How did the amazing Anna Maria make it in a man’s world?
PUBLISHED: 10:22 22 January 2017 | UPDATED: 11:37 23 January 2017
Colchester author asks: How did celebrated textile designer make it in a man’s world?
Funny things happen when you walk in the footsteps of your ancestors and commune with “ghosts”. If you’re a novelist, you can find yourself plucking a strong character from history, moving her to Suffolk and, well, kind of being in love with this woman-on-a-page.
It happened to Colchester writer Liz Trenow. This is how.
Liz is part of the dynasty behind Britain’s oldest silk company. It’s still in Suffolk; still producing glorious woven fabrics, and has a glorious history. It produced black mourning crepe during the reign of Victoria, and umbrella and parasol silks (parachute silk, too) in the 1940s.
There have been commissions for ceremonial events, such as the robe for the coronation of the Queen in 1953, the gown for the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969, Princess Anne’s 1973 wedding dress, and the wedding dress for Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
But while Stephen Walters & Sons came to Braintree in 1822, Haverhill in 1828 and Sudbury in 1860, its roots are in east London, and it was Spitalfields that drew Liz like a moth to a flame. “It was around 2008, after retiring from full-time work, when I found the time to start researching the history of my family’s silk business,” explains the former EADT and BBC journalist born and brought up in a house next to Sudbury Silk Mills in Cornard Road.
“Most of their records had been lost in 1940 in the Blitz, when a German bomb flattened the company’s head office in Cheapside. Fortunately, a cousin had done much of the genealogy legwork and it was from his records that I discovered the first known address of the company in Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, recorded in 1760.
“From birth and death records we can trace the family back to 1666 and know they lived before that in Bethnal Green and then in Paternoster Lane, Spitalfields, but this was the first specific address, so I went to the house and rather nervously knocked on the door. When I explained why I was there she invited me – a complete stranger – into her house without apparent hesitation. Because these are Grade I listed buildings, it feels as though little has changed since the 18th century – original floorboards, fireplaces, panelling, shutters, banisters and so on – and I felt really very emotional when I started to tell her about my forbears who had lived and worked in these rooms!
“I could almost imagine being able to smell that characteristic aroma of raw silk and hear the clack of the looms, although in reality the old weaving loft, in the attic of the building, was now her bedroom.
“Even now, when I walk past the house, it gives me a little thrill of recognition: a feeling of belonging.”
And that trip to London led on to a remarkable woman.
“I knew hardly anything about Anna Maria Garthwaite until I visited Wilkes Street that day and saw the blue plaque on the wall of her house on the corner of Wilkes Street and Princelet Street, just a few yards away from my family’s home.
“Only when I began to research her life did I realise how pre-eminent she was at the time and how they would surely have known each other and worked together.
“She really was one of the most celebrated textile designers of the early eighteenth century, and her silks were sought after by the nobility in Britain and America – George Washington’s wife was painted wearing one of her designs.
“I really love her designs because they are so naturalistic and disarmingly simple. There are nearly 1,000 still in the Victoria and Albert Museum, although little is known about her personal life and this is what intrigued me.”
Anna Maria lived in that house, at the very heart of the silk industry, from 1728 until her death in 1763 – producing more than 1,000 patterns for damasks (rich and heavy silk or linen fabric with a pattern woven into them and used for table linen and upholstery) and brocades (fabric woven with a raised pattern, commonly using silver or gold thread).
Liz says no-one has been able to discover how Anna Maria, “who showed a powerful artistic talent, learned the highly technical and complex skills of designing for silk. Or how a single woman by then in her middle years managed to develop and conduct such a successful business on her own account in what was a largely male-dominated industry. It is this mystery that sparked the idea for the novel”.
Ah yes. Liz’s fourth novel: The Silk Weaver.
It’s set in Spitalfields, in 1760. Anna Butterfield’s life will change forever as she moves from her idyllic Suffolk home to enter London society. A chance encounter with French silk weaver Henri draws her into the volatile world of the city’s growing silk trade.
Henri is striving to become a master weaver and freeman, while Anna longs to become an artist – though faces pressure from her uncle’s family to marry a rich young lawyer.
