In 1844 Karl Marx’ newspaper “Vorwärts” published a poem by Heinrich Heine called “Die armen Weber” (The poor weavers). The voice is of weavers in the area of Silesia, now in Poland. 50,000 copies were also printed as leaflets, which were distributed all over Europe. By 1846 the poem had been re-named “Die schlesischen Weber”, The Silesian Weavers.
Here’s a modern treatment:
Schlesien (Silesia) was the centre of cloth weaving in Prussia, and by 1844 prices for their cloth had collapsed so drastically that the weavers had to work for at least 12 hours every day to be able to afford the most basic food. They also had to pay feudal duties to the Lords of the Manor, and were obliged to spend part of their time working in the estate fields.
British industrial production made fabrics faster, and more cheaply: the homespun goods of the Silesian weavers was no longer viable. The bad harvest of that year made things even worse, and those selling food had deserted the mountain villages as nobody had any money to buy food anyway.
‘Let some 50,000 – 60,000 starve to death, for no other help there is possible.’
In June 1844 weavers on the estate of August and Ernst Friedrich Zwanziger in Peterswaldau could take no more. They ravaged the estate, and drove the Zwanzigers out. Unrest spread, and the next morning thousands of workers marched on nearby Langenbierau, the village where the Dielau brothers ran one of the largest industrial estates in Silesia. The army was called in: 11 weavers died and 24 were seriously injured, hundreds were arrested and then languished in Prussian jails for years.
In England, weaving had also been a ‘Cottage industry’ i.e. the weaving took place in the weavers’ homes. Now, they realised that industrial production would ruin their livelihoods: the Luddites were born.
But there was no stopping the industrial revolution, and the workers – very often women and children – badly treated.
The loom now in residence in our attic was made just after the Silesian weavers’ uprising, and most likely not far from our house, which is many hundreds of kilometers to the west of Silesia. It’s a highly technical piece of equipment, and I am sure the person who first sat in it did not weave as a hobby, or for fun.
Times change, and our very charming C. supervised the loom’s assembly last week. Next week she will come and help my husband get started. We hope she will continue to weave on this loom, upstairs there are already hanks of bright red sheeps’ wool and emerald linen.
Yesterday my husband’s handbook of weaving arrived, and he is more than thrilled to find a photo of a loom just like this one as an exhibit in a museum in Flensburg. He’s busy planning ponchos, but for me this new inhabitant in our house feels like so many old things which have found their way here: treasures, cared for by many people over hundreds of years, to be treated with respect.
PS: Don’t mention tweed!