West Suffolk is famed for its wool towns - Cavendish, Clare, Lavenham and Long Melford - but is less well known for its silk manufacture, the centre of which remains at Sudbury, on the Suffolk-Essex border overlooking the Stour River.
Sudbury, a prosperous medieval town with lavish timber-framed merchants' houses, began to develop a successful textile trade in the 14th century, weaving heavy woollen broadcloth. By the 16th century, the weavers of Sudbury turned to producing lighter fabrics – bays, says, crepes and cotton bunting. By the 18th century much of the bunting was supplied to the Royal Navy for flags for the Dutch wars and later the Napoleonic wars.
It was not until the 19th century that the silk trade became established in Sudbury. Today, the town remains the centre for silk manufacturing in the UK with four firms producing a wide range of quality fabrics.
Silk making began in China, but, as its popularity grew in Europe, manufacture began in France and Italy.
In 1609 attempts were made to stimulate silk production in Britain. Vast quantities of black mulberry bushes were planted, as it was known that mulberry leaves was the major food source for silk worms – sadly they had planted the wrong variety and the experiment was a failure.
However, at the end of the 17th century religious bigotry had succeeded where tree growing had failed. In 1685, Louis XIV of France began the persecution and expulsion of Protestant Huguenots who refused to take up the Catholic faith, which resulted in the exodus of some 500,000 of his Huguenot subjects into neighbouring countries, including Spitalfields in London. They took with them their wealth, arts and skills, including silk weaving.
It took another 100 years for silk weaving to be established in Sudbury, largely due to industrial disputes and regulation in London. Sudbury and its neighbours already had many skilled textile workers who quickly took up silk weaving.
By 1844, there were four silk manufacturers and some 600 silk looms in Sudbury.
Silk weaving was still a hand process which could be carried out within the home. Long terraces of three storey weavers’ cottages were built and remain an interesting and attractive feature of the town today. The ground floor was living space, the top floor for sleeping, the middle floor ‘the shop,’ - a large undivided working area with large windows front and back to admit maximum light.
In the centre of the room silk thread was hand wound onto swan’s quills or paper tubes which were inserted into shuttles. The women usually did this task whilst the men operated the loom.
The loom was set up at right angles to the window so the light fell across the warp. In poor light, the weaver would light the oil lamp which hung from the loom beam – most cottages had neither gas nor electricity.
Winding the silk at home gave women the opportunity to care for their families, but they relied on a single employer who supplied the warp and skeins and bought the finished silk. It was these employers who decided when and how much the weavers would be paid, and times could be very hard for them.
With the introduction of wider hand looms and the Jacquard loom for weaving intricate velvets and damasks, manufacture had to be moved out of the cottage and into the factory, and nineteenth century documents refer to silk ‘manufactories’ in the town.
Some factories were no more than residential houses, which were used as warehouses - a good example is 49A North Street – others were large workshops housing a number of hand looms. Few survive today, although the ground floor at the back of the former manager’s house at 41 Melford Road, Sudbury, is a good example.
Eventually the various stages of production were brought together under one roof, including silk throwing (spinning), warping, dyeing and weaving.
Two examples remain; the oldest is at 47 Gainsborough Street. Silk weaving was in progress as early as 1791 in the weaving shop now used as a study room on the second floor of Gainsborough’s House next door, but the imposing three-storey building at No 47 dates from about 1850. It once had a bank of multi – paned windows on the ground floor in addition to those which survive on the upper two floors facing Weaver’s Lane.
The other former manufactory is now ‘The Dental Emporium’, which sits on the edge of Acton Square. This two-storey building was built in about 1870 by the firm of Stephen Walters and in turn was occupied by all three of the silk firms which still exist in Sudbury.
Employment in the silk industry reached a peak in the 1850s when about 2,000 silk throwster, dyers and weavers were employed in and around Sudbury. As competition from France grew in the late 19th century, the Sudbury weavers specialised on the quality end of the market creating fine silk fabric for parasols and umbrellas.
Today Sudbury is the silk capital of England.
Four silk firms manufacture in Sudbury with an estimated 110 metric tons of Chinese silk coming into the town annually. The Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company, founded in 1903 and located on Alexandra Road since 1925, produces high quality furnishing fabrics and special commissions to reproduce historical designs - for example for the restoration of Windsor Castle after the fire. They hold the Royal Warrant as Official Supplier of Furnishing Fabric to HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Stephen Walters and Company began in Spitalfields in 1720 and moved to Sudbury in the mid 19th century. At their factory in Cornard Road they produce a wide range of fashion fabrics and were commissioned to make silk for the wedding dresses of both the Princess Royal and Princess Diana.
On the same is the Humphries Weaving Company Ltd which specialises in exclusive, high quality furnishing fabrics, destined for Royal palaces and National Trust properties, together with specially commissioned design work.
Finally there is Vanners Silk, which also originated in Spitalfields, moving to Suffolk in the 1870s when they opened warehouses in Glemsford (1871) and Haverhill (1874). A merger with Fennell Brothers brought Vanners into Sudbury and their production is now concentrated at their premises in Gregory Street producing tie silk of the highest quality.
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