Perhaps remarkably, the David Evans Silk Company could trace its history back over three centuries, and across a number of locations in England, as production continued at its premises in Crayford, North Kent past the year 2000.
There was also a very popular visitor centre and shop in a heritage building there, which drew a significant number of individual and group visitors.
But sadly, after nearly 400 years of textile production in the area, the David Evans Silk Mill closed in 2001. This marked the end of an era for silk-making in the London region and, for visitors, the closure of the World of Silk museum, which traced the story of David Evans and Co. Founded by energetic entrepreneur David Evans in 1829, the business once had mills in Tring and Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and sales outlets in London. It moved its main activities to Crayford in 1843, taking over the premises previously used by Augustus Applegath, printer and inventor, and also Shenstone, his large Swiss-style country house, regrettably now demolished.
A secret recipe
Evans produced high quality printed silks, and gained an international reputation for their ‘Real Ancient Madder Silks’, a special process involving secret recipes! It did initially, however, include the use of cow dung, and herds of cattle were kept near the Crayford factory for the purpose. The cow sheds along London Road still exist as listed buildings. Block printing was the way of production at first, but then screen and automated printing were introduced. Quality was always the watchword and clients included, among others, Liberty’s, Holland & Holland, Christian Dior and Elizabeth Emanuel.
Evans’ original mill at Tring worked in conjunction with the one later added in Aylesbury, undertaking weaving with materials supplied by the former.
As well as the standard processes of preparing the silk into reels, the other key operation performed at Aylesbury was the difficult process of producing patterns in the fabric by the introduction of different coloured silk, arrangements of threads, or silk of different substances, using the machinery invented by the famous Frenchman Jacquard. This activity was the premium work in the factory.
Main image: Hand printing a pattern on silk using a wooden printing block.
At the Great Exhibition
By the 1850s Evans had earned great respect in the textile world of the City of London, being one of the founders of the Linen and Woollen Drapers’ Institution, and also one of its first trustees. He no doubt enhanced his reputation by taking a stand at The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, where the company was described as ‘Silk Manufacturers and Printers’ using both British and Chinese and Indian-originated products, including bandannas, handkerchiefs, dresses and other designs. David Evans became a wealthy man, and fully able to enjoy a comfortable life at Shenstone, an elegant Swiss-style house on the hillside above the works at Crayford. This imposing residence stood in 19 acres of wooded parkland overlooking extensive views of the Kent countryside, and the 20 rooms provided plenty of accommodation for his large family of 14 children. When he died in 1874 at the age of 83, the business passed to the control of his three sons. All were known for their philanthropy to their workforce and to local folk generally. George, the youngest son, entered the Evans business in Cheapside in the City of London when he was 18, and remained there until his death at the age of 84. In 1877 he paid for the refurbishment of the bells which had been presented in memory of his father to Crayford church. All kinds of silk goods were produced at the mills in Buckinghamshire, and then Crayford, mostly going straight to the counters of the silk mercers in London, including Evans’ own. It is thought that some of the articles manufactured were exported to Paris, reimported to London, and then sold as ‘superior French goods’. Silk items from Aylesbury reputedly even found their way into Queen Victoria’s wardrobe.
A Visitor Attraction
As well as continuing production right through the twentieth century, David Evans' Crayford operation offered tours of the Mill and had a popular visitor centre called "Craft Centre of Silk". Visitors could also enjoy the Mulberry Tree Coffee Shop and Gift Shop with exclusive items from the factory
David Evans closes but the tradition continues
The last silk square was printed at the David Evans factory in Crayford on 4th July 2001, and the closure of the firm was a great loss to Crayford’s industrial heritage. By then, the David Evans business was part of the Silk Industries group, and its silk finishing business was moved to the Adamley Mill, near Macclesfield in Cheshire – another traditional silk industry centre. The Adamley business was founded there more than 40 years ago and specialises in hand screen printing of silk fabrics for a luxury market of prestigious manufacturers and individual celebrities.
In 2007 Silk Industries sold off its silk screen printing businesses, including the David Evans activities, to a management team led by Managing Director Tro Manoukian, in a deal also involving Manchester-based silk wholesaler Biddle Sawyer Silks, which supplies the likes of Agent Provocateur, la Perla and other luxury designers. The David Evans element included the license for its design archive, which dates back to the 1700s and holds original artworks for fashion houses such as Christian Dior.
Since the takeover, Manoukian and his colleagues have grown the business further and its Vanners silk weavers division has invested in its Sudbury, Suffolk, operation – at Gregory Mills – which specialises in manufacture for the high-end market – continuing a tradition of silk operations in Sudbury, as mentioned earlier in this article, dating back more than 250 years.
The Vanners/Adamley/Biddle Sawyer enterprise now itself keeps the flag flying for British-made silk items, with the unique and prestigious David Evans tradition to draw on.
You can still ‘explore’ the fascinating history of the Crayford silk mill in the article, David Evans – The Last of the London Fabric Printers, and experience a digitised version of one of the exhibitions that was held at Bexley’s Hall Place Historic House in 2013, Pattern to Print: The story of David Evans, Crayford’s Silk Printers. Part of the site in Crayford – the Long Shed – a listed building, remains, but is not open to the public – although Bexley Heritage Trust were at first interested in securing the future of the museum and the building.
Main image: Map of South East Britain published in The Making of England by John Richard Green (1900)