The Ribbon Trade


The Ribbon Trade
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Coventry's Threaded History

Coventry was the centre of silk ribbon weaving in England from around 1700 until the middle of the 20th century. For many years it was the main industry in the city, employing thousands of people.

In the course of the nineteenth century, the industry was in a transitional stage between artisan craftsmanship in a domestic environment to large-scale factory production made possible by steam-powered, mechanised looms. The 'big purl time', looked back on as the industry’s golden age lasted from 1813 until 1815.

In the 1830s those who were born into ribbon-manufacturing families wielded the most influence in Coventry society. Many of the artisans weavers they employed dwelt in Foleshill, a village to the north of Coventry where Eliot lived in the 1840s. By this time, Coventry's manufacturing families were at the centre of an industry that utilised 13,000 hand looms and supported in excess of 30,000 domestic weavers.

Like Coventry, Eliot’s Middlemarch is a silk-ribbon manufacturing town, inextricably tied to the fluctuations of a volatile industry vulnerable to the whims of fashion.

The novel is set in a time when Coventry, Bedworth and Nuneaton faced mounting competition from neighbouring districts of England, particularly those where steam-powered looms had been successfully introduced.

Photograph of a cream cloak with collar with ties at the collar. Displayed on a mannequin.

Exhibit 13 - A woven silk bookmark depicting a scene from Adam Bede. the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.

The bookmark was made by Thomas Stevens, a nineteenth-century weaver from Coventry, famous for his invention of the stevengraph, a woven silk picture. Stevens was born in Foleshill in 1828, the same suburb of Coventry where Eliot resided in the 1840s.

Stevengraphs became popular collectable items in the twentieth century. Many of Stevens’ pattern books and creations were thought to have been destroyed in the Coventry Blitz during the Second World War. However, in the late 1950s, it emerged that a descendant had saved one of the pattern books the night before the attack. The book was donated to the Coventry City Council, who in turn entrusted it to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum – where a large collection of Stevens’ work still resides.


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Exhibit 14 - Ribbon Waistcoat, (c. 19thC), Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery.

This waistcoat is made from strips of ribbon of different designs and patterns. The silk ribbon weaving industry was an important one in Nuneaton during Eliot’s lifetime. Ribbons were used to decorate clothes, uniforms and furnishings. This waistcoat was made for Mr Abraham James Merry, licensee of the Wheat Sheaf public house in Nuneaton.


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EXHIBIT 15
Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811)
This ribbon sample book from the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum dates from 1805-1811, the maker is unknown.

Ribbons wove their way into the fabric of everyday life in Victorian Britain. Women's Magazines liberally featured ribbon-trimmed dresses, hats, coats and other decorative accessories. Black ribbons were conventionally worn as a sign of mourning. Brightly coloured rosettes could be used to signal one’s political persuasion or advocate for a charitable cause.

While subsequent fashions — from wide-brimmed bonnets to bowed shoes or elaborate braids — provided a fresh canvas for yet more ribbon work.
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EXHIBIT 15
Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811)
This ribbon sample book from the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum dates from 1805-1811, the maker is unknown.

Ribbons wove their way into the fabric of everyday life in Victorian Britain. Women's Magazines liberally featured ribbon-trimmed dresses, hats, coats and other decorative accessories. Black ribbons were conventionally worn as a sign of mourning. Brightly coloured rosettes could be used to signal one’s political persuasion or advocate for a charitable cause.

While subsequent fashions — from wide-brimmed bonnets to bowed shoes or elaborate braids — provided a fresh canvas for yet more ribbon work.
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Ribbon Sample Book
Exhibit 15 - Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811), The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

This ribbon sample book dates from 1805-1811, the maker is unknown. Ribbons wove their way into the fabric of everyday life in Victorian Britain. Women's Magazines liberally featured ribbon-trimmed dresses, hats, coats and other decorative accessories. Black ribbons were conventionally worn as a sign of mourning. Brightly coloured rosettes could be used to signal one’s political persuasion or advocate for a charitable cause.

