The Warner family’s connections with the textile industry date back at least to the late seventeenth century, when William Warner worked as a scarlet dyer in Spitalfields, London.
Following William’s death in 1712, his sons and grandsons carried on the family business. Amongst William’s descendants was Benjamin Warner (b. 1828), who was exposed to the industry from an early age; at the age of eleven he lost his father, and began to help his mother with the family business of building Jacquard loom harnesses. He later attended evening classes at the Spitalfields School of Design.
In 1857, following several prosperous years, Benjamin Warner bought a card-cutting and jacquard machine making firm from Alphonse Burnier, paying £175 10s for the stock, equipment, and thousands of designs. Burnier remained with the company for a month to pass on his industry knowledge, and by 1861 the firm employed 12 men and 33 women. By this time Benjamin had four sons and two daughters by his marriage to Emma Branscombe; Alfred and Frank Warner would both subsequently join their father’s business.
1867 saw Warner enter into partnership with William Folliott, who had studied and taught at Spitalfields School of Design. This collaboration lasted just two years, but the two men remained close. A partnership with Sillett and Ramm followed within months, and although ill-health forced Sillett’s retirement in 1874, Ramm remained a partner until 1891, by which time the company had acquired several rivals and built an excellent reputation for fine, beautiful fabrics.
Although Warner & Ramm specialised in the highest quality figured silks, changing fashions and clients’ demands prompted the firm to diversify; from 1874 it began to supply high quality printed fabrics, worsted, lampas, tissue, brocade, and velvets. The production of figured velvets in particular was a major step towards the company becoming a leading design house.
The status of Warner & Ramm was boosted further by the shrewd acquisition of Charles Norris & Co. in 1885, as Norris held a prestigious Royal Warrant to supply silks and velvets to the royal households. Now known for their royal connection along with their quality, Warner & Ramm produced fabrics for embassies, palaces and stately homes around the world. The Royal Warrant also meant producing the fabrics for royal coronations, investitures and weddings; a role which the company fulfilled throughout the twentieth century.
Following an acrimonious split with Ramm in 1891, the 63-year-old Benjamin Warner inducted his two sons Alfred and Frank into the business, and Warner & Sons was thus established the following year. At the turn of the century the company was the foremost weaver of furnishing silk, and it continued to prosper in the early decades of the twentieth century under the guidance of Frank Warner. Powerweaving was introduced in 1919, a Paris office operated from 1922 to 1926, and a block print works in Dartford was purchased in 1926. Demand for both modern and traditional designs was high, and the firm supplied many government offices, royal households and influential tastemakers such as Cowtan Sr Sons. In addition Warner & Sons gained a reputation for accurate historical reproductions, and the provision of traditional chintzes underpinned the company’s expansion in the United States.
In 1928 the newly limited company’s board included Sir Ernest Goodale, Frank’s son-in-law and Managing Director from 1930 to 1962. Goodale served on the Board of Trade and other government committees between 1934 and 1960, and on the Council of Industrial Design from 1944 to 1948. In 1932 Goodale appointed Alec Hunter to the design studio; Hunter extended the use of freelance designers, particularly for hand-printed textiles, and also developed modern weaves in a wide range of libres, often using traditional hand techniques including brocading. Among Hunter’s major projects were fabrics for the RIBA headquarters (1934) and the University of London’s Senate House (1938). Many ocean liners were also furnished with modern woven and printed fabrics at this time.
The company’s post-War years were defined by the innovative designs of Marianne Straub and Frank Davies. Straub joined Warner & Sons in 1950, and her work was widely used over the following 20 years by the Ministry of Works and many others. Davies arrived at the company in 1951, and together with Straub provided modern designs for a wide range of clients including schools, polytechnics and theatres.
The untimely death of Alec Hunter and the retirement of Goodale brought to the helm St John Tibbitts, a grandson of Frank Warner. Until his retirement in 1984, Tibbits oversaw the expansion of the exclusive production of chintzes for London decorators such as Colefax & Fowler, Jean Monro, George Spencer and leading American firms including Brunschwig and Fils, Lee Jofa and Cowtan & Tout.
When weaving ceased at New Mills in 1971, Tibbits was involved in saving the enormous collection of fabric samples, paper designs and documents from Warner & Sons that would later become the Warner Textile Archive. Archival staff were employed in 1976, followed by an educational programme and a series of touring exhibitions which provided access to the Archive from 1979 to 1992. In 1990 the Archive store moved from Braintree to Milton Keynes, and a series of takeovers between 1985 and 1994 resulted in ownership transferring to Walker Greenbank PLC. In 2001 the Warner brand, and limited licenses, were sold to Turnell & Gigon, who in turn were bought by Zimmer and Rhode. Walker Greenbank continued to retain the historical Archive until its sale to Braintree District Museum Trust on 20th May 2004.
The collection therefore finally returned to the original mill buildings in Braintree, where it is still located today.