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Cresta Silks in Welwyn on its 90th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 10:59 16 July 2019

Cresta Silks advertisement from 1937 (photo: Welwyn Garden City Heritage Trust / Copyright The Barn Theatre)

Cresta Silks advertisement from 1937 (photo: Welwyn Garden City Heritage Trust / Copyright The Barn Theatre)

Image from the Welwyn Garden City Heritage Trust archive. Copyright The Barn Theatre archive.

Cresta Silks, founded in Welwyn GC 90 years ago, is a remarkable story of leading artists, socialist principals and commercial nous that made women look fabulous

The pursuit of quality in everything and to place the creative artist at the centre of business - these were the founding principles of Tom Heron's Cresta Silks.

For decades the women's fashion company he founded in Welwyn GC 90 years ago was a go-to for style. But Heron was an unusual businessman, combining socialist principles, a love of craftsmanship and commercial realism to form Cresta. It was fitting then, that he chose the garden city to relocate from Cornwall - the town was built on much the same foundations.

The company made ladies clothes and accessories from high quality silks specially woven on old looms at Arnold Wright's Silk Mill in Dorset. Stylish modernism was at the heart of everything Cresta did.

Tom Heron was an artist, a businessman, and a social reformer. He had previously managed the textile company Cryséde in Cornwall, which was run by the artist Alec Walker. In 1929 Walker suffered a breakdown and fired Heron.

Staff in the Cresta workroom in Welwyn GC. The company had progressive employment practices (photo: Welwyn Garden City Library/Hertfordshire Archives and Library Service)Staff in the Cresta workroom in Welwyn GC. The company had progressive employment practices (photo: Welwyn Garden City Library/Hertfordshire Archives and Library Service)

Heron settled on Welwyn GC as the location for his new company, as purpose built units on Broadwater Road were big enough to accommodate a flourishing business, alongside his appreciation of town founder Ebenezer Howard's vision.

Cresta Silks employed many local people as well as bringing new employees to the area. The workforce was mainly female and girls straight from school would start their career here. Heron had an eye for talent, and was able to develop a dedicated workforce. He believed in fair pay, healthy working conditions, and generous holidays for his staff. He employed female managers which was very rare at the time.

Heron's views made him popular with staff, with one employee describing him as a marvellous but strict boss. She even said that at work you were allowed to sing, but not talk!

Bold abstract and modernist designs were key (photo: Danny Loo)Bold abstract and modernist designs were key (photo: Danny Loo)

Tom Heron wanted every aspect of Cresta to be stylish and modern. He took a risk and commissioned the inexperienced architect Wells Coates to design shops, workrooms and furniture for the company. Coates used inexpensive materials including plywood, glass, and metal to create sleek, clean interiors. Shops were set up in affluent shopping areas such as Bond Street, Brighton, and Bournemouth. In the workroom large windows let in lots of light to improve conditions and show the fabric colours in their true light. Coates is now one of the best known architects of the modernist movement.

Heron also employed artist and graphic designer Edward McKnight Kauffer to design a logo, lettering and packaging for the company. The American designed London Transport posters in the 1930s and is known for his clean lines and modern style.

For over 30 years Cresta's hallmark was its exquisite hand block printed designs. A very time consuming and skilled technique, block printing creates bright, vibrant colours. Each section of a design was hand carved into wood blocks. These blocks would then be coated in thick ink, placed on to the silk and struck with a mallet to drive the dye into the fabric.

University of Hertfordshire fashion student design inspired by Cresta (photo: Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service)University of Hertfordshire fashion student design inspired by Cresta (photo: Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service)

Cresta designs were wide ranging in style and colour and were used on clothes, accessories and even furniture. Tom Heron commissioned many well-known artists to produce textile designs including Cedric Morris, best known for his abundant floral paintings, and the abstract artists Graham Sutherland and perhaps best known, Paul Nash. Heron liked to use his fame in advertising, saying 'We employ designers like Paul Nash'. Nash objected to this, saying there were no other designers like him!

Heron and his wife Eulalie nurtured an artistic spirit in their son Patrick. In 1934, at the age of 14 he designed his first Cresta scarf, called Melon. Patrick produced many designs, and this influence can be seen in his use of colour and shapes in his later works as a renowned artist in his own right. Today, many of Patrick Heron's abstract works - colourful bold dabs, dashes, and strokes - are in the Tate collection.

With the start of the Second World War the government commandeered silk for parachutes. Cresta's premises were taken over and its workers reassigned to war work. An adaptable businessman, Heron traded in wool instead, and was key in the creation of the Utility Clothing Scheme, which produced stylish yet functional wartime clothing.

Changes in fabrics saw a boom in the company's productivity and popularity (photo: Danny Loo)Changes in fabrics saw a boom in the company's productivity and popularity (photo: Danny Loo)

After the war, Heron bought shares in another textile company to form Cresta-Cryséde Properties. Heron's son, Patrick became chief designer, and new man-made fabrics and quicker printing techniques were set up to reduced costs. This new approach would make Cresta one of the most successful and iconic British textile companies of the period. The company grew rapidly into a national brand. For Tom Heron the highlight was in 1953 when Cresta created a limited edition silk scarf to celebrate the coronation of the Queen. Heron employed set designer Oliver Messel to produce a design featuring the Queen's Gold State Coach, finished with gold leaf. The piece was featured on the cover of British Vogue in April 1953, and was reissued in white in 1977 for the Queen's Silver Jubilee.

In 1953 Tom Heron retired and employed Eric Crabtree as manager. This was a time of great change and growth for the company. By 1973 there were 80 shops across the country and well over 1,000 employees. Cresta finally ceased trading in the late 1970s when it was sold to Debenhams.

Cresta's Welwyn Garden City design. Fabrics were used on women's clothes and accessories as well as furnishings (photo: Debenhams PLC)Cresta's Welwyn Garden City design. Fabrics were used on women's clothes and accessories as well as furnishings (photo: Debenhams PLC)

Cresta exhibition

An exhibition on Cresta Silks, Cresta Couture: Designing fashion inspired by nature, is on at Mill Green Museum and Mill in Hatfield until November 10.

In the displays Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire celebrate the innovative and stylish fabrics created by the company. Alongside original garments, university fashion design students have explored how Cresta prints can be reimagined for the contemporary market with their own designs. welhat.gov.uk/museums

The company drew artists to design bold abstract and floral patterns (photo: Danny Loo)The company drew artists to design bold abstract and floral patterns (photo: Danny Loo)

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