While subsequent fashions — from wide-brimmed bonnets to bowed shoes or elaborate braids — provided a fresh canvas for yet more ribbon work.
how was M received
Ribbon Sample Book
Exhibit 15 - Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811), The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

This ribbon sample book dates from 1805-1811, the maker is unknown. Ribbons wove their way into the fabric of everyday life in Victorian Britain. Women's Magazines liberally featured ribbon-trimmed dresses, hats, coats and other decorative accessories. Black ribbons were conventionally worn as a sign of mourning. Brightly coloured rosettes could be used to signal one’s political persuasion or advocate for a charitable cause.

While subsequent fashions — from wide-brimmed bonnets to bowed shoes or elaborate braids — provided a fresh canvas for yet more ribbon work.

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Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

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Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

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Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

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Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

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Ribbon Sample Book (1805-1811), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

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The Coventry Town Ribbon was woven especially for the 1851 Great Exhibition and was awarded the bronze medal for its quality. Queen Victoria was so impressed with the ribbon that she ordered a large quantity of it.

Exhibit 16 – Coventry Town Ribbon (1851), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

In 1849, Prince Albert visited Coventry inviting the town to show that it was the leading centre for ribbon manufacture. There was initial interest in taking on the task. However, there was little actual commitment to make the ribbon and without the enthusiasm and drive of the manufacturer Charles Bray (a close friend of George Eliot), it might not have succeeded.

The brief to design a ribbon for the Great Exhibition was given to the Coventry School of Design which had been founded in 1843. The ribbon was designed by Thomas Clack and woven by Thomas Robinson on a Jacquard loom involving an extremely complex process. The pattern required more than 10,000 cards and nine shuttles with various coloured silks used. It has a plain background to showcase a very elaborate brocaded floral design which includes roses, bluebells, morning glory, honeysuckle and other flowers with leaves and grasses. The design is in two halves where one is the reverse of the other and the ribbon has wide satin borders and a beaded edge.


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Exhibit 17 - Great Exhibition Prize Medal awarded for the Coventry Ribbon, (1851), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

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The Social Fabric of Life in Middlemarch

Throughout Middlemarch Eliot threads the town’s link to the textile industry into the minutiae of her narrative - from the men who frequent The Green Dragon bearing crimson hands stained with fabric dye, to Mr Vincy, disappointed in a market for his silk braids, cursing at his sister's wedding.

The volatile manufacturing market is seldom far from Mr Vincy's mind. When his daughter, Rosamond, declares she will marry Lydgate on their way to the warehouse, he retorts in frustration that with ‘machine-breaking everywhere’ now is not the time to draw money from his business — Rosamond, wilfully oblivious to his concerns, glibly replies ‘Dear papa! what can that have to do with my marriage?’

Meanwhile, Mr Brooke, Dorothea’s land-owning uncle (whose ancestry, the narrator notes, was free from ‘yard-measuring’ forefathers) gives a bumbling speech to the tanners and weavers of Middlemarch on his hapless campaign for political candidacy. Stumbling naively upon their concerns surrounding industrialisation, he remarks 'you’re many of you concerned with machinery, and I’ve been going into that lately. It won’t do, you know, breaking machines’. His careless nonchalance is met with heckling, a hail of eggs, and a parroting Punch-voiced effigy of himself rising above the shoulders of the crowd.





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George Eliot was intimately connected to Coventry’s ribbon trade. She was a close friend of ribbon manufacturers Charles Bray (and his wife Cara) and John Cash (and his wife Mary). Eliot was introduced to the Brays by Charles’ sister, Elizabeth Bray Pears who was her neighbour in Foleshill. Like Middlemarch’s Mr Vincy, Elizabeth’s husband Abijah Pears was both mayor of Coventry and a ribbon manufacturer.

Exhibit 18 – The view from the window at Rosehill, by Cara Bray (1842) the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.



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EXHIBIT 19
Charles Bray
Daguerreotype portrait of Charles Bray, (c. 1849), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

Charles Bray (1811-1844) was a prosperous Coventry ribbon manufacturer, social reformer, philosopher, and a close friend of George Eliot.

