If you’re a fan of fashion or fabric, then there’s a place in Braintree that’s well worth an hour or so of your time. The Warner Textile Archive is housed in what was once a power loom shed for Warner & Sons. After the mill closed in 1971 there was a move to retain such an important part of Braintree’s heritage. Today, this beautifully restored wooden structure can be found just a stone’s throw from the shops of the town centre.
Warner & Sons was founded in the latter part of the 19th century and moved to Braintree at about the same time, though the family had been involved in the silk weaving business since at least the late 17th century. Benjamin Warner and his two sons, Alfred and Frank, knew their business well and soon established an enviable reputation as weavers of furnishing silk. After his father’s death in 1908, Frank took the reins. Moving with the times, powerweaving was introduced just after the First World War.
The company had many important clients including the Royal Family. Many of the silks used in the upholstery and soft furnishings of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle have also been made by the Braintree-based business. Having such important clients was not without its challenges, however. In 1888, Queen Victoria placed a significant order for hand woven silks that were to be used for curtains and upholstery at Windsor Castle. When she changed her mind about the colour, a third of the order had already been made. The resultant costs were met by the company.
That loyalty and high standard of customer service has been well rewarded over the years. Warner & Sons have made silk for every British monarch’s coronation since that of Queen Victoria. It made the silk used for the train that Queen Elizabeth II wore to her own coronation in 1953. Important clients are not limited to royalty. The altar cloth commissioned by St Paul’s Cathedral in 1925 was made by Warner & Sons and in World War Two they manufactured silk for parachutes.
In addition, Warner & Sons’ standing in the trade meant that it was a magnet for those hoping to raise their own profile. Many talented freelance designers worked with the company to produce unique and highly desirable fabrics. Many of these innovative prints and patterns can be viewed today at the Archive. Sadly, photography is not permitted inside, so if you’d like to see for yourself you’ll have to pay them a visit. The Archive is used as a museum space and there’s also a small shop on site if you’d like a memento to take home.
At the time of my visit, the exhibition “Warners in colour: a tool for design” made for an easy introduction into the world of fabrics. I also learned how silk imported from Asia was dyed to bespoke Warners colours in the company’s own Dye Lab. We sometimes forget how influential North Essex was in the textiles industry but, like Paycockes in Coggeshall, it’s good to be reminded of our industrial heritage.
Casual visitors are welcome at Warner Textile Archive every Wednesday as well as the first saturday in the month. The Archive also puts on regular workshops, covering skills such as linocut printmaking and cord spinning – book well in advance as these fill fast.