Throughout the 20th century the silk industry in Sudbury not only survived but thrived and continues today carrying on this proud and long tradition in the town.
Producing fabrics of the finest quality used, for lining the Queen’s coronation robes, making the wedding dresses of Princess Anne and Princess Diana and a gown for Michelle Obama, to name just a few.
Now Babergh are funding a new project to bring this heritage to life, and to demonstrate just how silk is shaping Sudbury today.
Our project has just got underway in Sudbury to allow people a glimpse inside the world of Sudbury silk. The project will talk to current and former staff, young and old to record their stories, exploring the history and changes that have taken place in the industry to ensure it continues to hold its position producing some of the finest silk produced in Europe sought after by royal palaces, top fashion houses and luxury hotels.
With generous support from the National Lottery Heritage Lottery Fund the project will bring together a film maker, oral historian and an education resource pack to raise awareness amongst local people and visitors to Sudbury about the fantastic work taking place on the town’s doorstep.
Supported by two local schools, the four silk companies and their locally employed staff, the project coordinator will work with local people and organisations to gather stories and anecdotes, clips of which will go into a short film and full interviews onto a dedicated website bringing everything together.
Have you worked in the silk mills of Sudbury or lived in a household dependent on the industry? Look out for opportunities to share your experience of working in the silk industry in Sudbury by following the project progress on this web page or by following us on Facebook and Twitter.
You can also get in touch with the Project Coordinator, Carole Creasey, via email.
Our Project Coordinator, Carole Creasey, is out and about in Sudbury every week speaking with the silk mills, with former employees, schools and local organisations. Here she gives us regular updates on her work. If you're looking for photos from Carole as she works on the project, visit the album on our Facebook page!
Week 27: 15 July 2019
I started the week with a visit to an 88 year old man who worked for many years at Vanners, taking the recording equipment to capture our conversation. He is my first recorded interview and it goes really well, a lovely, relaxed chat followed by a cup of tea. Then on Wednesday, the oral history session at Thomas Gainsborough School. Two silk mill staff, one current weaver and one retired, spend an hour with ten pupils answering questions and a chance for the pupils to practice their interview techniques and learn more about the fantastic materials produced in their home town. Having done my first recording this week I know how difficult it is so I am really impressed with the way the pupils handle the challenge and good to have the chance to chat about it together afterwards. What a treat!
Week 26: 8 July 2019
This week saw a meeting at Gainsborough’s House to discuss the education learning resource that forms another part of the Sudbury Silk Stories project. We have decided to base it on the many filmed and recorded interviews that will all feature on the project's upcoming website, encouraging young people to explore the diverse stories from young and old about their passion for weaving and which the schools themselves had a hand in capturing. Then out of the blue this week an email arrives from an air conditioning engineer based in Manchester. He saw the posters on the wall in Vanners telling staff about the project and he wanted to share how he met his wife-to-be in Manchester, plucking up the courage to speak to her because he had visited her home town of Sudbury when servicing Vanners equipment and used it as a way of introducing himself. They are getting married next year and all the men will be wearing Vanners ties!
Week 25: 1 July 2019
With the filming completed we now move on to the recorded interviews. Lots of phone calls and booking dates for visits with the recording equipment meeting people in their own homes to capture their stories. We also have a long meeting with BRIX who are creating the website for the project, going over all the material we have gathered and working out where it will all fit. Then over to Thomas Gainsborough School to talk through arrangements for the Oral History session planned for mid July when a weaver and a retired mill foreman will go into class for the pupils to practice their interview techniques and pick the brains of the staff about their jobs. Most of the school pupils seem unaware of the silk industry in Sudbury so it is great to give them a chance to meet the staff and ask questions.
Week 24: 24 June 2019
The final editing session of the project this week with 8 pupils from Thomas Gainsborough School making the final cuts on the filmed interviews with staff from Gainsborough Silks and Vanners. This is the last session with the school pupils on the project, the next time we all meet up with be at the website launch and film screening in September. While the pupils are editing I visit a 95 year old lady who’s daughter in law contacted me through the memory box in the library, she has some stories to share about her time in the silk mills. She was just 14 years old when she started work in the mill. She remembers one day carrying a tray of reels across the mill and a male colleague more than twice her age squeezed her bottom as she passed. When it happened a second time a few days later she put down the tray and told the man that if he did that again she would pick up whatever was nearest to hand and hit him over the head with it. He didn’t touch her again and they became good friends. She later went on to marry a weaver from the mill who continued to work there up to his retirement.
