The threads that entwine Macclesfield’s past and present

PUBLISHED: 00:07 24 April 2013 | UPDATED: 22:01 23 October 2015

United Reformed Church in Park Green

United Reformed Church in Park Green


Mike Smith pulls together the threads that entwine Macclesfield’s past and present

The growth of Macclesfield into the biggest producer of finished silk in the world began in the most modest way imaginable. In the years before the industrial revolution, farming families in the area would earn a small second income by making handmade silk buttons. This cottage industry was the starting point for the town’s evolution into a manufacturing centre with at least 5,000 looms and more than 70 factories.

Mindful that the theme for this year’s Barnaby Arts Festival is ‘Metamorphosis’, Victoria Scholes, an exhibition organiser and celebrated glass artist, has challenged professional and amateur craftspeople to create contemporary buttons that will be displayed during the festival alongside Macclesfield Heritage Centre’s exhibition of some of the earliest buttons made in the town.

Victoria says:‘I’ve been blown away by the response so far and by the ingenuity and passion of the artists. Well over 100 makers have already put themselves forward for the Button Project, and more are on the way. We’ll have buttons in silver, gold, enamel, glass, wool and, of course, silk.’

Among the buttons promised are Alexandra Abraham’s ‘gold shell’, which includes fragments of glass buttons made by Lionel Nichols, England’s last couture button-maker, and a beautiful button made by Sue Brown, who has used enamel to make a ‘moth-button’ that seems to flutter off the surface. As Victoria said, ‘The moth motif is apt considering Macclesfield’s history.’

At the Longden Gallery on Shaw Street, I met ceramicist Jan Lewis-Eccleston, one of five local artists who work and exhibit at the gallery. She is currently working on a charming series of miniature ceramic dovecotes with white birds peeping out from their nesting holes, but she too intends to make a submission to the Button Project that will feature a moth.

The fact that the Longden Gallery is one of 14 galleries of one sort or another in the Macclesfield area is testimony to the creative thread that has run through the town’s history since those handmade silk buttons were first produced. Since 2011, talented local artists, photographers and artisans have had an opportunity to show their work, alongside work by international artists, in the Marburae Gallery, which takes a commission from sold works but does not charge any hanging fees.

The gallery, which also includes the photographer’s studio of Lumi Studios, is highly unusual because it is housed in the showrooms of Shackleford Pianos on Athey Street, where art works share the multi-roomed building with a fabulous collection of grand pianos. Kaite Helps, who organises the changing exhibitions, told me: ‘One of our big exhibitions will take place in May, when all the people participating in the Cheshire Open Studios event will be showing examples of their work here.’

Aeron Shackleford, the director of the piano firm, generously donates ten pianos each year to the Barnaby Festival for artists to decorate. Graffiti artists are being let loose on his pianos this year and the Heritage Centre still houses a particularly splendid example from last year’s Barnaby Festival of a piano decorated with non-graffiti art.

Key Stage 3 students at the Macclesfield Academy are helping to promote this year’s festival by producing a series of giant letters which spell out B-A-R-N-A-B-Y. The letters, which will be on display in locations around the town, will illustrate the passage of time through collages featuring iconic figures, ranging from Sir Winston Church to Elvis Presley. Drama students will be performing ‘pop-up’ theatre during the festival weekend and science students will be demonstrating a pedal-powered ‘Smoothie’ dispensing machine which they are making.

Creative projects by students of this go-ahead school are by no means confined to the Barnaby Festival. Budding journalists are already writing regular articles for the free magazine ‘Local People’ and for ‘Macclesfield Online’ website.

Other media outlets in Macclesfield come in the form of ‘The Thread’,

which was conceived by the business forum Make It Macclesfield in multiple formats as a newspaper, a website, an e-letter and a radio station, and Macc TV, a new internet television station. Both ventures showcase community groups, businesses, events and creative activity in the town.

One of the events being flagged up is a ‘Spring into Summer’ festival, featuring live performances, ranging from opera and burlesque to rock and comedy. Due to be staged in the town on various weekends from April to July, it has Nik Kershaw as its headline act. The festival is being coordinated by the singer and former actor Brad Snelling, who organised last year’s successful Winterfest jointly with orchestra conductor Nicholas Smith.

Nicholas’s partner Véronique Zambonelli, whom he met last year while they were waiting for the same train in Paris, is about to add a touch of Gallic creativity to the town. After a varied career as designer, model and aid worker, Véronique is planning to launch a ‘real French crêperie’ in Church Street. Set to open in May, it will offer crêpes, daily specials, freshly-baked bread and croissants.

It is good to see an independent business being launched at a time when the planners are considering a proposed £90 million retail and leisure development designed to attract big-name stores and leisure providers to the town. The proposal is currently the subject of heated debate, not least from independent traders, but those in favour of the scheme hope that it will increase footfall and kick start the next phase in Macclesfield’s metamorphosis.

• Granted a Borough Charter by Prince Edward, the future Edward I, in 1261

• The annual Barnaby Fair, held on St Barnabas’ Day, 11th June, has now been revived as the Barnaby Arts Festival

• Macclesfield was once the world’s biggest producer of finished silk in the world and now has four silk museums

• It is officially recognised as the western end of the Silk Trail, which starts in the Chinese city of Xi’an

• The footballers of Macclesfield Town FC are known as the Silkmen

• As well as being known as Silk Town, Macclesfield is known as Treacle Town, a reference to the day when a wagon overturned and sent its load of treacle running down the streets. The Treacle Market, showcasing arts, crafts, antiques, food and drink, takes place on the last Sunday of each month

• The town was the original home of Hovis, the breadmakers

• Famous people born in Macclesfield include the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson, cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew, footballer Peter Crouch and Olympic oarsman Ben Ainslie.

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