Loss of biggest customer ‘dealt body-blow to Suffolk silk weaving firm’

David Tooth, who has owned the company for the past 40 years, is contacting all staff made redundant

David Tooth, who has owned the company for the past 40 years, is contacting all staff made redundant individually to talk to them Picture: PHIL MORLEY - Credit: Archant

The owner of a collapsed silk firm has paid tribute to the business, its workers — and the beautiful fabrics it has created.

David Tooth has been at the helm of Silk Industries Ltd — the parent of Vanners — for the past 40 years.

Over the past couple of days since it went into administration, he has been phoning all of the 32 workers who have been laid off after the company fell into administration on Monday, November 9, to talk to them and thank them for their efforts. Around 32 staff remain to fulfil orders as administrators from KPMG seek a buyer for all or part of the business.

Mr Tooth — who is in his 70s and retired from the day-to-day running of the company a few years ago — is hopeful that a buyer can be found.

MORE — Jobs blow for Suffolk town as silk factory plunges into administrationAlthough it was the effects of the pandemic which effectively brought down the business, sales had been in decline over a number of years, falling from about £9m about four or five ago to £5m/£6m last year.

“That was causing a bit of financial constraint,” he admitted. “Nevertheless we were carrying on and (while) I wouldn’t say things were wonderful — we hadn’t actually lost any customers — it’s just all our customers were doing far less.”

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When coronavirus struck and airport shops shut that decline of about 30% then sharpened into a steep 70% drop this year. About half the staff was furloughed but that financial cushion still wasn’t enough to save the business.

The company lost its main customer — men’s outfitters Brooks Brothers of New York after that fell into administration in the summer — delivering a massive blow to sales. Brooks had been a good customer for many decades and although the business passed to new owners, Vanners couldn’t establish contact with them, he said. “That was like a really big blow to us,” he said.

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Added to this, the closure of airport stores run by fashion brands such as Burberry, Prada and Thomas Pink meant those sales dried up overnight. People were not longer buying shirts and ties as they travelled to and from destinations. “That affected us very badly this year,” said Mr Tooth.

Silk Industries Ltd brought in KPMG about two months ago to help the team to restructure the business. “They have done a fantastic job — I have to say they have been working very hard with us,” he said.

But in the end they were unable to save the business. “The directors had no choice but to put the company into administration,” he said. “I think what the directors had to do was to face facts.”

The company continues to operate and fulfil orders and remains an old firm which is “very much a part of the infrastructure of Sudbury,” he said. “We hope there’ll be some sort of continuation of the business.”

Among the workforce, there was sadness and disappointment, said the owner.

“The overwhelming reaction is one of sadness, some surprise, but also an expression of what a lovely place it was to work,” he said.

“It’s a blow to me but I retired four or five years ago so I’m not actively involved in the business.

“People spend such a large proportion of their live at work, it’s a very important place.”

But the “fabulous” archives remain.

The company can trace its roots back to the early 1700s, when the three Vanner brothers — all master silk weavers — of French Huguenot descent set up the business.

“Following the lead of Samuel Courtauld (another Huguenot), Vanners, along with other silk manufacturers, moved its production activity from Spitalfields in East London to the Suffolk/Essex border area, and settled in Sudbury around 1860. It has been on its town centre site between Gregory Street and Weavers Lane since 1900,” explained Mr Tooth.

In the early 20th century, Vanners — which later became Vanners & Fennell — was engaged in weaving a variety of silk fabrics for umbrellas, clothing and neckties.

Neckties would later become the company’s main focus, and it was known especially for weaving regimental stripes and jacquard fabric for club, school, university and company ties.

It also specialised in weaving 28 inch ‘squares’ in colourful patterned designs, a selection of which would be held in stock by men’s outfitters, with each square making exactly two ties.

In recent years Vanners has diversified into designing and weaving luxury fabrics for drapes and fashion, and was “pleased to have several of its fabrics used by Michele Obama and Adele”, said Mr Tooth. It also invested in its own in-house tie making and accessory division.

“The journey from raw silk yarns to complex, beautiful fabrics and products is an extraordinary one, involving digital jacquard designing, dyeing, winding, warping, weaving, fabric finishing, inspection, cutting, sewing. And selling, order processing, accounting, machinery maintenance,” he added.

“It’s a huge team effort, and always has been. I pay tribute to all those many hundreds of local people who have worked together for the company during its long time here. We spend a high proportion of our lives at work, and so it’s important that it’s enjoyable, sociable and rewarding. Vanners has been a significant employer in Sudbury and a creative, dynamic environment for all of us who have worked there.”

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