Week 23: 17 June 2019
The third editing session this week for Thomas Gainsborough School, on home turf but their first experience of editing. The intense concentration they need is helped with Offshoot Foundation providing cakes and cookies to keep them going. Also this week I get the chance to meet a lady who, as a 17 year old girl, wove the silk lining for the Queen’s coronation cloak and she told me about the glass box they built around her loom to ensure the cloth stayed spotless during the weaving process. Stephen Walters had given me copies of photographs of her creating the silk lining that I was able to share with her and her niece, who’s husband and daughter are both weavers!
Week 22: 10 June 2019
The second group of pupils from Ormiston Academy Sudbury take part in the final editing session for their school on Sudbury Silk Stories and Offshoot Foundation spend a bit of time with the group reviewing their experience of the process. Also final agreement is reached on the date for the first film screening of the completed film and the whole team goes to have a look at the venue and discuss the format for the event, we really want to try and bring as many silk mill staff together as possible, but fitting them in will be a challenge.
Week 21: 3 June 2019
The film editing process starts in earnest this week with the first group of school pupils from Ormiston Academy Sudbury going along to the Media Suite at Thomas Gainsborough School to meet Offshoot Foundation to begin editing their filmed interviews. The pupils learn first hand about the time and concentration needed for the process. This week I paid a visit to another contact that came through the memory box in the library and met a man who left school at 14 years old to start work as a Loom Boy . On his first day he was paired up with a Tackler, a Suffolk name for what in the North of England would be called a Loom Tuner! He told me how it was the job of the new boy to take the mills ‘trade bike’ up the hill each morning to collect a pail of milk from the mill owners own cow, because he was too frugal to buy it from a neighbouring shop. He was very glad when another new boy started and took over this loathed daily task.
Week 20: 27 May 2019
We filmed our last two interviews for the project this week, meeting all the silk mill staff who care so much about their work and the fantastic fabrics they produce has been such a treat over the course of this project that I am sorry this part is over…. And the challenge for Offshoot Foundation begins as they review the many hours of footage and start to create the Sudbury Silk Stories film.
But with the recorded interviews yet to be completed there are still more stories to unearth and capture - through the memory box in the library I made contact with a lady of 92 years of age this week. She remembers being taken to the mill by her grandmother to meet her mum and aunt from work and as the mill doors opened to let the staff out the air was filled with pieces of coloured silk threads blowing through the gap. Her aunt would gather them up during the day to make a soft coloured ball and bring it home for her to play with as small child.
Week 19: 20 May 2019
Started the week with a project steering group meeting kindly hosted by Gainsborough’s House. The traffic was lousy so no time to buy the biscuits I promised (though I think I was the one most disappointed). It was a chance to bring everyone up to date and realise how much we have achieved and how brilliantly supportive the silk companies have been in allowing access to their premises and staff. Then on to Vanners Silks for the final session of filmed staff interviews with Ormiston Academy Sudbury pupils asking the questions and another delightful bunch of people happy to share their love of their work and a few cheeky stories. I also got a tiny sneak preview of some of Offshoot Foundations footage from the sessions and tucked in a quick meeting with Ruth from the Sudbury Silk Festival to catch up on plans. All very exciting.
Week 18: 13 May 2019
Glorious sunshine and day one of filming this week. While Offshoot set up the equipment I sit outside in the sun to make a few last minute phone calls. Then the pupils from Thomas Gainsborough School arrive and the interviews begin with the pupils asking the questions and Humphries staff giving them their first glimpse into this fascinating industry. Then filming day two with a different group from Thomas Gainsborough School and onto Stephen Walters. The pupils got to quiz people in a range of roles but all sharing a real passion for their work. Friday was filming day three and Ormiston Academy Sudbury brought 3 pupils to Gainsborough Silks to interview a mix of retired and current staff all happy to talk about their work. What a treat!
Week 17: 6 May 2019
As the interview film and recording dates get closer there are a few last minute tweaks and changes to the timetable and checks that everyone is happy with the plan. I have visited both schools and all four silk businesses this week to answer final questions and get everything confirmed. A couple of new leads came out of these conversations and one found me talking to a lovely lady of 85 who at 16 had moved into the Chestnuts, residential accommodation owned by one of the mills for female staff, where she lived with other mill workers whilst training as a weaver. Start filming next week, phew!
