Years in service: 29 years
Role: Silk Weaver at Stephen Walters
Sitting in her home in Great Cornard, 84 year old Gwen Edwards unrolls newspaper wrapped around a long cardboard tube to reveal a sample of fabric worn by Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of her coronation in 1953.
Seventy years earlier at 15 years old Gwen left school to start her first job, to train as a silk weaver. With its concentration of silk mills and customers from all around the world, the Sudbury mills share a well-earned reputation for producing exceptional fabrics. Gwen joined Stephen Walters, a longstanding silk weaving family business in Sudbury and one with its own share of prestigious clients.
In 1952, Stephen Walters received a commission to produce silk fabric that would be used in the creation of the robe to be worn by Princess Elizabeth at her coronation the following year. Though just 17 years old and with two years weaving experience, Gwen was selected as the weaver for this important task and the fabric was to be woven on a hand loom, producing cloth in a 25inch wide strip.
Stephen Walters set about creating a special glass walled room in an area of the mill and installed the hand loom inside. With the fabric woven using very fine silk threads in a pale shade of cream the sealed room was needed to ensure that not a single stain or stray fibre should find its way into the cloth. A large pipe ran from the sealed room to an exterior wall connecting to the outside to bring in fresh Suffolk air for ventilation.
Gwen spent two months in this room weaving the special, coronation cloth. She remembers many people coming to observe the creation of the prestigious silk including her own mother and grandmother. A photographer from America was one of many who came to take pictures reminding Gwen of the importance of her work. Gwen remembers that as he took her picture, he enquired about what her father did for a living, she told him he was a painter. Assuming she meant artist, the photographer asked her what he painted, ‘houses’ she replied.
Looking back now, nearly 70 years later Gwen proudly unrolls her sample of the silk she wove given to her by Stephen Walters as a memento, it is tightly woven of exceptionally fine silk threads and the most beautiful quality. Gwen recalls the many times she dipped her hands in chalk to tie in new threads avoiding any marks on the cloth and chuckles about the fresh Suffolk air piped in, pointing out that the mill was actually located beside the local railway line!