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Visit to Dennis Sever's House

Mon 21st February 2011
12 noon - 12.45

Dennis Severs House
18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6B

On 21 Feb a group from the society made an interesting dual site visit based on the work and times of the Spitafields silk weavers in eighteenth century London.

We met in a small cobbled side street in east London for the first part of our day, outside a dwelling known as Dennis Severs house. From a dilapidated ruin Dennis Severs recreated the building as the home of a fictional family of such silk weavers through the period 1725 to 1919. Each room evokes a different time or situation in the life of the house and is full of all the possessions, ornament and detritus of every day living. As visitors we were asked to walk around in silence and treat the house and its contents as if its historical inhabitants had just stepped out for a moment. The first impression is of just how small and dark it was, the only light being from candles or gas mantles, and how cramped a space for a family to live in. As the eye becomes used to the gloom the imagination and curiosity take over, the tiny baby shoes under the high chair, family portraits, the household furnishings and the meals left on the table half eaten! The lower ground, first and second floors had a feeling of home comforts and a fairly good standard of life but the top floor of two rooms that were lodgings for a poor labouring family were cold, dirty, sparse and grim. Overall a fascinating and slightly surreal experience which certainly provoked many topics for conversation.

After lunch we walked through the city to our second experience – ‘behind the scenes at the museum’. Beatrice Behlen curator of Costumes & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London had chosen a fabulous collection of Spitalfield silk garments and accessories from the museum stores to show us. Four original, if much altered, gowns dating from the eighteenth century, a dress adapted for a young girl in the 1920s, a magnificent gentleman’s dressing gown with integral waistcoat, several shawls and silk panels and a silver ball gown commissioned by Queen Charlotte to promote the work of the Spitalfield weavers. All of these were interesting on many levels, as items of fashionable clothing and talented dress making of their time but firstly as examples of the fine, detailed craft of the silk weavers. Beatrice had descriptions of each item provided by silk specialist Natalie Rothstein, who had catalogued the Spitalfield collection and offered names of makers, designers and methods used in production. Members of the group with detailed knowledge were also able to provide much interesting detail on ‘brocading’, use of metal threads and the changes in looms and weaving techniques. The opportunity to get so close to the silk, to have the dresses turned and opened to revel the reverse side of the material and the structure of the garment added another dimension not available when viewing through a glass case!

We ended our day in front of such a display case in the museum which housed the Fanshawe dress, worn by Anne, daughter of the Lord Mayor 1752/53, made of Spitalfield silk which would have taken over six months to weave - a fitting memorial to the silk weavers craft.

Susan Clark