Week 16: 29 April 2019
Started the week with a fascinating conversation with a colourist who’s job was to create recipes for colours described to him by designers working in the local mills, turning words into beautiful shades of the rainbow with often the most tenuous of steers, ‘a colour the shade of an elephants hot breath in freezing morning air’ was one request.
I followed this with another day spent in a mill talking to their staff gathering stories and experiences about their work. Another completely diverse group of people but all linked by their love for their work, the man who’s two passions in life are football and weaving, the woman who remembers the sounds, smells and colours of her first visit to a mill with her mother when she was a toddler who has now been weaving for nearly 30 years and has seen her work hung on the walls of Buckingham Palace.
Week 15: 22 April 2019
This week I have spent a whole day in one of the mills talking to their staff, all ages, all different lengths of service but all with an absolute passion for their work. I got to hear about the 6 foot tall man in a top hat and black clothes said to walk the mill after dark, seen by few but a story shared by many. I was also shown a black and white photograph of mill staff taken in the early 1900’s that appears to show a top hat ‘suspended’ amongst the gathered staff, curious!
Week 14: 15 April 2019
With nearly all the scheduling in place I start meeting up with the silk mill staff who have come forward for interviewing, it will be a challenge to fit them all in but what a lovely way to spend the days, hearing everyone’s stories about their work and the changes they have seen over the years in silk production. I am also following up a story about pupils from Great Cornard Middle School and a gymnastics display in the late 70’s at the school summer fete. One pupil's mother worked at Stephen Walters and provided offcuts of silk, the children were laid on the floor, drawn around and the shapes sewn together to make the costumes for the performance. I hope we can find some photographs!
Week 13: 8 April 2019
Thank goodness the sun is still shining because it is nose down and time to start trying to match up the availability of the silk businesses and their staff, with the availability of the schools and the film company so we can get all the filmed interview dates agreed and shared. By the end of the week I have three of the four silk companies sorted, one to go. So time to tuck in a meeting with a couple of retired silk mill staff to pick their brains about when they first started in the mill, as well as a bit about the weavers cricket team including the man who played in his wellies because he didn’t like getting his feet wet when he had to retrieve the ball from the long grass!
Week 12: 1 April 2019
The film making process began in earnest this week with 33 pupils from Ormiston Academy Sudbury and Thomas Gainsborough School coming together for two pre-productions sessions run by Offshoot Foundation. The sessions started the pupil’s journey of learning about the film making process and prepared them for the interviews and editing stages that will be begin after the Easter holiday. Fuelled with cookies and hot cross buns, they made new friends whilst learning filming, interviewing and editing skills. They really enjoyed mixing and finding out about each other’s school, family life, communism and Brexit during the practice interviews they filmed and edited, all subjects chosen by the year 9 students themselves!
Week 11: 25 March 2019
This week a group of 12 of us had an Oral History training day provided by a representative from the Oral History Society. Thank goodness for the great catering and endless tea and coffee at Suffolk Borders Teaching Alliance Centre, because it was a full-on day with loads to take in. The group included me as the project coordinator, history teachers, people from local history societies, the film company making the Sudbury Silk Stories film and some pupils from one of the participating schools (who at times had the adults nodding silently with their inciteful questions). It was a brilliant day learning some fascinating stuff and understanding what a privilege it is to have someone share their personal history with you. Ready now to start recording stories from the people of Sudbury.
Week 10: 18 March 2019
The second week of mill visits to plan the background shots for the film with Offshoot. We get to see how computers are now used to plan the designs produced by the looms replacing the old punched card system and the 100’s of fine silk threads creating clouds of colour between the reels and the looms, all tied by hand. They also show us a tiny white capsule of compressed fibre, a silk cocoon and where it all begins, fascinating! The sound, colours and smells inside the mills are wonderful on the senses and the array of fabrics produced just beautiful. Lucky really, because the weather is awful, buckets of driving rain and strong wind. Thank goodness for a hot cup of tea.
Week 9: 11 March 2019
This week we start the detailed planning for the short film that will form part of the project. The sun is shining again as I go with Offshoot Films to visit 2 silk mills to have a look around to plan the background shots that will feature behind the interviews. We have the bonus of meeting a silk mill worker who has 44 years’ experience in the business and still visiting weekly to answer questions and help out with any problems, despite being 86 years old. I then go over to Sudbury Library to deliver the memory box, now covered in the off-cuts of Sudbury silk. The staff have very kindly agreed to encourage anyone with stories about working in the silk mills to put their details in memory box so we can get in touch for a chat, I am looking forward to seeing who we get to talk to.
