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History looms large

Carolyn O'Grady joins primary pupils on a visit to a 19th century silk mill in an idyllic setting on a Hampshire river

Surrounded by water, fields and gardens, Whitchurch Silk Mill in Hampshire is situated on Frog Island, in the pretty village of Whitchurch. In the midst of this fairytale setting, it is hard to believe that this austere but beautiful building was a hive of deafening activity in the 19th century. The building would have shaken with the noise and activity of the looms, powered by the waterwheel at its side, and more than 100 workers, nearly 40 of whom were children aged under 13.

Built in 1800, beside the River Test, it was originally a fulling mill (part of the process of finishing cloth), but was weaving silk by the 1830s. It still produces high-quality silk - much of it for costumes for stage and screen - and is open to visitors, many of whom are from primary schools. Before it became an educational trust its commercial history included weaving the linings for Burberry coats and silk legal gowns for robe-makers and tailors Ede and Ravenscroft.

Helen Overton-Hore, a former teacher and freelance craftworker, who takes the school sessions, begins by dividing a party of Year 5 children from St Peter's C of E Junior School, Farnborough, into two groups. They take it in turns to tour the building and watch a video on the making and history of silk. First they visit the waterwheel to learn how it works and how the flow of water to it can be regulated. "Why water and not horses?" she asks.

It's one of many questions which encourage the children to think about what they are seeing.

Upstairs, they see and discuss the series of cogs that transfer the power from the fast-flowing river water to the machines further up. There, packages of raw silk from China are threaded on to bobbins, then sent away to be dyed and, on their return, woven into fabric.

Children take it in turns to operate a hand loom, which shows how a powered loom works and illustrates the difference between warp and weft threads.

"To get weft, remember the phrase, weft and wight and then wight and weft," suggests Helen.

Meanwhile, the other group is watching the well made and easy to understand video. It shows the short gluttonous life of a silk worm (not really a worm at all, but the larva of the moth Bombyx mori), which lives to eat vast quantities of the leaf of the white mulberry bush. It then spins a cocoon which consists of a single thread of silk up to 1,200 metres long.

In the mill, pupils can handle the white cocoons. How to produce raw silk, a method which can be traced back 4,000 years, was for long kept secret by Chinese producers. Stretching from Shanghai to the shores of the Atlantic, the Silk Road was the main route for sending the fabric westward, in exchange for gold, silver and wool.

Eventually, the secret came to light and by the 12th century Italy had become Europe's own silk centre. Britain's climate didn't suit the silk worm, but we became successful weavers and printers of imported raw silk.

After the tour and video, there's a workshop in the mill's main room. From a choice of silk painting, weaving without looms, paper weaving and braiding on a card, St Peter's art co-ordinator Deborah Martin has opted for the silk painting sessions, as the children will soon be tackling this at the school.

Pupils are each given a piece of silk with a picture already injection-printed on to it, and palettes of paint which they have to apply very sparingly as the paint spreads up to resistant "guttering", or the lines of the picture. By using different thicknesses of colour they can vary the shades. They are completely absorbed by the task, and produce fine pictures and patterns which they mount in a card frame.

On the map

Whitchurch Silk Mill 28 Winchester Street, Whitchurch, Hampshire RG28 7AL Tel: 01256 893882 Email:

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