Season 1 // Set 1 // Episode 1 - Elizabethan Craftsmen
So before 2020 turned into the year that it did, I was thinking of what I wanted the year's word to be. You may have heard of this practice before, where you think of one word that you would like to be your motto for the year. I find that words have power, especially intentional words, so it's something I have used for the last few years as a signpost to give my year a bit of focus. I decided all the way back in January that I wanted my motto for this year to be “Learn/Grow”. I was pootling along quite happily thinking of the things I wanted to explore that maybe I hadn't made a priority recently. And then Covid happened. Scary, world changing pandemic that suddenly made everything a bit weird. However I suddenly had the time to read again, and my motto for the year came into its own. A few months ago, a friend of mine was listening to me talk about one of the things I had discovered in my deep diving research and, possibly partly to shut me up :), said that I should create a podcast, an expression of all the things I have collected recently. So here we are. Welcome to Woven Threads.
Hello and welcome to Woven threads. This is the show exploring craft craftsmen & women and culture. This is part one of three episodes in this set about Elizabethan craftsmen, craft and culture, and in this our very first episode we will be meeting a person with perhaps one of the best names I have ever heard. Have you ever wondered what event took British craft up into a new level, why an African came to be working in London during the 16th century and what Queen Elizabeth the first wore under those massive skirts of hers, then get ready, all this and more is coming to you in this our first episode of Woven Threads.
London is home to red buses, multiple museums, years of history and Big Ben (Which is the bell and not the clock in case you were wondering.
This capital city has a strong connection with craft and the individuals that create them. From the first guilds that developed from anglo saxon times up to designers and artists like Viviene Westwood and David Hockney; London as one of the most connected cities in the world has always attracted craftsmen and women to its streets.
However amongst these true masters, I'm not sure if anyone has as incredible a name as Reasonable Blackmore. Yes that's right, Reasonable Blackmore. If you happened to be a time traveling tourist and ended up around southwark in the late 15 hundreds you may have run into this craftsman. Also possibly known as John Reason, Reasonable was among the first people of African descent we have a record of being an independent business owner in London of that era. He was a silk weaver by trade and by the 1580s had married and lived with his family in the southwark area. His wife was likely to have been a white englishwoman and they had at least three children.
Now I first read about this craftsman in Miranda Kaufmanns amazing book “Black Tudors”, which I would highly recommend firstly. It's a fantastic look at the tudor world and the untold story of the africans who lived during that period. Out of all of the stories Reasonables was the one that really stood out to me however. Lots of questions came to my mind, How did he end up in London? As this book shows it wasn't as unusual as we may think for people of African descent to find themselves in the uk during the 16th century, but how did he become a craftsman? Why did he become a weaver of silk specifically? Was silk popular in the 16th century?
And so as often happens when I find these interesting facts that touch on my passions of craft and textiles especially, I got lost in the search for answers. These my friends, are my findings. as with many historical thoughts they are based on the little facts we know and are mostly an interesting mix of guess work and following the clues. This can be fun though so come with me on my journey that took me from Africa across Europe all the way to London and into the royal wardrobe of her queenly elizabeth.
The first record we have of Reasonable is in the records of St Saviours church, which later became known as southwark cathedral, in 1579. So we know that he must have arrived in London before that, but from where? And why?
London was for a few years my home and one of the aspects I always loved was how it seemed to attract people from all nationalities and is a massive melting pot of different cultures and languages. It turns out that this story connects to this melting pot. One of the first waves of mass imigration to the uk was in the summer of 1567. The 16th century as an interesting time in Europe and was pretty unsettled. The Netherlands were under the control of Spain, and under king Philip the 11 of Spain people started to get a bit mad because of the heavy taxation and not being able to practice the protestant religion freely. This would eventually lead to massive unrest and various revolts. It has been estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 people may have fled the southern Netherlands in this period, among whom were some of the wealthiest and skilled. In total, in the three and half decades between 1550 and 1585 forty or fifty thousand foreign refugees may have come to England, with the majority gravitating towards the English capital.
What does this have to do with our friend Reasonable though? Well it seems pretty likely that he was one of these refugees that came to london at this time from the netherlands, not only because of the timing, and it being home to a number of africans due to its connections to Spain and Portugal, also because of what he brought with him, the trade of silk weaving.
Now dear listeners is the perfect time for a loo break or to grab a cup of tea.
