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Silk: From Spitalfields to Sudbury

June 17, 2017October 8, 2017

The market town of Sudbury in Suffolk has a surprising history. Regarded today as Great Britain’s most important centre for silk manufacture, Sudbury produces nearly 95 per cent of the nation’s woven silk textiles from its three working mills: Vanners Silk Weavers, Stephen Walters & Sons and Gainsborough Silks. Dating back to the late 1700s, Sudbury’s nascent silk industry was facilitated by the town’s former history as a wool centre, to which many family members of the Sudbury-born artist Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. (1727– 1788) plied their trade.

The exhibition Silk: From Spitalfields to Sudbury (17 June – 8 October 2017) will explore the local and national history of silk in England from the eighteenth century to the present day, focussing on the diaspora of silk manufacture from Spitalfields in London to Sudbury in Suffolk. In the first part of the exhibition, the formation of the English silk industry in Spitalfields in the early 1700s will be examined, highlighting the important Huguenot silk weavers who formed the basis of this work force. Objects displayed will illustrate the processes of design and manufacture, and include everything from silk pattern books and historic costume to paintings and drawings featuring silk fashions of the era.

In the second part of the exhibition, the focus will turn to the relocation of silk manufacture from London to Suffolk over the course of the nineteenth century, exploring the history of Sudbury’s silk mills and the textiles they produced. Objects on show from the town’s three mills, in addition to the Sudbury manufacturer Humphries Weaving, will illustrate the many types of silk made in Sudbury, past and present – from furnishing textiles for historic palaces to contemporary design fabrics made for major British fashion houses.

This exhibition will draw together artworks and textiles from both national and local collections, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Norfolk Museums Service and the Warner Textile Archive. As the childhood home of the artist Thomas Gainsborough situated at the very heart of the nation’s active silk industry, Gainsborough’s House is ideally placed to tell this important story of silk in England: from Spitalfields to Sudbury.

Image: A Page from the Wilson Album from Vanners Silk Mill