Bray hailed from a manufacturing family, and took over the manufacturing business from his father in 1835. He was among a number of wealthy Coventry manufacturers who were also philanthropists. In 1842, alongside fellow ribbon manufacturer Joseph Cash, he founded the Coventry Labourers' and Artisans' Co-operative which set out to ‘furnish working men with gardens, as healthy occupations, and to help them to counteract, in part, the ill-effects of confinement at the loom’.

Bray also owned the Coventry Herald and was a part of a group of liberal freethinkers called the “Rosehill Circle”, named after his home in Coventry. Along with Charles and his wife Cara (née Hennell) the group included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer and Harriet Martineau, as well as Cara’s siblings: Mary, Sara and Charles. According to Eliot's first biographer, Mathide Blind, in their company Mary Ann ‘was able freely to open her mind, their enlightened views helping her in this crisis of her spiritual life’.
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EXHIBIT 19
Charles Bray
Daguerreotype portrait of Charles Bray, (c. 1849), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

Charles Bray (1811-1844) was a prosperous Coventry ribbon manufacturer, social reformer, philosopher, and a close friend of George Eliot.

Bray hailed from a manufacturing family, and took over the manufacturing business from his father in 1835. He was among a number of wealthy Coventry manufacturers who were also philanthropists. In 1842, alongside fellow ribbon manufacturer Joseph Cash, he founded the Coventry Labourers' and Artisans' Co-operative which set out to ‘furnish working men with gardens, as healthy occupations, and to help them to counteract, in part, the ill-effects of confinement at the loom’.

Bray also owned the Coventry Herald and was a part of a group of liberal freethinkers called the “Rosehill Circle”, named after his home in Coventry. Along with Charles and his wife Cara (née Hennell) the group included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer and Harriet Martineau, as well as Cara’s siblings: Mary, Sara and Charles. According to Eliot's first biographer, Mathide Blind, in their company Mary Ann ‘was able freely to open her mind, their enlightened views helping her in this crisis of her spiritual life’.
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Charles Bray
Exhibit 19 - Daguerreotype portrait of Charles Bray, (c. 1849), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

Charles Bray (1811-1844) was a prosperous Coventry ribbon manufacturer, social reformer, philosopher, and a close friend of George Eliot.

Bray hailed from a manufacturing family, and took over the manufacturing business from his father in 1835. He was among a number of wealthy Coventry manufacturers who were also philanthropists. In 1842, alongside fellow ribbon manufacturer Joseph Cash, he founded the Coventry Labourers' and Artisans' Co-operative which set out to ‘furnish working men with gardens, as healthy occupations, and to help them to counteract, in part, the ill-effects of confinement at the loom’.

Bray also owned the Coventry Herald and was a part of a group of liberal freethinkers called the “Rosehill Circle”, named after his home in Coventry. Along with Charles and his wife Cara (née Hennell) the group included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer and Harriet Martineau, as well as Cara’s siblings: Mary, Sara and Charles. According to Eliot's first biographer, Mathide Blind, in their company Mary Ann ‘was able freely to open her mind, their enlightened views helping her in this crisis of her spiritual life’.
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Artisan Weavers

In the early nineteenth century ribbon weaving in Coventry and its surrounding villages was largely a household industry. Entrepreneurs would supply silk to town manufacturers who would then distribute it to individual craftsmen aided by their families.

Joseph Gutteridge (1816-1899) was a skilled silk weaver, an ardent naturalist and a talented microscopist born in Coventry in 1816. When the textile trade worsened in the late 1830s and 40s he (along with his wife and five children) faced severe privation from unemployment.

Like Eliot, Gutteridge was influenced by local philosopher Charles Bray and thought deeply about questions of religion and morality. For a time, he was an apostle of what he termed Bray’s ‘when-you-are-dead-you-are-done-with’ theory. His honesty and devotion to principle resulted in him refusing financial aid from a local charity, as it was offered on the condition he made an avowal of religious belief that he did not possess.

In the 1860s he worked with his employer on a method for refining the manufacture of brocaded ribbons using the Jacquard loom (though received no benefit from the patent). He later worked for Thomas Stevens, famed for producing woven silk pictures (known as ‘stevengraphs’). In 1867 he was awarded a bronze medal for the manufacture of microscopes at the Coventry & Midland Manufacturing, Industrial & Art Exhibition.

The waning Coventry textile industry brought Gutteridge close to destitution in the 1890s when he published his autobiography, Lights and Shadows in the Life of an Artisan (1893) — an intimate record of both working-class life and the textile industry in Victorian Coventry.

Photograph of a cream cloak with collar with ties at the collar. Displayed on a mannequin.

Exhibit 20 - Bronze Medal Certificate, awarded at the Coventry & Midland Manufacturing, Industrial & Art Exhibition to Joseph Gutteridge (1867), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.



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Exhibit 21 - A stand microscope created by Joseph Gutteridge, a weaver from Coventry (1860), the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.


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Manuscript
EXHIBIT 22
Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe
First edition of Silas Marner by George Eliot, Nuneaton Library.

George Eliot published Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe in 1861. Set ‘in the early years’ of the nineteenth century, she follows the story of a linen–weaver, named Silas Marner.

Silas, presents a mysterious figure, working in solitude at his vocation in a stone cottage that stands among ‘the nutty hedgerows’ on the outskirts of the village.

The ‘questionable sound’ of his loom, Eliot tells us, ‘had a half–fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys’ who would peep at his window ‘counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious action of the loom’ with a ‘sense of scornful superiority, drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises’.

Throughout, the loom is described as a symbolic extension of Silas himself, representing both his industrious nature and the unchanging rhythm of his solitary life:

‘His loom, as he wrought in it without ceasing, had in its turn wrought on him, and confirmed more and more the monotonous craving for its monotonous response.’
Manuscript
EXHIBIT 22
Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe
First edition of Silas Marner by George Eliot, Nuneaton Library.

George Eliot published Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe in 1861. Set ‘in the early years’ of the nineteenth century, she follows the story of a linen–weaver, named Silas Marner.

Silas, presents a mysterious figure, working in solitude at his vocation in a stone cottage that stands among ‘the nutty hedgerows’ on the outskirts of the village.

The ‘questionable sound’ of his loom, Eliot tells us, ‘had a half–fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys’ who would peep at his window ‘counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious action of the loom’ with a ‘sense of scornful superiority, drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises’.

Throughout, the loom is described as a symbolic extension of Silas himself, representing both his industrious nature and the unchanging rhythm of his solitary life:

‘His loom, as he wrought in it without ceasing, had in its turn wrought on him, and confirmed more and more the monotonous craving for its monotonous response.’
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George Eliot's Silas Marner
First edition of Silas Marner by George Eliot, Nuneaton Library.

George Eliot published Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe in 1861. Set ‘in the early years’ of the nineteenth century, she follows the story of a linen–weaver, named Silas Marner.

Silas, presents a mysterious figure, working in solitude at his vocation in a stone cottage that stands among ‘the nutty hedgerows’ on the outskirts of the village. The ‘questionable sound’ of his loom, Eliot tells us, ‘had a half–fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys’ who would peep at his window ‘counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious action of the loom’ with a ‘sense of scornful superiority, drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises’.

Throughout, the loom is described as a symbolic extension of Silas himself, representing both his industrious nature and the unchanging rhythm of his solitary life:

‘His loom, as he wrought in it without ceasing, had in its turn wrought on him, and confirmed more and more the monotonous craving for its monotonous response.’
how was M received


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Riotous Tumult

The early 1830s was a time of great distress to dependants of the ribbon trade in both Coventry and Nuneaton. Though four steam-loom factories opened in the 1830s, all four failed. Local workers, determined to hold on to their rate of pay, were resistant to modernization and mounted regular protests. In 1831 poverty swelled, and 700 gallons of soup was given away weekly to those in need.

