In the heart of rural England in the valley of the Stour, in countryside immortalised in the paintings of Constable and Gainsborough, lies the picturesque medieval town of Sudbury. Home to wealthy merchants and clothiers since the 15th century and already a prominent centre for silk weaving, it was here in 1903 that craftsman Reginald Warner, inspired by the beauty of floral and emblematic designs in rich and harmonious colouring, laid the foundations for the Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company.
More than a century on, Gainsborough has flourished from its humble beginnings and is now recognised internationally for its exquisite fabrics, fine damasks, brocades and brocatelles. Awarded the Royal Warrant in 1980, Gainsborough has stayed true to Warner’s vision and original philosophy to create exceptional fabrics for the contemporary market. “We have done over 11,000 commissioned weaves since the company began. Many have been copied but thousands are one-offs,” says Neil Thomas, the technical director.
The dedicated design department splits its time between creating new commissions for clients and re-drawing restoration fabrics. A premium commercial market leader in commissions for royal palaces, British embassies, national museums and galleries as well as famous liners, historic houses and luxury hotels, Gainsborough also collaborates with designers such as Sir Paul Smith, Nina Campbell, Tom Dixon, Alidad and Giles Deacon, as well as couture fashion houses like YSL and Dior for their catwalk shows.
Gainsborough is rare in the British textile industry for its ability to manage the entire production of fabric manufacture in-house, from processing and
dyeing the yarn to creating the finished fabric. Ethically-produced raw silk yarn arrives on large cones, having been sourced in China and shipped
via Como, Italy, where it is thrown and the thread twisted. Gainsborough only uses filament thread made from long connected silk fibres which can be several thousand yards long. “They are finer, very strong and give much more sheen to the fabric, which people want,” says Neil. These off-white threads are de-gummed or washed in the dye house before being rinsed, dyed, dried and, once perfectly colour matched, sent to the mill to be wound.
An electronic spectrometer enables the dyers to custom match all yarns though, as with all processes in the business, the good judgment of the skilled
workforce is the ultimate arbiter. Russell Sage, Gainsborough’s Creative Director, recalls a commission from the National Trust where they needed to
match the specific colour of an historic fabric. “They couldn’t work out how to specify the colours exactly, so in the end they sent us a bag of dust they’d
swept up and a Bic lid. We colour-matched the fabric from that.”
Much of the machinery and many of the weaving techniques of the 1920s are still used within the weaving shed, adjacent to the dye house. “We use three 1920s Hattersley looms for our finest silk fabrics,” says Neil. “They were built with a very dense thread count – 14,400 individual threads across the width. Most fabrics today would have no more than 6,000. The higher the thread count, the finer the satin.”
In all, the weaving shed features 16 traditional manual Hattersley models in various configurations; all produce a lustrous, rich finish with a looser weave, while a few modern Dornier looms offer quicker results and more freedom in colour and pattern. For over 100 years, punch cards have been used by Gainsborough to control the pattern of the fabrics being woven and these are still in use today. The looms need to be watched constantly by Gainsborough’s skilled craftsmen, trained to keep a close eye out for broken threads or mishaps, and the finished fabric is then checked carefully to ensure
it’s of the highest quality and finish.
“Fashions change and the products we produce have changed along with that, but a weaver from a century ago would recognise exactly what we’re doing today”, says Neil. “The processes are the same. Quality is of paramount importance to us and many clients prefer to have the fabrics woven traditionally.”
The technique and craftsmanship that goes into each piece of fabric is intensive, and every commission made since Gainsborough was
founded has been recorded in handwritten ledgers. The Mill’s Archive has a record of every fabric ever made – from the yarn, dye recipe, design and sample of the finished item – enabling future fabrics to be created. The Archive holds over 7,000 samples including the only remaining sample from the Titanic, woven a year before the fated launch in 1911, when Gainsborough was asked to make all the fabrics for the First Class Dining Hall.
Under the creative guidance of Russell Sage, Gainsborough has continued to evolve and develop, without losing the qualities and expertise that make it so
special. Sage has used Gainsborough’s fabrics in several of his hotel and restaurant projects including The Zetter Marylebone and The Goring Hotel’s
Royal Suite, used by Catherine Middleton on the eve of her wedding to HRH Prince William in 2011.
In March 2016, Gainsborough collaborated with Fromental, producers of exceptional wallpapers, to create a collection of beautiful new fabrics. Combining the craftsmanship of Gainsborough with the cutting-edge, contemporary design skills of Fromental, the collection celebrates the fabrics and patterns of this historic Mill with new colours and designs, inspired by its archive, but given a contemporary twist. For this collection, Fromental’s Design Director Lizzie Deshayes worked with award-winning designer Ottilie Stevenson, and Gainsborough’s in-house team of designers to create seven different designs, each in a range of refreshing vibrant colourways chosen with 2016/17 very much in mind. One of the cornerstone fabrics is a moiré, in which a design is ‘burnt’ onto the surface. Gainsborough is one of the very few mills which has succeeded in replicating the appearance of moiré, allowing them to introduce a second colour into the fabric, which isn’t possible through the traditional moiré process.
For September 2016, Karen Beauchamp, ex-Creative Director at Cole & Son, has created a new collection referencing and sensitively editing the Gainsborough Archive with a fresh vision. Paisleys, checks, florals, chinoiserie and stripes in bold colourways will bring an exciting and very modern new vocabulary to today’s discerning market whilst playing tribute to Gainsborough’s inspirational heritage.
“Collectively, the staff here has hundreds of years of experience and skill, and much of what we do has a timeless quality,” says Neil, “But innovation has been at the heart of the business from the very outset, and we’re staying true to that.”
For further information, fabric samples and images please contact Camron PR:
Judith Fereday / Kitty Duncan / Bethan Beckett
Tel: 020 7420 1700