Sudbury Silk Threads
Vanners in Sudbury, Suffolk, perpetuates the traditions of silk-making with one eye firmly on the future, having bought out boutique tie makers Penrose
Article by Rupert Watkins
Silk maker Vanners has been in the weaving business since the 1740s. With the religious persecutions in France between 1724 and 1764, Huguenots fled to England, bringing their silk making skills with them. Originally the centre of silk production was in London before these craftsmen spread further afield. With the arrival of the Agricultural Revolution came a more plentiful supply of labour for factories in the countryside and there has been silk weaving in Sudbury since 1793. The Vanners family had left France in the 1720s and moved out to the Suffolk market town in 1871, and has stayed there ever since. The firm though, has changed hands several times since then.
Today it employs 140 people at its main plant in Suffolk, with a further 40 at its tie makers in Basildon, Essex. The majority (70-80 per cent) of its output is in ties with fashion and furnishing fabric making up the increasingly important – and evolving – remainder of production. It is a family oriented firm, and many of its employees have worked there for decades. Managing Director Richard Stevenson has been with the firm over 20 years, and many of the board members have ties to the firm going back three decades. There are a number of lifelong and even parent and child combinations amongst its craftsmen, all dedicated to producing the finest silks. Over the past few years, a more methodical and detailed training plan has been put in place, allowing new workers to be taught and to refine their own skills rather than simply watching and learning from the senior weavers.
Vanners deals with customers from across the spectrum – from those who have precise designs and know exactly what they are after to those who need to tap into the firm’s own designers and expertise. Occasionally, some clients offer a small amount of creative leeway in their brief, but frequently, for a lot of brands Vanners deals with, the tie design will take place in a compressed timeframe. Whilst this adds a certain pressure, it does mean the firm will know in advance the design of the suits and shirts that their wares will eventually be paired with, which is a large advantage. Vanners will capture and log the subsequent design for their own records but this will also be archived by the brand concerned.
Dealing with hundreds of customers around the world – especially in the US and Far East – Richard still sees a strong demand for neckwear, as Vanners deals with the top end of the market and therefore highly discriminating consumers. He mentions the increasing trend towards day and evening ties to show how the market continues to evolve. Over the past 20 years, woven silk ties have dominated the market though there is, he says, “still good demand for printed”.
Away from ties, Vanners has produced a range of furnishing silks for decades, but recently the firm has internally re-defined and reinvigorated this area with an enlarged design team and increased investment on new looms. The firm recently signed a distribution agreement with Fromental of Kensel Road, London. More varied yarns and finishes are used in silk furnishings, though one useful by product of the fresh emphasis in the area has also been the cross pollination of ideas and finishes back into the tie manufacturing – especially for more “informal” or evening neckwear. Vanners produces a collection for each season showing at the London Textile Fair and is also considering Premier Vision. Women’s fashion fabrics have also taken a more prominent position in the array of designs and products the firm now offers the marketplace, and again the cross development work is continuing to reap benefits in refining design and bringing fresh life across all arenas at the factory.
A recent procurement by Vanners is that of Penrose – the boutique tie designers set up by ex Duchamps founder Mitchell Jacobs. “Mitchell had an excellent relationship with Vanners when at Duchamp,” says Fiona Oakes, who became Brand Manager when Mitchell died tragically suddenly towards the end of 2014. “The procurement was both a natural and necessary continuation of that relationship.”
Penrose was founded out of Mitchell’s desire to provide a superior product to what he saw around him. After the necessary regulatory purdah in the wake of selling Duchamp, he wandered into Selfridges one day and came away convinced he could do better. It was founded as a completely separate venture from Duchamp and Fiona has only ever worked for latter brand for the past three years. The creative emphasis is on producing elegant, rich and colourful ties. The brand has been successful with its quirky and slightly subversive designs being stocked at Harrods and Hoopers in the UK. Penrose has a large international following, too, being stocked at Barneys in New York and Dallas-based luxury department store group Nieman Marcus. There are 15 concessions in Japan and the Scandinavian market has also proven very lucrative.
The brand also does a small range of Italian knitted ties made in Como, Italy. The core of the collection currently revolves around ties, pocket squares, scarves, socks and cufflinks. The cufflinks are made out of double gold and double ruthenium. Fiona explains the very contemporary designs play off and complements the original nature of the neckwear. There is an aspiration to eventually grow the accessories side to include small leather items but at the moment, given the awful events of the past ten months, the focus is on completing the integration with Vanners and ensuring that current orders with customers are honoured. However, Fiona is looking forwards to the future and is currently hard at work designing the Spring/ Summer 2016 collection.
This collaboration between Vanners and Penrose is certainly an evolving concept. As Richard says, both he and Fiona are still experimenting with how best to project and develop this exciting, niche and distinctive brand. In many ways, the acquisition of Penrose sums up the evolving and innovative nature of the modern Vanners.
When asked whether the market for ties is approaching saturation point, Richard is definitive in answering no. As a company that offers an excellent product to a mature global market, the development in alternative areas simply allows market risk to be spread as well as emerging opportunities to be grasped. As he says, the company history remains – customers still prefer to come to Sudbury to meet him, so that they can access the firm’s remarkable archives. In Richard’s own apt words, “The archive is for inspiration, but we are always thinking about next season and the season after that”.