Their lives become intertwined and Henri realises Anna’s designs could deliver freedom for both of them. But Henri’s world grows more and more risky and riots threaten to end this illicit romance.
While the story is inspired by real-life happenings and people, the novel is pure fiction and Liz points out she’s taken enormous liberties with history, in particular the timing of events.
“Anna Maria hailed from Leicestershire, not Suffolk, and did not come to London until she was forty. Her fame was at its height in the 1730s and ’40s and she died in 1763 at the good old age of seventy-five.”
Although there were always rumblings of discontent among weavers, the “cutters’ riots” – and most notably the trial and hanging of John D’Oyle and John Valline for attacking the looms of a weaver working for a notorious master – did not happen until the 1760s.
“It is in this period of extreme industrial unrest that I have chosen to set the novel, even though Anna Maria probably witnessed little of it.”
Liz says of her new book: “I simply loved writing The Silk Weaver, and the structure of having chapters alternating between the two main characters came quite quickly. I was in love with Anna from the start and Henri quickly gained a strong presence.
“The era was fascinating, too: at that time a quarter of all those living in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green spoke only French – they had their own institutions, including a French church, which has since been a synagogue and is now a mosque.
“Although, as Protestants, the Huguenots were officially welcomed in England, there is much evidence that these refugees were subject to racism and mistrust, much as refugees fleeing persecution in their own lands are today.
“I really enjoyed doing the research – which took me to places I would never have otherwise thought of visiting. The eighteenth century French was a bit of a challenge!”
Liz has paid tribute to the skills of copy-editors – how, for instance, an author needs to make sure that the blue ribbon in a character’s hat is still blue the next time she wears it. Or the perils of historical fact: how dame schools, say, were set up in Victorian times and thus did not exist in the 1700s. So: did she come a cropper many times? “There is every chance I have fallen into a number of traps in The Silk Weaver. As I said in my note on the history at the end of the book: ‘Novelists do not write history, but merely take inspiration from its characters and events’.
“When you are writing about an era so far removed from your own, it is really difficult, in fact well-nigh impossible, to be completely accurate on every tiny detail of people’s everyday lives, even with the help of wonderful copy editors.” And the feedback from appreciative readers far outweighs any factual misdemeanours.
All the fact-gathering was fun, too.
“My research has definitely made me feel more connected to my ancestors and my family’s history, as well as giving me a greater appreciation of the remarkable fabrics they have created all these hundreds of years – as I said in The Last Telegram, it really is a kind of alchemy, turning the raw silk into those beautiful, shimmering, sumptuous designs.
“But although I now know a little more about how my ancestors lived, their personal lives and personalities are still a mystery.
“What I do know is that like many craftspeople of the time, they were religious non-conformists, very hard-working and plain-living. They didn’t seem to seek public office – so there are few records of them, for example, in the Guilds or the City. But I think it was this practical, no nonsense approach that helped the company survive for so many generations.
“As it approaches its 300th anniversary, Stephen Walters & Sons is certainly the oldest silk company, and probably one of very few continuously family-owned companies of any kind, in Britain, and I am very proud to be connected with that heritage.” * The Silk Weaver is published on January 26 by Pan Macmillan, at £7.99
Liz, right, is talking about her research and inspiration for the book at Waterstones, Colchester High Street, on Monday, February 13, at 7pm. She’s also at the Felixstowe Book Festival pre-festival weekend at 2pm on Sunday, March 5, at the Orwell Hotel.
From reporting to telling her own stories
n Studied English and American literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich
n Trained as journalist
n Spent about five years with the EADT
n Became a news journalist for BBC local radio and regional TV, moving on to BBC Broadcasting House and Television Centre
n It was hard balancing awkward shift requirements with two young daughters, so switched to public relations
n As her parents reached their 80s, Liz began recording conversations with them about their extraordinary lives
n Her father mentioned the family firm’s Second World War contracts to weave silk for parachutes, surgical dressings and electrical insulation. The germ of an idea for a novel was born
n But it wasn’t until she retired from full-time work, and began studying for an MA in creative writing at City University in London, that Liz started writing The Last Telegram: her first book
n Married to retired civil engineer David, who now paints and sculpts every day
n Books: The Last Telegram, The Forgotten Seamstress, The Poppy Factory, The Silk Weaver