In the workshop

That the Mountjoys supplied headgear to Shakespeare’s theatre company is plausible, and may be the first connection between them. But the certain connection between them is that Shakespeare had rooms above their workshop, so it is the manufacturing of tires, the daily business of tiremaking, which impinges on him.

We have some fragmentary details about the practicalities of the Mountjoy workshop. In the preamble to litigation with his son-in-law Mountjoy mentions that he ‘did buy into the shop . . . silvered wire and other commodities concerning their trade to the value of £10 or thereabouts’. He is referring to the period when he and Belott were working together as partners (he mentions it because Belott should have contributed some of the money but did not). This was a specific period of about six months (‘half a yeare’) during 1606-7, so we might suggest outgoings of about £20 per annum on these tiremaking ‘commodities’ or materials.43 The ‘silvered wire’ would be used to make the framework of the head-tire - ‘Where is my wyer?’ asks Lady Rimelaine as she prepares her tire - and would also be connected with the making of gold and silver thread, of which more below.

We also know of another purchase, or series of purchases, for in the will of one Peter Courtois - by the sound of him a fellow-Frenchman - it is recorded that ‘Mr Mungeoy’ owed him £2 10s 11d for ‘purled work’. The will is from 1603. Courtois, who had his business in the Blackfriars, is described as a ‘bandmaker’ - in other words a maker of embroidered bands for hats, collars, cuffs, etc. The ‘purled work’ he supplied to Mountjoy is ‘thread or cord made of twisted gold or silver wire, and used for bordering and embroidering’ (OED).44

Another commodity Mountjoy bought into the workshop (because no craftsman could actually make it) was human hair. By tradition this was supplied from corpses. Such is the implication in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 68 -

The golden tresses of the dead, 

The right of sepulchres, were shorn away 

To live a second life on second head . . .

- and in The Merchant of Venice, where the ‘golden locks’ of a wig are described as ‘the dowry of a second head, / The skull that bred them in the sepulchre’. It would be an exaggeration to say that all false hair was shorn from the skulls of the dead, but this is the association. The only other source is the heads of the living, which is less sinister but has an overtone of desperation. Horse-hair was also used, but not quite de rigueur; hemp even less so. Human hair was preferred by those who could afford it, as it is today - according to her hairdresser, Victoria Beckham spends around £6,000 a year on hair extensions, using ‘real hair’ from Poland, Russia and India.45

The silvered wire and the purled work are recorded purchases, but there is good evidence that these or related materials were also made in the workshop. One might anyway suppose so: this was a highly competitive market, and buying in expensive finished materials added further pressure to already tight profit margins. Better to make your own, where possible: ‘vertical integration’.

Among the meagre items of ‘houshould stuffe’ which Mountjoy grudgingly gave to Stephen and Mary Belott in 1605 are the following work-related items:

An old drawing table 

Two old joined stools 

One wainscot cupboard

One twisting wheel of wood 

Two pair of little scissors 

One old trunk and a like old trunk 

One bobbin box

Leaving aside the cupboard and trunks we have here a brief synopsis of the tiremaker’s equipment.

The ‘drawing table’ looks at first glance like a table on which to do designs and templates for tires - drawing in the sense of draughtsmanship - but it is more likely to be a workbench for wire-drawing, a process which involved pulling rods of gilded silver, heated or ‘annealed’ for ductility, through dies of decreasing gauge until the required thinness was reached.46 The tiremaker would not deal in the earlier stages of the process, which required equipment akin to the blacksmith’s, but in more subtle renderings of fine-gauged wire. There are at least two grades used in a head-tire - the stiffer wire which forms the framework of the arrangement; and a much finer wire used for the gold and silver thread which decorates the tire. This wire-drawing activity may suggest that the workshop also produced other wired structures used in the fashion trade, such as the ‘supporters’ or ‘underproppers’ which held up heavily starched ruffs, collars, rebatos and so on. These would be made of much the same gauge of wire as the head-tire.

The wooden ‘twisting wheel’ donated to the fledgling tiremakers was a small spinning-wheel used for twisting or twining thin filaments of yarn to make thread. By far the most common application was silk-twisting. Thus a handbook of 1688 defines a twisting wheel as ‘an engine wherewith 2, 3 or more silk threads are twisted or turned all together into one entire double thread’.47 The slender filaments of silk to be twisted into thread were known as ‘sleaves’. They were drawn out, prior to the spinning, from a bundle of coarse raw silk called ‘sleave silk’ or ‘sley silk’ (nowadays more likely be called ‘silk floss’). In 1588 an ounce of ‘slaye sylke’ cost 8d.48 A number of silk-twisters from Picardie are recorded in the 1593 Return of Strangers: we might think of silk-twisting as a Picard craft or industry which Mountjoy learned in his youth, and which he later applied in the more specialist area of tiremaking.

The wheel was also used for making gold or silver thread, which consists of a thin strip of flattened gold or silver, ‘wrapped or laid over a thread of silk by twisting it with a wheel’.49 (‘Gold’ in this context is almost always gilded silver.) These gold or silver threads could in turn be plaited into gold or silver ‘twist’, which is corded like a miniature rope. The ‘purled work’ purchased from Mr Courtois was a kind of twist; the gold twist best known today is the braiding on the sleeves of naval officers’ and airline pilots’ uniforms. The twisting wheel controls the tension, which must be got absolutely right. If it is too slack the cord does not hold together; if it is too tight the cord kinks.

All three products of the twisting wheel - silk thread, gold and silver thread and gold and silver twist - were used in the creation of head-tires.

An integral part of the twisting wheel was the bobbin on to which the intertwined thread or twist was wound. That ‘bobbin box’ donated to the newly-weds presumably contained a set of bobbins of various sizes. They were at this time wooden, but had originally been made of bone - whence ‘bone lace’, produced by spinning as distinct from needlework. Cotgrave’s 1612 dictionary associates bobbins with gold and silver threadmaking: he defines French bobine as ‘a quill for a spinning-wheel; also a skane or hank of gold or silver thread’.

On the evidence of the ‘houshould stuffe’ inventory we can say that the activities of the Silver Street workshop included fine wire-drawing and various kinds of thread-twisting. Both these are confirmed by a later document involving Stephen Belott. In 1621, Belott petitioned against the activities of the Monopolies Commission.50 Among his complaints was that an agent of the monopolists had confiscated his ‘mill’, which was ‘the only instrument of his living’. This mill is for wire-drawing: it is the iron or steel plate, perforated with die-holes of different diameters, through which the wire is drawn. Belott also says that for many years he has ‘gotten his living by working gold and silver thread’, and he describes himself as ‘sometime servant to Monioye, gold wiredrawer’.

Christopher Mountjoy is elsewhere mentioned as one who practised the ‘mystery’ of making and working ‘Venice gold and silver thread’.51 Venice gold was another term for gold thread, though the Venetians had in turn imported the art of making it from the Middle East, and it is sometimes called ‘Damask [Damascus] gold’. There is some evidence that true Venice gold involved a particular technique using strips of gilded vellum - both lighter and cheaper than wire - but the term as used in England was probably not so specific. Shakespeare refers to Venice gold in The Taming of the Shrew - it is part of a catalogue of exquisite and expensive materials to be seen in Gremio’s ‘richly furnished’ town-house: ‘Tyrian tapestry’, ‘Arras counterpoints’, ‘Turkey cushions bossed with pearl’ and ‘valance of Venice gold in needlework’ (2.1.345-50). Venice gold was primarily used by embroiderers, and is frequently found in the accounts and inventories of the Queen’s wardrobe.

We have at least a broad idea of the daily activities of the Mountjoy workshop - enough, perhaps, to mock up one of those informatively captioned engravings, often continental, which show us everything happening at once. In one part of the shop an apprentice sits at a table or bench, drawing wires of gilded silver through die-holes to make the fine wire suitable for gold thread. There are hammers and rollers to flatten the wire into strips ready for spinning into thread. In another part of the shop bundles of lank raw silk are being separated into ‘sleaves’. A third person is working the ‘twisting wheel’, turning those sleaves into silk thread, and silk thread into sparkling Venice gold. Elsewhere there are women sewing and stitching, the snipping of those ‘little scissors’, the application of colour and glitter to beautify the wiry carapace of the tire. Here we see bales of cloth - the gauzy ‘lawn’ which Cotgrave calls ‘toile d’atour’, or tire-cloth; the satins and taffetas ‘of sundry colours’. Here too are ribbons, laces, purled bands, feathers, tinsels, nets, veils, bodkins, seed-pearls, black bugles - and baskets filled with a faintly sinister cargo of human hair, also of sundry colours, yellow and silver being especially sought after. In the background, in an adjoining room, a fashionable lady receives a finished headpiece graciously proffered by the tiremaker’s wife.

