New research and wider access shared by the Warner Textile Archive as part of An Artist in Silk: Revealing the Imagination of the nineteenth-century silk industry
Supported by the Museum, Archive and Conservation Award from The Textile Society

At the Warner Textile Archive we were awarded £3774 to enable us to assess our earliest hand-painted paper designs, catalogue these objects, digitise, and re-pack papers for safe long-term storage. The cataloguing project has allowed us to develop a public engagement programme which will launch in 2024 with a series of behind the scenes tours to showcase the outcomes of the project and share our new research with visitors. We held a special behind the scenes tour for The Textile Society in November 2023 to highlight exciting new discoveries made during the project, and visitors will be able to learn more about these as part of the tour programme.
The obituary in 1908 for Benjamin Warner, the founder of Warner & Sons, states that the “gentleman has not been inaptly styled an artist in silk; he took delight in the production of beautiful goods which would reflect credit on the workman no less than on the country of their origin.” Through our cataloguing and research, we have been able to illuminate the creative flair of the designers and weavers of this era. The process of cataloguing the collection has meant that we have been able to add additional details on the customers, designers, and weavers that Warner & Sons worked with during the period. We have also been able to accurately record titles, dates, and locations of designs which helps us identify patterns efficiently on our collections management system. Having these details easily accessible means that we have unlocked further historical narratives within the collection, and can effectively respond to more enquiries and support further research into areas of Warner & Sons’ development and business practices, alongside key figures in their history.
Through the project we have re-packed to recommended conservation standards over 250 paper designs, and catalogued over 350 paper designs. We have currently taken basic reference images of more than 70 designs and had more than 130 designs professionally digitised and will continue until we have a comprehensive digital record of the designs for preservation and future public engagement.
We were also able to engage a specialist paper conservator from Essex Record Office, to offer us support with suggested storage and conservation, and recommended treatments of any specific pieces.
The financial support from The Textile Society has also allowed us to engage with students and volunteers who have worked on the project over the past year. We have had a student from Central St Martins join us as part of their placement year for a month to work with us on the cataloguing, a student studying fashion and textile design at Colchester Institute join the team, a local volunteer wishing to gain experience in cataloguing archival material before pursuing a career in the sector, and two A-Level students who wanted to learn the basics of working in textile heritage who supported us with the digitisation elements of the project. We have also been supported by our regular volunteers who have helped with administration and handling throughout the programme.
The support from The Textile Society has really allowed us to kick-start this project, and realise our organisational goals for improving access and preservation of our collection. The collection of paper designs within the Warner Textile Archive is extensive, and this project has allowed us to set up a cataloguing framework for us to continue to progress through other areas of the collection. We have now begun to explore the paper designs acquired by Warner & Sons from Daniel Walters & Sons in 1895, and we continue to grow our catalogue of designs produced for handwoven silks. We now have potential to achieve a long-term plan for an incredible resource exploring the many widespread links to international customers, most of which are now not trading, and as such some of the only records of their production are held within the Warner Textile Archive. We are grateful to The Textile Society for enabling us to focus on this invaluable section of the collection.

A sneak peek into some of our new research from An Artist in Silk
A design that was discovered as part of this cataloguing programme, was the piece called ‘Japanese’ which dates from 1870. This design showcases the opulent coloured silks of the 1870s, and is one of the first designs manufactured by Warner & Sons, as the company was formed in 1870. This type of dark, rich colour scheme was popular in this period of around 1860-1890, and this oriental, exotic style of pattern was often seen in homes.
Through our cataloguing programme, we discovered that this paper artwork had a corresponding handwoven silk within the collection so we were able to view the two pieces together to see how the design was interpreted for production. The silk maintains the sense of movement and perspective of the original artwork, alongside the characterful birds and butterflies; highlighting the skill of the designers and weavers of the era.

Another interesting design that was catalogued during the project is one called ‘Waltham’. In 1885, Warner & Sons acquired the patterns of a company called Keith & Co, which is where ‘Waltham’ originates. It is one of the few designs that survive from Keith & Co, and offers us an invaluable record of the sorts of patterns in their range.
‘Waltham’ was registered in 1859 by Keith & Co, which means it was sent to the Designs Registry, part of the Board of Trade, to be registered for copyright protection. Registering a design was usually reserved for particularly important or visually appealing designs that were at risk of being copied and manufactured without permission. This gives us an idea of the significance of this design to Keith & Co. Warner & Sons continued to manufacture ‘Waltham’ and the tracing of the design was completed in 1899, for the silk that was manufactured in the same year. This gives us a good example of the longevity of furnishing fabrics; it was still a customer favourite 40 years after it was registered.

‘Rosebud Antique’ appears to be quite an unusual design compared to those that we might associate with the period. This original artwork in blue on tracing paper from 1894, shows us some of the vibrancy in colour from the time and the creativity of designers of the era perhaps attempting an idea of a more weathered or antiqued appearance of the traditional rosebud design. The final result was a handwoven white silk with metallic threads. This piece illuminates the diverse design themes found within the collection.