Profiles: Beckford Silk
Beckford Silk is a family business that has been going strong for 41 years. The idea behind it was based on James Gardner's passion for colour and in 1975 he set up the luxury silk company with his wife Martha. Going from one family business to another, the Gardners used their platform as restauranteurs to segue from catering to silk producing, first getting in touch with dye manufacturers and setting themselves up at the bottom of the garden. Soon, Gardner started making his own screens, with wooden frames, stretching the fabrics. He built himself a lightbox to expose the fabrics and his first steamer was a stock pot on the kitchen stove. Then, he began by putting together a little collection, based on the oil paintings he'd translated into print. Gardner then got in touch with dye manufacturers, got some consultancy, read up on books and, through trial and error, decided to just go for it. In those days, there was a lot of experimenting - "which is fine," Ann, his daughter, told me. "Except that silk is a really expensive fabric to be experimenting with." Eventually, Martha grew concerned about the increasing number of tests lying around, not being used. Then she had the idea of trying to sell it. "So dad made a sign and stuck it on the gate," Anne recalls. "He opened up the French windows, got a trestle table out and that was the first shop."
Opening for Business
What was business like, in the early days?
Us kids got turfed out of our playroom, which was turned into a shop and as the business developed the shop became a more permanent feature. Dad visited local businesses - shops, hotels, anywhere he could think of - to actually try to sell his designs. Eventually, he came across the Lygon Arms (a well-known luxury hotel) who liked the idea of having their own designs to offer their guests as a corporate gift. He produced a design for them, which lead to him doing the same for other businesses. Mum was still running the restaurant at that time and would invite the regulars to "come see what James is doing out the back." One of those people happened to work for the National Trust, which lead to the first big commercial order. It was significant because the National Trust were at the forefront of what we now call heritage retailing. Soon, other big museums came to us. A good part of our business is designing for galleries and museums, they've been the core part of our business ever since.
House Style & Guests
What, would you say, is a signature of Beckford Silk's work?
After blowing up the details of an image, we hand draw and trace the elements. Then we scan those into the computer and develop those to produce finished designs.
Why do you prefer to hand draw instead of using a machine for precision and uniformity?
If you make a mark with a pen it's irregular, it's thick, it's thin - it's got expression. So by doing hand drawings, scanning those into the computer then developing the design on, we can retain that natural element in the design. By the time you get to the end, it's got all those irregularities in there and the brain just picks it up. We certainly find that, somehow as human beings, we find it easier to connect to things with a human touch.
Who are some of the bigger establishments you've worked with?
The National Trust, Westminster Abbey, Scottish Parliament, the Victoria and Albert and the Bodleian Library to name a few. We do both screen printing and digital printing - and before that it was block printing - so we can accommodate most businesses.
Tech, Technique & Tradition
Talk me through a little bit about the printing process?
Well, screen printing has made block printing obsolete now. Nowadays, as people are designing using computers, printing is increasingly needing to be produced digitally because people don't design for print anymore. They've lost that skill. For screen printing, you need to separate out each colour in the design. We'd have our full-size design, use a sheet of film just covered with orange skin and lay that over the top. With a scalpel we trace around the one colour - peeling the rest of the offset so that only the one colour is covered, take another sheet of film and do the next colour. And so on until we've got, in this case, about six or seven colours. So that's seven sheets of film, each one for a different colour. As far as the screens go, we've basically got a metal frame and it's got a taut nylon mesh stretched over it. These just come to us as open screens, so the first thing we do is coat the whole thing with a photo-sensitive emulsion and then take positives, which would be laid against a fresh screen on an exposing table (glass-fronted and vacuumed so you get perfect contact between the two). Then we blast it with ultraviolet light and the light passes through the clear areas, hits the emulsion on the screen, reacts and makes it go solid. The areas the light can't get through will remain water soluble. Once we've exposed your screen, then we can wash it out. We get all these dark areas that are blocked out mesh and the light areas are open mesh, where the dye will pass through onto the silk below. So for screen printing you need one screen for each colour in the design and together they produce the finished print.
Would you say, as a process, digital printing is easier than screen printing?
By the time we get to the printing part in the production, a lot of the hard work's been done. These are basic machines, but they're only as good as the person using them. The development stage of the design involves a lot of work; in the proofing, the adjustments to colour, the amount of ink going in. It's like another skill is needed for this and every project is unique in the way it prints. And, of course, we're on the cutting edge of digital printing for silks so we're constantly learning with each project because there's nobody else out there to learn from.
Do you think companies are missing out by not using screen printing?
The amount of screen printing used is reducing, due to digital, but there's still very much a place for screen printing. Devoré, for example, has to be screen printed.
So what next, after the screens are printed on?
