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New Sudbury factory owner reveals plans for future of historic Vanners Silk - including a silk museum

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A businessman has revealed his plans for a historic silk factory.

Roger Gawn, 75, bought Vanners Silk on Christmas Eve last year after the Sudbury-based company, founded in 1740, went into administration.

Speculation has surrounded the business – and its ongoing operation – since the takeover, with reports that some staff were not paid earlier this year, while the buildings were placed on the open market last month.

Roger Gawn and staff at Vanners Silk. Pictures and video by Chris Morris
Roger Gawn and staff at Vanners Silk. Pictures and video by Chris Morris

But Mr Gawn, a well-known Norfolk businessman, pledged that he is just as committed to keeping the factory running as he was the day that he bought it.

He also revealed plans to modernise the operation at the Weaver’s Lane, expand its range of clothing products and start a silk museum.

“I took over the factory because of my interest in history and skilled workmanship,” said Mr Gawn, who lives in North Norfolk.

“That has been the mainstay of my business life over 50 years. Without skilled people, there would be no business.

“When I took over Vanners, described as a going concern, it was making around £3,900 in sales, which is absolutely nothing, and worse than I had been told.

“Since we started operating again in April though, our turnover has grown week by week.

"But it is not just about figures. In the case of Vanners, it is about sustainability.”

Staff at the factory making ties
Staff at the factory making ties

The Vanners site is currently being advertised by property agent Lambert Smith Hampton.

The site itself is still owned by Silk Industries Limited, the company which went into administration.

The company which bought the business, Vanners Silk (1740) Limited, owned by Mr Gawn, now leases the buildings as a tenant.

“It is the administrators’ duty to maximise return for creditors,” said Mr Gawn.

The factory is back in operation.
The factory is back in operation.

“There are others interested but I am determined to buy the site to keep the silk-making industry thriving in Sudbury.

“This site is right for this business.

"It’s history is here, one that has been run by local people for more than 200 years.

“It is also for this reason that I am exploring the idea of opening a silk museum.

"But I have to complete the purchase of the site first, which I expect will take around two months.

“The silk production side of the business does not justify even half of the size. So I will look at other opportunities for the buildings.”

Vanners now employs around 15 remaining people, who have all been given pay rises.

Mr Gawn said management changes and disputes over furlough resulted in claims some staff were not being paid at the start of the year.

Initially, 30 jobs were saved.

An inventory of machines is currently being carried out
An inventory of machines is currently being carried out

Vanners is one of the oldest businesses in Suffolk.

It was founded in 1740 and moved to its Sudbury premises in 1870.

The company designs, develops and manufactures silk fabrics and products for the luxury menswear, fashion and furnishing markets and at its peak turned over around £10 million a year with 100 employees.

At the end of 2019, the company announced it was planning to expand by moving into a larger factory in the town, but just a year later, it was forced to call in administrators after a double blow meant it lost nearly 70 per cent of its market.

US retailer Brooks Brothers went into receivership – and much of its production was sold through airport shopping centres which closed because of the pandemic.

When KPMG was called in during November, half its 64 staff were made redundant.

Sudbury holds a silk festival highlighting the role of Vanners and of other silk firms in the town such as Stephen Walters & Sons dating back to 1780, and Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company established in 1903, and Gainsborough’s House.

Vanners was originally set up by exiled French Huguenots in the late 1800s,

Silk woven in Sudbury has been worn by the Queen at her coronation, royal brides, former US First Lady Michelle Obama and singer Adele.

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