Textile artist Katherine ‘Frin’ Arnold couldn’t wait to get going with a creative young weavers project in Sudbury – known throughout the world for its silk. Then lockdown loomed…but now she’s weaved her way back into the classroom again
Katherine ‘Frin’ Arnold knows exactly how special Sudbury’s silk heritage is to so many people living in Suffolk. She should know: ‘I worked at one of the silk mills in Sudbury on and off for 20 years.’
Throughout the 20th century the silk industry in Sudbury not only survived but thrived and it continues today carrying on this proud and long tradition. Producing fabrics of the finest quality, they have been used for the wedding dresses of Princess Anne and Princess Diana, lining the Queen’s coronation robes, creating a gown for Michelle Obama and the list of prestigious projects continues to grow.
At the beginning of last year, the Sudbury Silk Stories project started bringing this rich heritage to life. Every week coordinator Carole Creasey would be out and about in Sudbury, speaking with silk industry staff and former employees, schools and local organisations, alike.
The project was an eye opener, even for someone such as Frin: ‘Having worked in the industry myself and having had an art exhibition in one of the mills, it’s amazed me: the generations of people who have worked in the industry. It’s the only place in England where silk is woven and employs 300 people in the community. There are so many incredible skills that people have.’
It all culminated in a film and last year’s silk festival, which attracted more than 5,000 visitors. And then it was time to start engaging with the next generation, with a new project called Creative Young Weavers, an interactive way for children in Babergh to get stuck into learning new skills and create something, using recycled materials produced locally.
Frin says: ‘In January we launched the project.’ Funded by the Arts Council and Babergh District Council, the plan was for more than 60 local school children to take part. ‘I did my first session in early March,’ says Frin, ‘and it had an amazing response.
‘Quite often when you work in a creative, practical way, it’s really inclusive. Pupils who are not very academic can find a place where they can excel and they smashed it! They were engaged, excited, asking pertinent questions. It was really rewarding.’
However, lockdown restrictions put the initiative on hold. ‘The schools closed so we were faced with a bit of a scenario really. We went back to the drawing board and let the schools get on in the crisis.’
Thankfully, the project has resumed, following measures to enable children to participate in Covid-secure workshops at both Cavendish CEVC Primary School and St Gregory CEVC Primary School.
Frin was excited to be able to restart the activity. ‘Going back to the school has been amazing. They’ve generated more work than the initial woven panel and we’ve had lots of discussion about the silk industry.’ Conservations have gone along the lines of ‘my mum’s sister’s aunt used to work in the mill,’ says Frin.
Reflecting environmental concerns, she created the practical workshops with waste material from the silk industry in the town. ‘I’m a bit of a hoarder,’ says Frin, ‘and I’ve felt good about creating silk from waste products to make art projects.’
It also went down well with the primary school children. ‘We had these conversations about the environment which was really surprising. It’s all very well developing the projects, but it’s really amazing when you get the response from the pupils themselves. We are really pleased we’ve managed to finish the project.’
The upshot of all this creativity is an exhibition, showcasing the woven panels and shining a spotlight on the town’s silk tradition which dates back to the 1780s. The project is expected to produce nearly 100 woven samples, all brought together for a shop window exhibition for participants, friends and family – as well as the general public in the run up to Christmas.
‘We are going to have an exhibition in Sudbury High Street from the beginning of November all the way through to January,’ says Frin. ‘Sudbury has been doing really well in this period of strangeness. And it will be good at the end of this year to have something bright and exciting for people to come and visit.’
For more information about Sudbury Silk Stories and Creative Young Weavers follow the project on Instagram. The next Sudbury Silk Festival is due to take place from September 3-5, 2021.