Thomas Wardle (industrialist)

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Sir Thomas Wardle (26 January 1831 – 3 January 1909 [1] ) was a British businessman, known for his innovations in silk dyeing and printing on silk. He collaborated with the designer William Morris, who visited his dyeworks in Leek, Staffordshire to learn how to use natural dyes. He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his services to the silk industry.

Silk fine, lustrous, natural fiber produced by the larvae of various silk moths, especially the species Bombyx mori

Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The protein fiber of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The best-known silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity (sericulture). The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fibre, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.

Dyeing process of adding color to textile products like fibers, yarns, and fabrics

Dyeing is the application of dyes or pigments on textile materials such as fibers, yarns, and fabrics with the goal of achieving color with desired color fastness. Dyeing is normally done in a special solution containing dyes and particular chemical material. Dye molecules are fixed to the fibre by absorption, diffusion, or bonding with temperature and time being key controlling factors. The bond between dye molecule and fibre may be strong or weak, depending on the dye used. Dyeing and printing are different applications; in printing color is applied to a localized area with desired patterns and in dyeing it is applied to the entire textile.

William Morris Textile designer, novelist, and socialist activist (1834–1896)

William Morris was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he played a significant role propagating the early socialist movement in Britain.


Early life

Wardle was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, a silk manufacturing town. He was the eldest son of Joshua Wardle, who in 1830 had opened a silk dyeing business near Leek in the Staffordshire Moorlands south of Macclesfield. [1] [2]

Macclesfield town in Cheshire, England

Macclesfield is a market town and civil parish in Cheshire, England. The town lies around 18 miles south of Manchester city centre.

Staffordshire Moorlands Non-metropolitan district in England

Staffordshire Moorlands is a local government district in Staffordshire, England. Its council, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, is based in Leek and is located between the city of Stoke-on-Trent and the Peak District National Park. The 2001 census recorded the population as 94,489.

Silk weaving had begun in Leek in the late 17th century and silk dyeing began during the 18th century. Leek became celebrated for its black dyes, in particular a "raven-black" (blue-black) dye. The water of the local river Churnet was agreed to be a key ingredient in this product. Aged about 16 Thomas joined his father's business. In 1872 he bought two dyeworks in the town (Hencroft and Mill Street dyeworks) from Samuel Tatton, a local businessman. [2] [3] [4]

River Churnet river in the United Kingdom

The River Churnet is a river in Staffordshire, England. It is a tributary of the River Dove.

Tussar silk

Wardle was interested in making tussar silk commercially successful, after George Birdwood, a doctor and naturalist in India, who became known for his book Economic Vegetable Products of the Bombay Presidency, pointed out in 1860 the commercial potential of this silk. There was a great supply of tussar silk but it was resistant to dyeing. After much experimentation, Wardle in 1867 was able to treat the fibre, to overcome its resistance to dyes. At the Paris Exhibition of 1878, Wardle exhibited various samples of tussar silk; he was subsequently appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. [1] [3]

Tussar silk coarse wild silk from the silkworms of moths of the genus Antheraea

Tussar silk is produced from larvae of several species of silkworms belonging to the moth genus Antheraea, including A. assamensis, A. mylitta, A. paphia, A. pernyi, A. roylei and A. yamamai. These silkworms live in the wild forests in trees belonging to Terminalia species and Shorea robusta as well as other food plants like jamun and oak found in South Asia, eating the leaves of the trees they live on. Tussar silk is valued for its rich texture and natural deep gold colour, and varieties are produced in many countries, including China, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka.

Collaboration with William Morris

From 1875 to 1877 William Morris, of the Arts and Crafts movement, visited Wardle's dyeworks to experiment with indigo dyeing, and printing with this sort of dye. They became good friends, and remained so. Their aim was to produce a depth of colour with natural dyes, such as they found in Indian textiles. They succeeded in making vegetable dyeing important in the dyeing industry. By 1876 Wardle was printing a range of Morris's designs. At Morris & Co. at Merton Abbey Mills, Morris established his own textile printing while Wardle continued to print Morris's early designs. [1] [2] [5]

Arts and Crafts movement international design movement

The Arts and Crafts movement was an international trend in the decorative and fine arts that began in Britain and flourished in Europe and North America between about 1880 and 1920, emerging in Japan in the 1920s as the Mingei movement. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, and often used medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform and was essentially anti-industrial. It had a strong influence on the arts in Europe until it was displaced by Modernism in the 1930s, and its influence continued among craft makers, designers, and town planners long afterwards.

