A Trip to Adamley Silk Printers

Monday, 28 February 2022

A visit to Adamley Textiles is the best way to experience the exquisite art and craftmanship of serigraphy.

The Silk Town of England

As you step off the train in Macclesfield, the unassuming spires divulge little of the remarkable history of this humble town famous not only for Hovis’ bread, but for England’s silk manufacturing industry. Which, by the way, was rather grand: the first silk mill was established there in 1743 and at its peak, Macclesfield was the biggest producer of finished silk goods in the world. As someone in the know would say, when the rest of the world was looking to Italy, the Italians were coming to us, trying to recreate the elusive unaffected finish and colours of the British silk prints.

More than a pretty face, Macclesfield was a strategic choice as a centre for silk manufacturing. The River Bollin running through its centre provided a ready source of power for the numerous mills in existence at the time, while its water, sourced from the Pennines, was soft enough for silk processing. 

Adamley Textiles

Adamley is now one of the last few producers of finished silk in the area. Situated in a charming valley close to the river Bollin, it remains a tribute to its ancestors by continuing to produce finished silk in the most sustainable way possible and by keeping the art of Ancient Madder silk printing alive. Indeed, to this day Adamley relies on its own off-grid water supply for the processing of the silk on site and remains a stalwart in silk screen printing, despite also having invested in state-of-the art digital printing. It is also one of the few mills which still produces traditional ancient madder silk and boasts one of the biggest collections of prints, having inherited the David Evans & Co archive.

Silk Screen Printing

Many people will tell you that silk screen printing is a precise and extremely time-consuming process. Despite knowing this, it is impossible to imagine how many different stages and skilled individuals lie behind even the smallest pieces of cloth. Yes, Sir, that dashing silk handkerchief in your pocket is a true labour of love and craftmanship. Its fabrication requires a whole production line made up of passionate people who have devoted the best of their working life to perfecting a unique and particular skillset. This is the case at Adamley and why Cordings remains incredibly proud of our Adamley partnership.

Screen Printing

After entering the Adamley reception adorned with traditional old hand printing blocks, and before sitting down to discuss an exciting project (the fruits of which you will be witnessing some time soon), I was privy to a tour of the infamous screen-printing process.

The first room that we came to was the Printing Room – an airy space filled with 5 enormous 24-yard-long tables of varying widths. Watching Matthew and Neil meticulously work up and down the long tables with the utmost concentration, reminds you what a labour-intensive process the printing is. It is a two man job, requiring an experienced hand and discerning eye to make sure the patterns are applied perfectly.

silk screen printing
Matthew and Neil using the printing machine

The long stretches of silk must be laid out flat and straight, the screen must be fully aligned, the dye distributed evenly and at the end of the process, all equipment must be thoroughly cleaned to be used again.

Silk in silk screen printing
Silk Lying Flat

Even the smallest bit of dye could cause the screen to stick and ruin the whole design. Matthew and Neil repeat the process for every screen in the design and for heavier fabrics they allow extra time to allow the silk to dry before the next layer.

Silk Screen Printing
Washing the Screen
Silk on a washing line
Taking the Silk off the Table to Dry

They test the print first on green silk fabric to ensure that everything is working and looking as it should.

test silk scraps
Test Silk

The silk then begins its finishing process. The pattern is sealed using steam, softened using Adamley’s unique ancient silk ‘torture machines’, and expertly finished by Adamley’s seamstresses.

machines for making silk supple and soft
Machines for Softening the Silk

Whether you opt for the hand rolled, the pin fringed, or the hand-finished tassels, the item is destined to be that wardrobe go-to, that everybody comments on. 

What is a screen?

Each screen is in essence a giant stencil. There is a separate screen for every colour in the design which are applied as layers. When combined, they create the full image:

Silk screen layering.
Showing the pattern layering that is created through using the screens

Depending on its complexity, each design requires roughly 4-6 screens. This means that the printing process is often repeated 4-6 times per piece of silk.

Silk screens stacked
Screens for a madder silk handkerchief ready for printing

Adamley has so many screens for a whole range of different designs that they require a whole room to themselves:

Storage for printing screens
Screen Storage Room

Several of the screens in this room stood a good head taller than me – a nightmare to manoeuvre!

How To Make Silk Screen Printing Screens

Making the screens also requires its own specialised equipment and multistep process.

The screens are essentially large pieces of fabric (often nylon) mesh which have had an image burned into them using UV light and a photo emulsion.

Madder Silk Printing Screen
Madder Silk Printing Screen

There are many fiddly bits to their making which include stretching the mesh out, marking the template, inspecting the design over light (it is checked twice by two different people), imprinting the screen with UV light and washing out the remaining photo emulsion.

Making Screens for Silk Screen Printing
UV light treatment cupboard. Clamps for stretching out the mesh. Machine printing the design outline.

Each step in the process must be completed with careful precision.

Madder Silk

Adamley is one of the last few places where you will find genuine ancient madder silk products. It is a process that adds a further layer of value to any product coming from Adamley. Items made from Madder are instantly recognisable for their chalk hand feel and unrivalled elegance.

mixing silk colours
The Adamley ‘Colour Shop’

The silk is boiled to remove all impurities and natural resin, before being dyed using one of Adamley’s unique hues.

Dyed silk
Preparing the Ground
Silk dye testing
Testing the print colours on silk

The traditional ‘madder gum’ is then added to give the fabric its renowned chalky finish.

Madder Silk Gum
Madder Gum

An incredibly huge tumble dryer dries the fabric that is then ready for the printing room.

Giant dryer and dyed silk ready for printing

Adamley Textiles and David Evans Prints

David Evans & Co. was a renowned silk factory business which sadly went out of business. It was started in 1843 and had an extensive archive of prints, many of which were inherited by Adamley. These now form part of Adamley’s own incredibly valuable collection and offer an endless source of inspiration.

David Evans Archive Adamley
Our buyer Justin having a look through the David Evans archive at Adamley

Not in use any more, David Evans’ original hand printing blocks now adorn the walls at Adamley. They stand as a tribute to the mountain that is the English silk printing tradition which Adamley now heads.  

Hand printing blocks
Hand Printing Blocks At Adamley

This visit was part of an exciting new Cordings/Adamley production which is now in the works. However, you do not need to wait until then to own a piece of silk history: for years Cordings has been working with this mill to create some of the finest men’s scarves, ties, cravats and pocket squares that you will find.

All designs are specially curated by our experienced men’s buyer Justin, inspired by the renowned David Evans archives, and brought to life by the wonderful and skilled people at Adamley!

Adamley Textiles