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 the First Class Dining Saloon of 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 a further two carriages for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
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.