My research for this project has involved visiting the ribbon collections held by Nuneaton Art Gallery and Museum and the Herbert in Coventry. These collections will provide the visual information for my project; I’m especially interested in the designs, colour and techniques used.

I have also researched some of the background history of the ribbon weaving industry in Coventry and Warwickshire. The aim of this research is to provide context for the project and to gain some awareness of the social and industrial history of the ribbon trade. The following is a summary of my research into the history of silk ribbon weaving in this area.

Some background History

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, Silk Ribbon Weaving was one of the major industries in the Coventry, Nuneaton and Bedworth areas. The ribbon weaving industry in Coventry began in around 1703 when Mr Thomas Bird established a ribbon weaving works. The industry spread throughout surrounding towns and villages. The trade spread through Coventry to Foleshill and Hillfields, Nuneaton, Attleborough, Stockingford and Chivers Coton as well as Exhall, Bedworth and Bulkington. The ribbon trade is believed to have been influenced by French Huguenots, protestant refugees fleeing persecution in France. By setting up handlooms in their homes they brought their weaving skills and knowledge to the area.

During the early years the trade was organised so that a small number of wealthy silk merchants, known as ‘Great Masters’, brought silk and patterns from France and Italy and delivered finished ribbons to retailers. The overseeing of the preparation of silk and weaving of the ribbons was done by an ‘Undertaker’, a middle man, who gave work to weavers. A weaver would be paid two thirds of the money paid to the undertaker for the completed ribbon. Weavers worked on handlooms in their houses, whole families would be engaged in the manufacturing process in various roles. Young people trained for seven years as apprentices to become journeymen weavers and the trade was passed through generations of families.

There were many changes in fortunes for the trade over two centuries. The Napoleonic wars from 1803 to 1815 required many men to go to war and brought about changes in working practices. By the 1820’s the role of the ‘undertaker’ became phased out, small loom-shops started to appear and more women and children were employed as cheaper labour. Loom-shop owners shortened the apprenticeship from seven years to 18 months. Teenagers were recruited as half-pay apprentices; they paid back half their pay for board, lodging and training. Journeymen weavers returning from war found their status had been undermined by this new system and struggled to find work.

The ribbon trade was also susceptible to changes in fashion; ribbon was very fashionable during this time and was used in dress and accessories and home furnishings bought by the ‘fashionable lady’. The years from 1813 to 1815 were known as ‘the big purl time’ as ribbons with scalloped edges, were in fashion and trade boomed. The trade could also be affected by any event of national mourning, for example the death of Princess Amelia in 1810, made colourful ribbons unsellable as only black ribbons were acceptable during this 6 week period of mourning.

Over the years there were many changes in fortunes due to changing fashions, trade agreements and working practices. Coventry weavers in particular negotiated rules and payments and often went on strike. They were especially resistant to modernisation and industrialisation and protective of the traditional ways of life.

Technology brought changes in ways of working as new looms were introduced. The Dutch engine loom was introduced around 1770; this allowed the weaving of up to six ribbons at a time, although it could only weave plain ribbons. Generally men operated this loom as it was heavy to use, whilst women continued to produce finer, decorative ribbons on single handlooms. The first Jacquard loom came to Coventry in 1823; this large and expensive loom used a system of punch cards to produce complicated figurative patterns. A development that later led to the picture ribbons produced by Thomas Stevens and J.J.Cash’s in the Victorian age. By 1826 there were 209 Jacquard looms in Coventry.

In 1832, the first attempt at introducing steam powered looms to Coventry ended badly when Josiah Beck’s factory was burnt down by an angry mob, fearful that steam power would threaten their livelihoods. Steam power wasn’t fully established in Coventry until 1840. Industrialisation lead to a change in working practices throughout the 1840s and 1850s, especially in urban areas; change was slower coming to country villages where the ‘undertaking’ system remained. More factories were established where working hours and wages became regulated. This was the Victorian age of industrial revolution. However the factories did not completely replace the old systems, loom-shops, and home weavers still remained and cottage factories were established. Cottage factories were built to enable some of the traditional ways of working to remain whilst benefitting from the new technology used by factories. A steam powered engine was shared between surrounding houses to power the looms in the top-shops.

The ribbon weaving industry in Coventry sharply declined following the 1860 Cobden Treaty, this removed tariffs from French silk goods and made exporting silk and ribbons more difficult. Many weaving firms went out of business and there was extreme poverty and unemployment. Many people moved to other parts of the country or emigrated from Britain to America, Australia and other British colonies. The weaving industry survived only in factories, the traditional craftsperson-weaver, who worked in their own home, was unable to survive into the future.

Time Line

1703 Mr Bird establishes first recorded silk weaving works in Coventry
1766 Ribbon trade is protected by an embargo on imported silk goods
1770 Introduction of the Dutch engine loom to Coventry Ribbon weaving is the main occupation in the village of Bulkington
1782 Ribbon trade is employing around 10,000 people.
1803 Start of the Napoleonic Wars with France.
1810 The death of Princess Amelia, only black ribbons selling.
1813 The ‘big purl time’ ribbons with scalloped edges are in fashion resulting in a boom in trade.
1815 End of ‘big purl time’ End of war Napoleonic with France after the battle of Waterloo. Phasing out of ‘undertakers’, some set up loom shops.
1818 Journeyman weavers suffering hardship. A Parliamentary Commission into Coventry Ribbon Manufacturing takes place. Trade suffers from the smuggling of French ribbon, design pirating and seasonal manufacturers responding to spring & summer demand.
1823 First Jacquard loom arrives in Coventry.
1824 Embargo lifted on foreign silk goods causes greater competition.
1826 209 Jacquard looms in Coventry at this time. Hillfields area of Coventry is developed into a suburb for ‘better off’ weavers.
1832 First steam powered loom factory in Coventry is burnt down by an angry mob. Nuneaton ribbon trade suffers hard times.
1838 Joseph Fletcher writes report on conditions in the Ribbon Trade for the Assistant Handloom Weavers’ Commissioners.
1840 Steam power becomes fully established in Coventry. Report on ‘Conditions in the Ribbon Trade’, is presented to parliament. Eli Green builds first Cottage Factory in Hillfields. Prosperous years for Bulkington and new houses built.
1843 First design school in Coventry.
1849 By end of the 1840’s half the population of Coventry is employed in the Ribbon Weaving Trade.
1846 J.J Cash’s factory is established.
1851 Coventry Ribbon is shown at the Great Exhibition in London.
1860 The Cobden Treaty removes tariffs on French and Swiss silk ribbons and brings a sharp decline to the industry. America places import duty on British ribbons. Fashions change from ribbons to feathers.
1861 4,000 people left Coventry to emigrate
1870 Brief revival in trade.


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McGrory, David. (1993). Coventry: History and Guide. Stroud: Alan Sutton.

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