron columns supporting wooden beams and floors, whilst the power source remained water. Steam power became common as a supplementary source in Congleton and Macclesfield mills from the 1800s and all of the new mills built in those towns after 1828 had steam power. The last water-powered factory was Primrose Vale Mill.
The peak of the industry in Congleton was the mid-19th century when over 50 mills were working and in 1851 around one third of the working population were employed in it. 101 mill sites were built in Macclesfield built between 1743 and 1940 and by 1830 nearly half of the town’s population were working in the textile industry. The early to mid-19th century mills were often four or five storeys high, as at Stonehouse Mill in Congleton or Victoria Mill in Macclesfield although they still used cast-iron columns to support wooden beams and floors.
Silk weaving was not mechanised until the mid-19th century, and even then specialist fabrics remained woven by hand until the 20th century. Thus, the workshop dwellings known locally as silk weavers’ cottages, or garret houses, were once numerous in many of the industrial towns and villages of eastern Cheshire. From the 1790s Congleton and Macclesfield began broad-loom silk weaving in workers’ garrets. Usually these were built in rows of three or four dwellings, and sometimes as pairs or long rows (as at Paradise Street in Macclesfield). Occasionally the top floor garret ran across three or more cottages as in Townley Street. The main period of construction was from the introduction of mechanised silk throwing into Cheshire, in the 1740s, to the mid-19th century when mechanised silk weaving became common. Examples survive in Knutsford, Lymm, Sandbach and Wilmslow, and sometimes attached to isolated mills as at Langley, but the largest concentrations are to be found in Congleton and Macclesfield where there were hundreds of examples. From 1820 the Jacquard loom was introduced to weave complex patterns. This coincided with the application of steam power to weaving.
The British silk industry declined after the 1860 Cobden Treaty with France removed trade barriers, thereby allowing the import of cheaper goods. In Congleton this brought an end to mass-silk production. Thus, by 1886 the number of working silk mills was down to 22 and there were just seven left in 1910. However, the textile industry in the town survived by moving to fustian production. The industry in Macclesfield, however, revived, with a number of earlier complexes expanding in the late 19th century and early 20th century such as Little Street Mill. Wood Street Mill shows the transition to 20th century building materials with the extension of 1900 being traditionally-built in brick with wooden floors supported by cast-iron columns, but the 1909 extension being steel framed to a design by Stott & Sons. Silk mills continued to be built into the 1930s such as the steel-framed Art Deco-style Bridge Street New Mill. The shift to artificial silk fibres, such as rayon, after 1920 helped the industry to survive into the later 20th century and many silk mills went over to artificial fibre production.