Since 1903, Gainsborough has been producing some of the world’s finest interior furnishing fabrics. Follow the timeline for a sense of the journey so far…
Sudbury in Suffolk, England, had been a centre of silk weaving since the arrival of Huguenot weavers in the 19th Century, and it was here that Reginald Warner established the Gainsborough Silk Weaving Co. Ltd in 1903, immediately earning a reputation for high quality Damasks, tapestries and velvets.
Gainsborough was conceived in part as a specialist in historical reproductions, drawing on many of the designs Warner bought from European mills, overlaid with an English interpretation, and to this day demand remains strong for our extensive archive of historical designs and weave effects dating back as far as the 15th Century.
As well as historical reproductions, equal prominence was given from the outset to contemporary design and bespoke commissions, and Liberty, Henry Ford and William Morris & Co. were among the significant customers of the company from its earliest days.
The development of historical and contemporary designs is reflected in the archive, which contains examples of designs from every decade of the 20th Century, designs which have now of course become historically significant.
As demand grew, Gainsborough needed to expand the business from a small cottage affair into an industrial concept, and Warner took advantage of vacant factory premises known as the Old Priory in Priory Lane, Sudbury. Over the following years, use was also made of a building in Acton Green, later known as the Parish Hall, and four rented cottages in Priory Lane; in total, Warner was running over 50 hand looms.
A highlight of the early years at the Old Priory came with a visit on 23rd November 1906 by The Princess of Wales, who requested a large quantity of pure silk damask to be made up into a Durbar Dress for the state visit to India. So began Gainsborough’s association with the Royal Family.
Another long-standing association began during the Edwardian era. In later years, the company would weave significant quantities of fabrics for the Cunard Line but its first commission was for the White Star Line, which would merge with Cunard in 1934: a bespoke green Damask for a grand new liner that was to redefine luxury on the high seas; the RMS Titanic.
In 1922, our founder Reginald Warner was compelled for health reasons to lighten the burden that he had singly borne for twenty years. Fortunately, by this stage the business had many personnel who had been trained under, and with the ideas of, Mr Warner and the firm became a broader-based limited company.
By 1923, Reginald Warner had accumulated sufficient funds to purchase land at Chilton on which a purpose-built weaving shed was constructed to bring all operations under one roof the following year. Cold in winter and hot in summer, it was nevertheless the first business in the locality to offer electric lighting, and the company still occupies the same building today.
The relocation of all equipment took a year to complete; looms and jacquards were dismantled and transported one by one to the new site as soon as a warp was woven out, then reassembled, squared up and had a new warp entered so that the firm did not lose a single day’s production.
The first power loom had been installed in 1919 but, at the time of the relocation in 1923-4, production was still dominated by some fifty handlooms, with approximately seventy employees drawn from the local community.
By the 1930s, powered looms dominated production, driven by a series of shafts and belts and powered initially by a diesel engine. Electrification followed in the 1950s, when individual electric motors were attached to the looms.
The power looms that were installed between the 1930s and 60s were mainly Hattersley box looms, with a Dracup jacquard attached, in many cases with Reginald Warner’s special self-twiller adaptation. A majority of these shuttle looms remain in use today, producing fabrics in various compositions and with unique design features that are recognised for their pre-eminent quality, which cannot be replicated on modern looms or on older looms found elsewhere.
Nevertheless, demand for a broader selection of fabrics and faster production saw a couple of first generation rapier looms installed in the 1980s, enhanced in the 1990s by the addition of electronic jacquards. In 2017, a fourth rapier loom was added to the weaving shed, further expanding production capacity.
World War II dominated the decade and the business had to share its factory with a lingerie company, as their own premises had been taken over for the war effort.
Conscription aside, production was not unduly disturbed by the tumultuous conflict; indeed staff became so accustomed to air raid sirens sounding (the same siren still calls our staff to their breaks today), that lookouts were posted to see which direction the planes were flying, so that production would not stop unless absolutely necessary.
The war brought rationing, yet remarkably Gainsborough’s knotters received a special butter ration that allowed them to twist yarns together with buttered fingers (rather than knotting every thread), when tying in a new warp; the drying butter would secure the threads, allowing the warp to be pulled through.
The post-war history of the company was one of growing profitability, and by the 1960s Gainsborough was weaving significant volumes for a broad range of customers, from retailers to government agencies, in particular the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whose embassies and consulates around the world featured increasing quantities of Gainsborough fabrics.
Disaster nearly befell the business in May 1963, when a dust flash explosion – common in the weaving industry – in the roof of the yarn store started a fire that very nearly spread to the main production area of the factory; the total loss of the company’s assets was only narrowly avoided.
A length of gold-coloured silk damask donated by Gainsborough to the Suffolk Regiment’s Chapel in St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds, was noticed by HRH Princess Margaret when she visited the chapel in her capacity as Deputy Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Anglian Regiment. The princess happened to require a quantity of specially woven Royal Stuart Tartan, to be made up into sashes for members of the Royal Family, in honour of the Queen Mother’s 80th Birthday, and visited the Mill in person.
Queen Victoria’s ceremonial sash was sent to Gainsborough to provide information on the exact fabric construction and fibre colouration, which were to be reproduced exactly and which, in turn, necessitated a semi-manual operation on a modified dobby loom. The resulting silk material was spectacular and we were gratified to receive from the princess a personal letter enclosing a photograph of the Royal Family wearing the sashes.
The wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 afforded the company the chance to deepen its association with the Royal Family, providing fabrics for three of the state coaches that day, and many more carriages over subsequent years.
By now proud holders of a Royal Warrant to Her Majesty the Queen, Gainsborough fabrics have been employed in walling, curtains and upholstery in many royal palaces including Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, Kensington Palace and Windsor Castle, and more recently in further carriages for the weddings of Prince William to Kate Middleton and Prince Harry to Meghan Markle.
Declining interior furnishing budgets among some of Gainsborough’s best customers prompted the company to seek new audiences in the 21st Century. Gainsborough fabrics have featured on the sets of films and televisions shows like Pirates of the Caribbean and Downton Abbey.
Yves Saint Laurent, Giles Deacon and Christopher Kane have employed Gainsborough fabrics in recent couture collections, and St Paul’s Cathedral’s priestly vestments hail from our mill; the bespoke interiors of Bentley automobiles and Globe-Trotter suitcases have received the Gainsborough touch, as have yachts and private planes, and many restored VW camper vans, which bear a checked motif that we weave in several colours for this one purpose.
Underpinning the success of the business over 115 years has been a flexibility that allows it to meet the needs of both large and small customers: very few mills stock an extensive range of collections and styles whilst also weaving to commission, with minimum order lengths as low as 20 metres.
As in 1903, the only area of inflexibility concerns the quality of the product that leaves the mill. In a world of standardisation, impersonality and economies of scale, traits like commitment, craftsmanship and integrity still have their place.
Our archive grows constantly, with every new fabric adding to the Gainsborough story safely preserved until required again.
Initially formed from Reginald Warner’s personal collection of European samples and fabric tomes acquired from the Ipswich Weaving Co., successive generations of weavers and designers have built on those foundations with contemporary collections and bespoke commissions that speak of the eras in which they were conceived.
The result is an archive of over 7,000 designs that spans the warp of weaving history and the weft of creative expression, from the very traditional to the thoroughly avant-garde. Clients looking for something extra special will find it here.
The archive is made up of the records we maintain of each new fabric woven, and has ever been woven, at Gainsborough.
In much the same way as a Savile Row tailor preserves his client’s measurements, and for much the same purpose, we retain any yarns specifically dyed, a cutting of the fabric woven and produce a technical sheet with all other information. Each new fabric has an independent “making order” number that is cited alongside the design number and client, as the identification for that fabric.
A visit to Gainsborough is always magical.
It is a unique mill reverberating with the sounds, sights and smells of traditional weaving techniques and looms, handled by craftspeople with a commitment to excellence.
A working mill cannot rest on its laurels; without creativity, Gainsborough would become a pastiche of its illustrious past. The Design Studio oversees every collection we create and is intricately involved in every bespoke commission.
The Dye House at Gainsborough plays a critical role in the creation of our fabrics. Our colour-accuracy is second to none (important, as our fabrics must match over great lengths), but a fabric’s handle and the way it hangs are also determined here.
After dyeing, the hanks of yarn are transferred to the weaving shed, where the yarn is first wound onto cones and pirns, if it is to be used as a weft yarn, or bobbins for warping. Winding onto warp bobbins requires particular skill, with dozens wound simultaneously, timed to ensure the correct amount of yarn is applied to achieve the required length of warp.
The wound bobbins are slotted onto rows of pegs on an upright frame called a creel; the threads are drawn towards a reed and individually entered by hand through the comb-like structure, keeping each thread separate. Once all the threads are ready, they are tied to the warping mill; this revolves, winding the threads around its 5-yard circumference in a narrow section as many times as the length of cloth demands; so a 63-yard fabric will require 13 revolutions of the warping mill.
The warper ties off the threads and moves the process sideways to build up the next section of the warp, adding section by section across the width of the warping mill until the required number of threads is achieved, which can be up to 14,400 on warps for our Pressure Harness looms. Once finished, the warp is wound onto a warp roll, in a process called beaming off.
At Gainsborough, we run three types of looms: traditional dobby and jacquard shuttle looms and modern rapier looms. Dressing the loom involves the same process in all cases: a knotting machine is used to tie the new warp to the one in the loom, thread by thread, allowing the new warp to be pulled through the harness, ready for weaving.
On shuttle and dobby looms, the weft yarns have been wound onto pirns, which are loaded into metal-tipped wooden shuttles. These shoot side-to-side across the loom between the warp threads (in a gap known as ‘the shed’), with each passing of the weft pushed up against the previous one by a reed on the loom, allowing the design to be created. On the jacquard shuttle looms, the design is controlled by large packs of punch cards that either allow the warp threads to be lifted or to stay down, via an intricately-latticed harness; dobby looms are controlled by a system of pegs and lags that operate the shafts, which in turn lift the warp threads.
The rapier looms use cones of weft yarns, which are fed through tensioners and passed through the shed at high speed by bullet-shaped clamps, known as rapier heads. The designs are sent to the loom from our design department digitally, obviating the need for punch cards.
Once woven, all of our fabrics are painstakingly inspected and measured on a large, easel-shaped light table, to ensure that they leave us in immaculate condition, wherever in the world they are destined.
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