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Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd, 9th generation silkweavers

Joseph Walters of Spitalfields

Joseph Walters of Spitalfields by Thomas Gainsborough

This article has originally been published online on the Spitalfields website on April 11th 2011, and is republished with permission.

By: The Gentle Author, @thegentleauthor, author and researcher of Spitalfield Life, a website dedicated to the area of the same name in London’s East End.

When Julius Walters of Stephen Walters & Sons says, “I am just a weaver”, it is an unselfconscious masterpiece of understatement, because he is a ninth generation weaver – the custodian of the venerable family business founded by his ancestor Joseph Walters in Spitalfields in 1720 and moved to Suffolk by his great-great-great-great-grandfather Stephen Walters in the nineteenth century, where today they continue to weave exemplary silk for the most discerning clients internationally, building upon the expertise and knowledge that has been accumulated over all this time. This is the company that wove the silk for the Queen’s coronation robes and for Princess Diana’s wedding dress.

Michael Hill of Drakes Ties in Clerkenwell, takes the train from Liverpool St several times a year to visit the mill and place his orders for silks that are woven there exclusively for Drakes each season, so I leapt at the opportunity to travel up with him and see for myself what has become of one of Spitalfields’ eighteenth century silk weavers.

Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Joseph Walters was there to greet us when we arrived at the long finely-proportioned brick silk mill overlooking the green water meadows at the edge of Sudbury, where his ninth generation descendant Julius came down the stairs to shake my hand. Blushing to deny any awareness of the family resemblance, that his proud secretary was at pains to emphasise, he chose instead to point out to me the willows that had been felled recently – as a couple are each year – for the manufacture of cricket bats.

We convened around a long wooden counter in a first floor room where the luxuriously coloured strike offs – as the samples are called – were laid out for Michael Hill to see, glowing in the soft East Anglian light. Already decisions for Drakes Spring/Summer 2012 collection had been made, the choice of fibre, its weave and pattern, and now Michael was here to make his final choice from the different options upon the table. There is such exquisite intricacy in these cloths that have tiny delicate patterns woven into their very construction, drawing the daylight and delighting the eye with their sensuous tones. Yet lifting my gaze, I could not resist my attention straying to the pigeon holes that lined the room, each one stacked with patterned silks of every hue and design. A curious silence resided here, yet somewhere close by there was a centre of loud industry.

I’m more like an editor and a colourist than a designer,” suggested Michael by means of explanation, while excitedly caressing the silks between his fingers as he deliberated over the samples. “It comes from everything,” he replied with a bemused smile, when I asked him how he informed his choices, “It comes from when I used to drive around with my father who was a tie maker, memories of what his generation were wearing, and generally only from other designers in terms of doing something different.

Everything we do comes from somewhere…” interposed Julius Walters enigmatically, as he swung open a door and that unmistakeably appealing smell of old leather bindings met my nostrils. There were hundreds of volumes of silk samples from the last two centuries stacked up in there, comprising thousands upon thousands of unique jewel-like swatches still fresh and bright as the day they were made. Some of these books, often painstakingly annotated with technical details in italic script, comprised the life’s work of a weaver and all now bear panoramic witness to the true colours of our predecessors’ clothing. A vast memory bank woven in cloth, all available to be reworked for the present day and brought back to new life.

Looms at the mill of Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd, Spitalfield. Now, and then.

Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd, Spitalfield. Left: Contemporary Jacquard looms. Right: Dobby Weaving in 1900.

Spellbound by this perspective in time, I awoke to the clamour of the mill as we descended a staircase, passing through two glass doors and collecting ear plugs, before entering the huge workshop filled with looms clattering where new silk cloths were flying into existence. Here I stood watching the lush flourishes of acanthus brocades and tiny complex patterns for ties appear in magical perfection as if they had always existed, yet created by the simple principle of selecting how the weft crosses each thread of the warp, whether above or below. Although looms are mechanised now, each still retains its Jacquard above, the card that designates the path of every thread – named after Joseph Marie Jacquard who invented this device in 1804, which became so ubiquitous that his name has now also become both the term for the loom and for any silk cloth that has a pattern integrated into the weave.

Warping at Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd. Now, and then.

Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd, Spitalfield. Left: Vikki Meuser, Warping in the early 21st century. Right: Warping in the early 20th century.

With the bravura of a showman and the relish of an enthusiast, Julius led us on through more and more chambers and passages, into a silk store with countless coloured spools immaculately sorted and named – crocus and rose and mud – , into a vaporous dye plant where bobbins of white thread came out strawberry after immersion in bubbling vats of colour, into a steaming plant where rollers soften the cloth to any consistency, into the checking office where every inch is checked by eye and finally into the despatch office where the precious silken goods are wrapped in brown paper and weighed upon a fine red scales.

Weaving at Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd.

Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd, Spitalfield. Left: Gerald Prentice at his loom. Middle: Weaving umbrella silk in the 1950s. Right: Mally Felton at her loom.

There are so many variables in silk weaving, so many different skills and so much that could go wrong, yet all have become managed into a harmonious process by Stephen Walters & Sons over nine generations. In his time, Julius has introduced computers to track every specification of ten of thousands of orders a year – one every five minutes – created by so may short runs, and new technology has provided a purifier which uses diamonds to cleanse dye from the water that eventually returns to the water meadow, renewing the water course that brought his ancestors from Spitalfields to Suffolk one hundred and fifty years ago.

Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd, Spitalfield. Staff.

Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd, Spitalfield. Left: Aaron Offord, Machine Operator. Right: Naomi Wright at her loom.

All my school holidays and spare time were spent at the mill – but then I went away, and came back again.” confided Julius quietly as we made our farewells, “With eight generations behind you, it changes the way you approach your life. It’s not about this year, it’s about managing the company from one generation to the next, so you deal with your employees and your customers differently.

Now you know what it means when Julius Walters says, “I am just a weaver.

Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd. Historical Photographs.

Stephen Walters & Sons Ltd, Spitalfield. From left to right (click to enlarge): Staff photograph 1949, Bernard Walters (grandfather of Julius Walters) sits second from right in front row, with his sister Winnie on his left and Mill Manager Bill Parsons on his right; Weaving the silk for the coronation robes of Elizabeth II, 1952; Preparing skeins of silk for weaving the coronation robes, 1952; Employees in 1966.

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