Warner Textile Archive

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.


Cressing Temple Barns

Amongst the many delights of north Essex is the wealth of ancient barns which remind us of the county’s historic importance for agriculture.  The pick of the bunch is Cressing Temple, which has two 13th century barns as well as a 16th century granary and a 17th century farmhouse.  Set on an open site, it’s the perfect choice for an afternoon out in the sunshine.  Coming up the drive, the first building you’ll see is the Wheat Barn.

FullSizeRender (77)
The Wheat Barn

The timbers used in the construction of the Wheat Barn have been dated to between 1259 and 1280.  Architectural historian Cecil Hewitt worked on the process of dating timbers in the 1950s and 1960s, concluding that the type of joints used by mediaeval builders provided the key to knowing when these barns were erected.

Something like 500 trees were used, each grown to a precise size to make cutting the timbers easier; all the carpenter had to do was strip off the bark and square off the trunk a little.  Standing forty metres long and over eleven metres high, it’s an impressive building by any standards, but when you realise that each supporting beam would have been lifted up individually, by hand, then it’s all the more mind-blowing.  It’s only when you get inside that you fully understand the complexity of the structure.

FullSizeRender (72)
Inside the Wheat Barn

Alongside the Wheat Barn stands another Grade 1 listed barn: the Barley Barn.  Its timbers date from between 1205 and 1230, making it decades older than the Wheat Barn.  It’s a vast structure, yet once it was even larger.  Threshing took place in the porch and the doors were wide enough for huge wagons to enter.

FullSizeRender (65)
The Barley Barn

Like the Wheat Barn, the space would have used to store produce that had been harvested from the surrounding farmland.  Records for 1313 show that corn, wheat, beans, peas and oats were stored inside.  As barley does grow in this part of Essex, I’m guessing that the name for the barn isn’t a misnomer and that crop rotation can explain the absence of barley in the 1313 records.

It’s when you step inside the Granary that the age of the buildings becomes a concern.  The warped, undulating floor feels precarious and it doesn’t help that you can see through the timbers to the ground floor below.  Despite this, the Granary is actually newer than the two barns, built in 1623.  Originally, the ground floor would have been used as a malting, though later it was converted into a stables.

FullSizeRender (76)
The Granary
FullSizeRender (82)
That floor was as wobbly as it looks

Cressing Barns has a fascinating history and there’s a series of exhibits in the Wheat Barn that tell the story.  The Knights Templars were originally given the site in 1137 by the King; previously it had formed part of the manor of Witham.  Accused of everything from witchcraft to devil worship, their order was dissolved by the Pope a couple of centuries later.  He passed Cressing Temple onto the Knights Hospitaller in 1312.

During the reign of Henry VIII, it would again be seized and given to Sir John Smyth, one of his barons who was already renting the place from the Hospitallers.  The family would eventually sell it and a succession of private owners would have it before Essex County Council took it over in 1987.  Their timing wasn’t great – the gales of October that year (the infamous “hurricane” that Michael Fish failed to spot) would wreck the roofs and leave the council with a hefty repair bill.

FullSizeRender (86)
Thatching ladder in one of the outbuildings

One of the many highlights of a visit to Cressing Temple is a stroll round its walled garden.  Even in early spring, the garden was full of colour.  It’s been recreated to mirror what it would have been like in Tudor times.  Passing through a wooden gate, inside the centuries-old brick walls you’ll find an arbour and a brick fountain with spouts which symbolise four rivers of paradise.

FullSizeRender (84)
Bench in the Walled Garden

There’s a veggie plot, formal planting lined with box hedging and range of medicinal plants.  There are many little signs and notices dotted around the beds which offer clues as to how the plants might have been used in those days.  For instance, the leaves of the sweet woodruff were bruised and applied to wounds to reduce swelling and promote healing.  Before the days of toothbrushes, sage was used to clean teeth.  Wormwood was an insect repellent and pennyroyal took care of fleas.  Other claims were a little more extravagant.  Aquilegia seeds, it was thought, had value to women who used them to drive off measles and smallpox, though history reminds us that that didn’t go so well.

Cressing Temple is located midway between Witham and Braintree, with easy access from both the A12 and the A120.  Managed by Essex County Council, unless there is an event on inside the barns or grounds, entrance to Cressing Temple Barns and their gardens is free of charge.  Most of the site is wheelchair accessible.  For further details including opening hours, follow this link: