Love, Intrigue and Parachute silk

Reporter: Heather Reaville

 

This was the interesting title of Liz Trenow’s talk at the last indoor meeting for the season on 31st May.

A capacity crowd of members and guests packed into Friar’s Hall to hear Liz’s account of her research into her silk weaving family and how she came to write a book based on her findings.

Liz Trenow is a member of the Walters family in Sudbury and now the oldest silk weaving company in the country. She began by tracing the company history back to Segar Walters in 1666 and on through the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which drove 200,000 Protestant Huguenots over to Britain bringing with them their silkweaving skills. By 1722 the family was established in Spitalfields, the centre of the industry at that time. 50 years later the family was still in the district and Liz discovered they had lived at no. 25 Wilkes Street. The house is still there and when she called she was thrilled to be invited in by the current owners to see the house; it  has changed very little over the last 300-odd years and is now Grade II listed

Liz described the many ups and downs in the fortunes of the family until the fourth generation decided to move out of London and came to Sudbury where they built what is now the Dental Emporium ( The ‘W’ for Walters is still visible on the end gable). We were also told about many of the silkweaving processes and some of the problems that beset it e.g. woodworm was partial to the raw silk!

Three Walters brothers, Bernard, John and Peter (Liz’s father) moved to the present Cornard Road factory and had another manufactory at Glemsford powered by a water wheel; Cornard was driven by gas engines.

The 20th century brought many prestigious commissions including royal gowns and Coronation robes and the silk for Princess Diana’s wedding dress. But before that World War II had produced many challenges for the company. However, the company survived (where many others were unable to) by making parachute silk. It was the fabric of choice because of its strength, lightness and easy ‘packability’ – this was before nylon had been fully developed. Other lines which kept the company going were surgical dressings, electrical insulation and ‘escape and evasion’ maps which were sown into pilots’ clothing to be used if they were shot down. (Later a member of the audience showed Liz several examples of these printed maps which she had not seen before).

Before the war the Walters brothers frequently went abroad on business and came in to contact with many Jewish people. When Hitler started his persecutions the brothers brought five young men over to be apprentices. Unfortunately because they were German they were first interned then sent to Canada but somehow ended up in Australia and then fighting in the British Army in Burma. One of them had fallen in love with the local postmistress and in spite of everything came back to Sudbury and married her and once again begun work at Stephen Walters.

This heartening story was the springboard for Liz’s first novel. First written as a PhD thesis when Liz took time out to get an MA., she was encouraged to try and get it published, eventually being accepted by J.K. Rowling’s agent! After considerable editing and re-writing ‘The Last Telegram’ appeared in paperback this year.

 

The audience was most appreciative of Liz Trenow’s entertaining and lively account of both the silkweaving industry and processes, of her family’s part in its history and her endeavours to get her novel published. After questions there was a brisk trade in signed copies and there is the promise of another novel to come soon.