Then we prepare the silk to be steamed. We use these star frames for that by starting at the centre and spiralling out. Finally, we hook the edge of the silk round and round, then we put a layer of calico between the layers of silk. That gets trundled along our wonderful contraption and gets lowered into a pressure steamer, which steams for about 40 minutes. In that time, the silk fibre opens up and the dye molecules enter into it. The gum molecules, which are much bigger in comparison, can't get in and are left on the outside. So the colour is actually transferred into the fibre of the silk. Once that's been done, you can wash away all the gum residue and then you're just left with the colour trapped inside the fibre.
What happens if you don't use the steamer?
It runs. On very rare occasions, we've had pieces we thought we'd steamed...and all the colour was literally drained!
Just out of interest, what is your father up to these days?
His latest project is glass blowing, he's learning that at the moment. He's been all over the country talking to glass blowers...
How do you organise your colours?
We have a colour kitchen, full of recipe books.
Yes, you can see the body of work. We use a basic range of dye powders -
Are they natural?
No, because natural dyes are too limited in their range of colour, we use a basic range of chemical dyes. From those, we're creating thousands of different recipes. We use our library of about four thousand recipes as a starting point with clients, but often a new job will involve creating a new colour recipe. We find approximates from our current recipes, then make adjustments to create new colours.
Do you have a lot of competition with customers choosing to source their fabrics from, say, China?
Actually, companies are finding that business abroad is not as cost effective as they initially thought, with the exchange rate and what have you. Not to mention the amount of time it takes to do a project - up to 12 months. This means they've got to have bigger orders and the response time is longer... Also, their customers are telling them that they want it locally made.
'Made in Britain' is a big deal now.
It just has that prestige, actually, it really does. So it is important.
Do you find that, with the new wave of demand for products and services made in Britain, you've had an influx of new customers?
We've certainly seen big names like the V&A coming back to UK production and we are seeing a lot of people coming to us specifically because they want it made in Britain. Just 18 months ago we had an order from an animation company in China who wanted the scarves made in the UK because they wanted the prestige of the UK made branding.
In your opinion, are people willing to pay that little bit more because they know it's quality and a lot of time has gone into making the product to that standard?
Yes, it's very interesting. Also, the whole thing of artist scarves is really coming to the fore now. It's because people don't have a lot of money to spend, but they want to spend it on something special and so they will buy fewer things. But, crucially, those things they do buy are chosen with care. They want beautiful things that are going to last.
A lot of brands are being more transparent when it comes to sustainability, where do you stand on that?
People come to me and say, particularly about the silk, can you source 'freedom silk.' Freedom silk is, basically, a very clever marketing way of turning around what used to be the second-grade silk. When you're farming the silk, part of the crop is left to develop to full maturity to create the next generation of silkworms. At the stage they pupate (they don't suffer because they're actually in a state of transitioning from worm to moth), they're not conscious of what's happening. That is the stage at which the cocoons are put into boiling water, so whatever's inside is killed off then they separate the threads out (it's the threads of the cocoon that produce the silk). The silk from the crop that is left to grow to full maturity is made up of short ends, which in the past was used for producing the cheaper grade of silk. Now they've re-packaged that and called it freedom silk because 'no animal has died in the production of this silk.' Rather conveniently, they charge twice the price it used to be worth in its original form of second-grade silk, which is not that sustainable for the wearer because it doesn't last nearly as long.
So the consumer's conscience is 100% clear but their pockets are worse for wear - and they're basically spinning you a product that is sub-par? Does it annoy you that they deem that ethical?
Well, it does play on the people who feel bad for the silkworm. But the silkworm has already, in effect died, because it has transmuted into a moth. Silk is a natural fibre. That's nature's way, so that's how it's produced.
Do you think having a clear fashion conscience would mean just cancelling out silk? Because even the luxury sustainable brands I've come across are strict with all things but don't compromise on silk.
To each his own, but certainly as far as the factory we've been working with for the past 15 years is concerned, we know they have very high standards. We don't deal with sweatshops - we never have and we never will. The process of making silk is a natural one, but we understand it is not to everyone's moral or ethical taste. We are certainly sustainable in that we are an odd mix of traditional craftsmanship and state of the art technology so we provide our clients with the highest quality of silks, with essentially no middle man. I believe, too, that we are ethical in every respect except, arguably, for the very nature of our business - which is up for debate.
Visit Beckford Silk: Ashton Rd, Beckford GL20 7AU, 01386 881507, www.beckfordsilk.co.uk
Anne 'screen printing'
Digital printing machine
This room was a fabric fanatic's dream!
View of the cafe, unfortunately closed at this moment.
Upstairs, where the screen printing magic happens.
Luxury cushion, anyone?