According to Nuneaton diarist John Astley, by 1829 there was ‘general stagnation’ of the textile trade throughout the county. Astley’s diary records, in detail, an incident in 1829 when five hundred workers in Nuneaton rose up against their employer. The town, Astley tells us, was a scene of ‘riotous tumult’. Both those who had taken work at lower wages and the foreman, Mr Taylor (who had been hauled from his home) were placed on a donkey backwards, conveyed through the streets in this undignified position, and pelted with mud.

In 1831 Mr Josiah Beck’s decision to install the first steam-powered mechanised looms in Coventry resulted in a riot. Observing the columns of smoke, rising from the factory chimney, the weavers stormed the loom shop, smashed the windows, tore the silk, broke up the looms and set fire to the wreckage. An excerpt from Joseph Gutteridge’s Lights and Shadows in the Life of an Artisan provides an eye-witness account of the ‘donkeying’ that followed.



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Exhibit 23 - The Distress in Coventry, Distribution of Soup for Distressed Weavers in the Kitchen of St Mary's Hall, Illustrated London News, (9. Feb. 1861), Wellcome Collection.

This illustration for the Illustrated London News depicts a soup kitchen for distressed weavers in St. Mary's hall, Coventry.

Thirty years after Middlemarch is set (but a decade before it was written) the plight of the handloom weavers — exacerbated by the actions of manufacturing families like the Vincy’s — has only worsened. Writing Middlemarch in 1871, Eliot constructs her story with a knowledge of what is to come.



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Looming Progress & Changing Laws

The mechanisation of weaving caused great instability. The cottage-run Coventry textile industry, made up, primarily of independent, local artisans who in turn worked for a local manufacturer, could not compete with factory-run businesses that employed large steam-powered looms.

By 1850, there were in excess of 260,000 power looms operating in England. This dramatically reduced demand for skilled handweavers and resulted in both reduced wages and considerable unemployment. The rise of the power loom also prompted a growth in the number of children employed, who were hired as “tenders” and “operators” in spite of the danger inherent in such a job.

A piece of legislation known as the Cobden Treaty was enacted in 1860, removing the tariff on imported ribbons which had previously sustained the Coventry industry and shielded it from French competition. This change was disastrous for fifty or sixty thousand local weavers who depended on the trade. Well-meaning socialites of high rank in Warwickshire vowed to support the weavers by setting the fashion and liberally adorning their ball gowns in Coventry ribbons. It was sceptically noted in the Illustrated London News, however, that said ladies likely relied ‘much, if not wholly, on the honesty of their silk mercer, or milliner in this matter’, as without ‘an intimate knowledge of ribbon manufacture’, they would not have been able to perceive the difference between a ribbon with Coventry provenance and one woven in France.


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Programming Patterns

The Jacquard Loom, invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801, revolutionised the textile industry by mechanizing the art of weaving. A Jacquard could produce complex and detailed patterns in a fraction of the time it took for an artisan weaver to create the same stretch of fabric.

The threading of such a machine was so laborious that many looms were threaded only once, with later warps then being woven into the existing yarn.

By 1860, a mixture of increasing mechanisation and cheap imports resulted in the collapse of the ribbon trade.

Photograph of a cream cloak with collar with ties at the collar. Displayed on a mannequin.

Exhibit 24 - A jacquard loom made in 1845 by Thomas Wilkinson, a Coventry loom maker. the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

Photograph of a cream cloak with collar with ties at the collar. Displayed on a mannequin.

Exhibit 25 - A series of punch cards for a Jacquard hand loom, Science Museums Group.

The Jacquard mechanism is considered a predecessor to the modern computer.

Much like early computers, a Jacquard loom used punch cards that worked on a binary system to store information that could be read and reproduced many times over. Each space has either a hole or no hole; to indicate two possible settings. Complex pieces of information (including weaving patterns) could be stored in this way, by lacing the cards together into a continuous sequence.

Charles Babbage, who owned a woven silk portrait of Jacquard that required 24,000 punched cards to create, was inspired by these perforated cards to produce the first mechanical general-purpose computer.

As Ada Lovelace famously noted ‘the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.’



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