// Musical Interlude //
When these religious refugees came from the Netherlands they carried with them their identity and because of the number that arrived around the same time their presence had a dramatic effect on craft in London. Those who arrived in London in the 1560s, including possibly Reasonable, played a massive role in introducing many new and luxury trades that hadn’t been seen in England before. Prior to this period, during medieval times and the renaissance, the majority of silk manufacturing had been done in europe in western italy. The crusades had introduced silk to western europe, and italian cities such as Genova, Florence and Venice dominated the european markets. Silk weaving then found its way across into France and the Netherlands. The silk industry hadn’t been manufactured before in England, but with this massive influx of skilled craftsmen, these skills were suddenly introduced to the british market and then slowly diffused into the native craftsman population in london.
It was a hit with the wealthy in London including dear Queeny. Queen Elizabeth received her first pair of silk stockings in the early 1560s and concluded “ I like silk stockings well; they are pleasing, fine and delicate. Henceforth I shall no more wear cloth stockings.” Courtiers followed suit and the demand became so high that imports of raw silk increased five fold between 1560 and 1593.
A second wave of French protestant refugees arrived in 1585, with a large number of weavers settling in the Spitalfields area in London which became the centre of silk production in the country all the way up until the end of the 19th century.
The editor of Stow's Survey of London pays a high tribute to the character and industry of the refugees. Speaking of Spitalfields he writes: 'Here they have found quiet and security, and settled themselves in their several trades and occupations; weavers especially. Whereby God's blessing surely is not only brought upon the parish by receiving poor strangers, but also a great advantage hath accrued to the whole nation by the rich manufactures of weaving silks and stuffs and camlets, which art they brought along with them. And this benefit also to the neighbourhood, that these strangers may serve for patterns of thrift, honesty, industry, and sobriety as well.'
We can’t say what Reasonables life had been before he came to London, but arriving when he did with the skills he had meant he would have been in demand. It wasn't an easy job and after looking this up I will never be able to look at a piece of fabric in the same way again. The process, pre industrial revolution,was complex and is also difficult to actually get much information on. What we do know is that the warp was threaded on the loom according to the design of the textile, after which two people were required to weave the textile—a weaver who inserted the wefts and a “drawboy” who controlled the pattern mechanism. As a result, patterned silks and velvets, especially those embellished with precious metal threads, were produced in relatively few major centers in Europe where raw materials, specialized looms, and skilled artisans could be gathered together efficiently. And now in the 1560s onwards London was becoming one of those centres.
One of the only references I found to this process is in an engraving by Karel van Mallery, who worked in Antwerp, circa 1590-1600. It shows a group of women of various ages doing different parts of the silk to fabric process. On the right a few of them prepare silkworms by heating them to steal their thread, and on the left one woman is sat at what looks like a wooden frame, winding the thread. With the invention of different mechanised looms in the 19th century, this process of weaving fabric became much easier. I can only imagine the time it would have taken to weave such delicate thread, and how long it must have taken Reasonable to create a full piece of cloth.
In 1587 Reasonable was married and this is proof of his financial independence due to his craft. At this time it was expensive to get married as you required different objects to establish a household, and his business was obviously successful enough to support a family of five, with them most likely helping him in his work. Sadly we know that two of his three children died during an outbreak of plague in 1592. Southwark where the family lived, was one of the most crowded and vulnerable areas in London. Both his daughter Jane and his son Edmund died near the end of that year. When this outbreak drew to an end around 8.5% of the population of London at that time had lost their lives. After the death of his children we have no more records of Reasonables life, though as Miranda Kauffman mentions in her book, there is a suggestion that their remaining son Edward carried on the silk weaving trade. There are records of an “Edward Blackmore of mile end, silk weaver” marrying “Jeane Colle of Stepney” just three miles from Southwark. I like to think that Edward carried on with his fathers craft and used it to look after his family too.
What struck me about this whole journey was how craftsmen were respected and sought after in these times. Due to other forces, such as political and religious conflicts, whole economies could be affected just by where a group of craftsmen decided to live. In our age of mechanised manufacturing I think it is a shame that many people forget where these processes began, with the hands and skills of people such as Reasonable. He was part of a whole new industry in England at that time and it gave him a value in that society.
Historically this period of british history is one I have always found to be fascinating. Power plays, discovery, big ruff things that cant have been comfortable to wear, all adds to the allure of the late 1500s. Join me next time on woven threads when I look into a specific craft - elizabethan jewellery.
Be sure to check out the blog post for this episode at www.cluth.co.uk. I will put the transcript of this week’s episode and also some extra references if you would like to do your own deep diving.
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Black Tudors: the untold story - Miranda Kaufmann
Karel Van Mallery engraving - https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/659745
The Survey of London by John Stowe - https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42959/42959-h/42959-h.htm