Indigo dye chemical compound; food additive and dye

Indigo dye is an organic compound with a distinctive blue color. Historically, indigo was a natural dye extracted from the leaves of certain plants, and this process was important economically because blue dyes were once rare. A large percentage of indigo dye produced today, several thousand tonnes each year, is synthetic. It is the blue often associated with denim cloth and blue jeans.

Morris & Co. decorative arts firm founded by William Morris

Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (1861–1875) was a furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer and retailer founded by the artist and designer William Morris with friends from the Pre-Raphaelites. With its successor Morris & Co. (1875–1940) the firm's medieval-inspired aesthetic and respect for hand-craftsmanship and traditional textile arts had a profound influence on the decoration of churches and houses into the early 20th century.

Wardle also collaborated with other designers such as Léon-Victor Solon. [6]

Léon-Victor Solon SOLON, Léon Victor (1872 - 1957), Painter, illustrator, potter, poster artist

Léon-Victor Solon, son of ceramist Marc-Louis Solon, was an English painter, ceramist, and graphic artist. He was a purveyor of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles.

In Bengal and Kashmir

In 1885, Wardle accepted a Government invitation to visit Bengal Province (part of the then British Raj in India), to investigate the state there of sericulture; the quality of silk from there was not as good as silk from producers in other countries. He found that a great proportion the silkworms were dying of preventible diseases, and that reeling from cocoons was not done well. He set up training courses for local silk farmers, and for local technicians, and got the dyestuffs more organized; these changes much improved the silk industry in Bengal. [1] [7]

On the same visit he went in 1886 to Kashmir, where silk production was in a poor state. He had ideas for its revival, which on his return home he presented to the government; eventually in 1897 he purchased in Europe large amounts of silk-worm eggs and cocoon-reeling machinery for Kashmir, which revived the silk industry there. [1]

Family and local interests

In 1857 he married Elizabeth Wardle, a distant cousin, daughter of Hugh Wardle. They had fourteen children, of whom five sons and four daughters survived to adulthood. [1] [3] Lady Wardle was an accomplished embroiderer, and founded the Leek Embroidery Society. The Society's work was sold in 1880s in a Wardle shop in New Bond Street, London; it was also involved in a full-scale replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. [8] She died at Leek, Staffordshire on 8 September 1902. [9]

Wardle was interested in geology, and became a fellow of the Geological Society of London. He had a collection of Carboniferous Limestone fossils, and wrote about geology, particularly of his local area. [1] [5]

He was active in local church affairs: he was churchwarden of St Edward's Church in Cheddleton, and he wrote some church music. [1] [5] Shortly before his death he donated a new chancel to Warslow church. [4]

Oscar Wilde, in a lecture he gave in Leek in 1884, paid tribute to Thomas Wardle's work. [2]

In 1887 he helped to found the Silk Association of Great Britain and Ireland, of which he was president during his lifetime. He was a fellow of the Chemical Society. He wrote several monographs about silk, and he received a knighthood in 1897 for services to the silk industry. The businesses developed by Wardle in his lifetime continued in Leek, with changes of name, in the twentieth century. [1] [2] [3] [5]

He died in Leek in 1909 and was buried in Cheddleton churchyard.


Wardle's centenary in 2009 was marked by exhibitions in Leek, London's William Morris Gallery (Experiments In Colour), [10] and Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery.

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Brown, Frank Herbert (1912). "Wardle, Thomas"  . Dictionary of National Biography (2nd supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 591–593.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 A P Baggs, M F Cleverdon, D A Johnston and N J Tringham, 'Leek: Leek and Lowe', in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 7, Leek and the Moorlands, ed. C R J Currie and M W Greenslade (London, 1996), pp. 84-169 British History Online, accessed 23 December 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Portrait of Sir Thomas Wardle, Leek Staffordshire Past-track, accessed 23 December 2016.
  4. 1 2 “Wardle, Sir Thomas (1831–1909),” Sarah Bush in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee online ed., ed. David Cannadine, Oxford: OUP, 2004, Accessed 23 December 2016 (subscription or UK public library membership required).
  5. 1 2 3 4 The Wardle Heritage, accessed 23 December 2016.
  6. "Allegorical Figures". Victorian Web. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
  7. Thomas Wardle of Leek Peakland Heritage, accessed via the Wayback Machine, 23 December 2016.
  8. Kennedy, M (2001). "Cudgels taken up over Bayeux Tapestry replica".
  9. "Obituaries". The Times (36871). London. 12 September 1902. p. 7.
  10. "Experiments in colour: Thomas Wardle, William Morris and the textiles of India" . Retrieved 9 April 2018.