It is a scene of small-scale, miniaturist work: repetitive and delicate. It is hard work on the eyes, and is made more so by the law that immigrants’ shops should have a ‘lattice before the window’ so their wares cannot be seen from the street. Metal fumes hang in the close air of the workshop, the smell of glues and dyes. Perhaps these, rather than pregnancy, were a cause of those stomach pains and ‘swimming in the head’ of which Marie complains to Dr Forman.

Just outside the frame of our imagined engraving - involved only in a casual, non-professional sense, but involved nonetheless - is a well-dressed gentleman of middle age who might perhaps be a merchant or mercer, but who is in fact the tiremaker’s lodger, ‘one Mr Shakespeare’. He passes on his way to and from the street, keeping his slightly odd hours; he is a shadow in the doorway, a footstep on the stairs. He is familiar with the scene whose outlines I have tried to construct: he observes and enquires, and what he sees and hears is stored away in that capacious and miraculously accessible memory, to be used in turn as raw material in the manufacturing of metaphors -

Thou immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s purse . . . (Troilus and Cressida, 5.1.29-30)

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care . . . (Macbeth, 2.2.36)

Be’t when she weav’d the sleided silk 

With fingers long, small, white as milk . . . (Pericles, 4.Chor.21-2)

Breaking his oath and resolution, like 

A twist of rotten silk . . . (Coriolanus, 5.2.96-7)

These are in approximate chronological order (the exact date of Coriolanus is uncertain). The earliest is Thersites’ ingenious insult from Troilus, a play first mentioned in the Stationers’ Register on 7 February 1603, and probably composed in 1602, the year in which - according to his later recollection - Shakespeare first met Christopher Mountjoy, and thus the earliest date for his sojourn on Silver Street. It is redolent of the tire-shop. The author’s eye has taken in not only the skein of sleave-silk, which is ‘immaterial’ both visually - light, flossy, frothy - and because it is irrelevant or unusable until separated into spinnable filaments, but also the sarcanets and tassels which are part of the tiremaker’s decorative arts. We find sarcenet (a fine soft silk of taffeta weave) associated with tires in Queen Elizabeth’s accounts - ‘sarcenets [for] tuftinge, tyringe of hedpeces, and gyrdells’.52

The line from Macbeth, composed c. 1606, is famous but often misunderstood. In the first edition of 1623 (despite its fame today the play had no separate edition before the First Folio) ‘sleave’ is spelt ‘sleeve’; and that is the word most people hear in performance, especially in conjunction with ‘knit’. The line is therefore taken to mean that the anxious mind is repaired by sleep, as a frayed sleeve is repaired by knitting.53 This is cogent but the metaphor seems bland. We are at a moment of high psychological drama: the murder of King Duncan is done; Macbeth is confronting the trauma of guilt, which will bring in the play’s insomniac visions and night-terrors: ‘Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more!’ His state of mind is imagined not as frayed but as tangled, confused, knotted (sense 1 of ‘ravel’ in OED, ‘to become entangled or confused’) and most modern editors endorse the reading of ‘sleave’, as first proposed by George Steevens in the eighteenth century. Sleep brings order to this bundle of emotions as the hand of a silkworker unravels a tangled sheaf of sleave-silk.

In this reading the metaphor is visually linked with the simple but vivid image of the lost daughter Marina in Pericles, and her slender white fingers weaving ‘sleided’ (sleaved) silk. The play was written with George Wilkins in c. 1607-8, by which time Shakespeare had probably moved on from Silver Street. The image may be a memory of the Mountjoy workshop - one wonders whose pale hands he is remembering.

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