Week 8: 4 March 2019
I start the week with a visit to one of the schools participating in the project making sure the schedule agreed with the other school and the film company works for their pupils. The sun isn’t shining today but all’s good with the arrangements, thank goodness! Then a visit to each of the four silk businesses to collect off cuts of fabric that they are kindly donating to decorate the Sudbury Silk Stories Memory Box. I finish the week with Sudbury on Show, a really well attended event chatting to lots of people all interested in the project. I get over 20 names and addresses of people happy to answer a few questions about silk in Sudbury and receive an invitation to the film screening. I also get some excellent tea and cake!
Week 7: 25 February 2019
With the bones of the project now coming together I meet with Council staff in Ipswich to begin creating the press release to let more people know about it through local newspapers. Then over to Sudbury have a chat with Sudbury Ephemera Society about arrangements for joining them at the Sudbury on Show event so we can meet with people to gather names and addresses to include them on the guest list for the film screening and website launch on the 1st August. Also managed to fit in a cup of tea with a lovely lady who used to work at one of the silk mills, a contact passed on by one of the lovely traders at Sudbury’s Saturday market when we met in week 1.
Week 6: 18 February 2019
The sun is shining and I start with a meeting at the fourth silk business to join the project and the bit I really love, a look behind the scenes. Reels and reels of jewel bright colours, row upon row of shiny cobweb thin threads and a lovely team of people working away to create the most beautiful cloth, it feels like such a treat to see how they do it. Then on to one of the schools to meet the super busy but enthusiastic staff and we spend an hour wrestling with the timetable trying to find solutions to fitting the project around lessons, exams and the occasional school holiday. Thank goodness for tea!
Week 5: 11 February 2019
The first grey day since the project started but a warm welcome from Gainsborough’s House and a positive meeting to talk about the education resource pack that will be included in the project. Then a meeting with one of the schools followed by one with the film company to discuss the jigsaw puzzle that is the scheduling for the project, fitting the school timetable around the silk company staff’s availability around the filming requirements. We have set the ball rolling but suspect we might have to give it a steer along the way. Lots of support for the project though so all good so far, and fingers crossed for better weather next week!
Week 4: 4 February 2019
A cold but sunny start to the day in Sudbury and the first steering group meeting is full of lively discussion and shared enthusiasm for the project, fuelled with fresh tea and coffee thanks to Gainsborough’s House. Then off to a meeting with the silk company recently featured in the BBC Arts and Crafts programme and to see for myself the amazing equipment and fantastic fabrics being produced. After a look around, we chatted about involving their staff in the filmed interviews that will feature on the project website and contribute to the film.
Week 3: 28 January 2019
Another sunny day in Sudbury. The second silk business visited and a glimpse inside their samples room lined with wooden shelves and a work bench, heaps of fantastic colours and a gorgeous smell of old timber warmed by sunlight. It was really fascinating to hear about how they use technology developed for use in the third world to purify their waste water to protect the local environment. Then off to St Peters church to hear about their exciting plans for developing a community space. What a beautiful building, we really want to screen the finished film here, just need to find a solution to managing the light levels, hmm.
Week 2: 21 January 2019
Meeting the website and brand designer today. It will be great to see the project become visible with logo and posters.
A visit to one of the silk companies and I learned that in the days of hand weaving, workers were said to be ‘strong in the leg and weak in the head’, with the strength to operate the hand looms and the mentality to tolerate the monotony. Then on to Chilton Croft nursing home who are happy to introduce me to the residents who used to work in the silk mills inviting them to talk about their past. Finally a meeting with one of the schools involved in the project for a planning meeting on how to involve as many pupils as possible and work around their studies and exams, a bit of a jigsaw puzzle and my challenge for the day!
Week 1: 14 January 2019
Day one in Sudbury and the sun is shining. Using the library for my first meeting and I’m a bit early so I had a great chat with the Tourist Information staff about the silk history of Sudbury while I waited. Found a nice quiet table upstairs and spent a delightful hour with Cllr. John Sayers finding out about his life in Gainsborough Weaving Mill, he even showed me the boxwood shuttles he inherited from his father and used himself as a weaver. Four meetings today and everyone is really helpful and positive about the project. A good start.
An early start today, catching up with the market traders telling them about the film and asking them to talk to their regular customers about the project. Everyone was really enthusiastic about the town and happy to help to get the word out to look out for posters going up in the next few weeks. I didn’t get time for a bacon sandwich but one of the traders did give me some lovely dried mango to keep me going.