Where the future looms bright

Tradition is not dead in British weaving. Paul Rodgers visits a busy mill where things are what they used to be

A REPETITIVE whir, clickety-clack and thump fills the air of the Humphries weaving mill in Braintree, Essex. But the sound - beguilingly like the sound of so many other British factories - is irregular, abruptly shifting into a new rhythm - clickety, clickety, clack, clack, thump, thump. To the eye, if not the ear, the reason is clear. Where shining, computer-driven weaving machines should be stand antique wooden frames, tangled string harnesses and a slowly elongating ribbon of precious, hand- made, silk cloth.

Humphries is the only remaining British mill that makes silk on hand looms. Some of the equipment bears the initials of founder Daniel Walters, dating back to 1806 when the mill was established near London's Spitalfield Market. Yet despite operating in what is billed as a working museum, the looms produce a finer cloth than any available from a modern UK plant. Both the gown worn by the Queen at the opening of Parliament last week, and the crimson upholstery on her throne in the House of Lords were made of silk from these 190-year-old looms. The firm also makes silk wall coverings - the forerunner of wallpaper and the source of its standard 21-inch cloth width - for stately homes and palaces. Some of its recent work can be seen in Hampton Court Palace. Its latest coup is a contract to supply a pale blue silk with silver threads and a French pattern of flowers and cherubs for the restoration of Gatchina Palace, an imperial hunting lodge in St Petersburg, Russia.

Almost 70 per cent of Humphries' output is for the restoration of stately homes and palaces, split evenly between domestic and international contracts. The other 30 per cent goes to interior designers whose commissions require custom-made fabrics. Sales amount to over pounds 1m a year, including revenue from 17,000 tourists. The silk cloth can cost up to pounds 400 a yard, so even remnants are expensive. Yet the company keeps the first yard from every "bolt" it weaves.

Humphries' main competitors are French: Tassinari & Chatel and Prelle, both based in Lyon. Because they still follow regulations laid down in the reign of Louis XIV, their cloth is denser, with more "pics", or threads, per inch. While this is considered higher quality than Humphries', it also costs up to twice as much.

Though current owner Richard Humphries insists business is buoyant right now, the mill has twice come close to folding during its long history. The first time was when Daniel Walters' grandson Lindsey, a noted playboy, ran it into the ground. It was bought out in 1893 by Benjamin Warner, a traditionalist who maintained the old manufacturing techniques while all his competitors were modernising. Power looms were not introduced until 1928, 140 years after they were invented. But by 1971 his successors were no longer able to keep going and began winding up the operation.

That the mill survived at all is a tribute to Mr Humphries, then a 21- year-old designer just out of a five-year apprenticeship. With his pounds 50 redundancy pay he bought key equipment as scrap. The gear cluttered his nearby cottage and garden, while the skeins and bobbins of silk thread filled his grandmother's attic.

His training had included every aspect of making the cloth, but almost nothing about running a business. "I didn't even have a bank account," he says. Without capital to rent a workshop or hire staff, his original plan was to begin weaving in his living room. But one of his more modern rivals, Peter Walters, a distant relative of the mill's founder, was so impressed with the young man's enterprise that he offered the use of a vacant Victorian house rent-free - with book-keeping lessons on the side. "He was my guardian angel," Humphries says. The mill returned to its Braintree premises, now owned by the local council, five years ago, although it still maintains a plant in Castle Hedingham.

The Braintree workshop is bright but crowded with 10 looms of various sizes and a collection of other equipment for preparing the thread. Daniel Walters built the looms out of pitch pine because it was immune to woodworm, but some parts, such as the harness, need to be replaced every 20 years or so. And some jobs involving a change in format can require the rebuilding of the control mechanism. Setting up a loom to do a new job takes four days.

The equipment used by Humphries, called Jacquard looms, were invented more than 200 years ago and are credited with being the first programmable machines. Patterns are drawn to scale on graph paper and then coded onto large, grey, punched cards, one for each "weft" or cross thread. The cards are strung together, edge to edge, mounted above the wooden frame of the loom and connected to a harness of strings, each ending in an eyelet through which a "warp" strand passes. Each time the weaver presses his foot pedal, a new card advances, and the holes in it control which warps are raised or lowered. The weaver then pulls a cord to send the shuttle flying across, carrying the weft thread between the separated warps.

Humphries' 23 staff have a multitude of other tasks to do. When the silk arrives from China, the individual strands have to be "thrown" into threads, the equivalent of spinning cotton. The difference is that while cotton is made up of short filaments, each silk worm's cocoon is made from a single strand up to a mile long. After the required number of strands, between two and 18, have been twisted together into a thread, it is boiled to remove the gum and then dyed.

The coloured warp threads then have to be laid on a large roller called a warping mill. A typical 50-inch wide fabric will have 36,000 warp threads laid out on the mill in sections from 300 bobbins at a time. Once all have been laid out, they are transferred onto a smaller roller which feeds into the back of the loom.

Rather than re-threading each of the eyelets on the control harness, the weavers tie the new threads to the ends of those from the previous job. Even with a mechanical knotting machine invented in the 1930s it takes four days.

Preserving old crafts may be intrinsically worthwhile. Making a profit from them is much more remarkable. Whether Mr Humphries can maintain the trick indefinitely is hard to predict. He is cagey about the company's financial status. The order book is filled for the next eight months, down from a peak of 18 months but well above its historic low point - since he took over - of two months. The uncle who inspired him to buy the mill noted that as long as there is a Royal family, these silks will be in demand. Unfortunately, that premise is not as sure as it was a quarter century ago.

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