From the sixteenth century Macclesfield had a button industry, which developed into one making silk buttons and later into a full-scale silk industry. This also applied to other nearby towns, such as Congleton, but Macclesfield remained the main centre. Its School of Art, opened in 1851, trained designers, and its former buildings are now the site of the Macclesfield Silk Museum, which has informative displays relating to design and manufacturing processes, examples of products and a gallery with looms and other machinery.
Silk throwing is the preliminary stage of manufacturing, making single fibres into usable thread for weaving. The various processes of throwing and weaving were originally carried out in workers’ homes but gradually transferred to mills and factories. The mill workers were mainly women, with men mostly performing skilled and supervisory work, but there was also much child labour, with over a quarter of the workforce being children in 1873. Wages were in general lower than those in cotton mills. There were many ups and downs in the silk industry, partly due to overseas competition and the rise of artificial fabrics such as rayon, sometimes offset by bans on imports. Trade flourished during the Napoleonic Wars as competition shrank, but then declined afterwards. In the Second World War, the silk industry emphasised the production of parachutes and escape maps, with much trouble taken to secure supplies of raw silk.
One consequence of the booms and slumps in the silk industry and resulting periods of unemployment was the emigration of workers. One man from a family of Macclesfield mill owners set up a silk factory in Paterson, New Jersey in 1845. A temporary display at the museum has some information about the silk industry there but says very little about the notorious strike of 1913, which saw 1,850 workers arrested and two people killed (one a striker, shot by a strikebreaker).