Margaret Crosby looks back on Sekers silk and its important role in our community

IT is almost 50 years since the women weavers of Sekers silk took their seats in eager anticipation at Whitehaven’s Empire Cinema to see Ingrid Bergman in the classic film Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

In the 1950s’ film Bergman’s part is based on the true story of Gladys Aylward, a British missionary to China who is presented, by an appreciative Mandarin (Robert Donat), with a red kimono which had been made from Sekers silk.

It’s a beautiful film and it was a gorgeous silk kimono. It’s about the time of the campaign against infant foot-binding in China and Gladys is appointed the Mandarin’s foot inspector during the tumultuous years leading up to World War II.

West Cumberland Silk Mills was the parent company of Sekers Fabrics, founded and established at Whitehaven in 1938 by Hungarian Jew Nicholas Sekers (known as ‘Miki’) and his cousin and partner Tomi de Gara.

Before arriving in England aged just 27, Miki, later to become Sir Nicholas Sekers, had for six years been a designer in the family business in Hungary. He and Tomi de Gara received their textile training in Hungary, France and Germany.

Having decided to leave their homeland and start up a similar type of business on their own in England, the cousins applied to the appropriate authorities for a suitable site for their factory.

At this time an organisation called the Cumberland Development Council was sparing no effort in its keenness to bring new industry to the economically-depressed area of West Cumberland, which was suffering from the demise of its coal mining industry.

The Richmond Hill site at Hensingham, overlooking the town, was selected and the Silk Mill came into being. Its purpose was to manufacture high-quality silks and rayon fabrics for the fashion trade. Lord Adams of Ennerdale, a home-grown champion of West Cumberland keen to bring new industry to the area, was instrumental in the move.

The factory started in 1938 but now, 70 years on, the looms are silent, the business long gone and demolition has started.

By 1940 Sekers and de Gara, together with a handful of skilled textile workers from Hungary, had trained staff to operate 50 looms and produce a successful collection of brocades, lamés, and satins.

From 1939 to 1945 the mill was engaged in Government work, manufacturing fabric for parachutes, initially made of silk, then nylon, so only a small percentage of its output could be devoted to fashion fabrics.

Once war was over the Silk Mills began to be a source for the great couturiers Edward Molyneux, Bianca Mosca and Christian Dior.

The big change in dress fabrics came when Dior introduced the New Look. The soft piece-dye fabrics were changed to colour-woven, stiffer, heavier fabrics such as brocades and satins.

In February 1947 Christian Dior showed his first post-war collection and many of his longer swinging pleated skirts and fabulous evening gowns were in fabric by Sekers. The Sekers name became synonymous in the world of fashion with the best in quality and luxury.

Among the great fashion houses supplied by Sekers were Pierre Cardin and Givenchy in Paris, Pierre Balmain, Patou and Belenciaga.

The company went from success to success, the factory was expanded, at one time employing up to 500 people.

Then came the fashion revolution of the swinging 60s when formal styles took a back seat and the flamboyant, anything-goes era arrived. Sekers decided to enter the field of furnishing fabrics tapping into the increasingly sophisticated taste for colour and design. Some collections boasted a colour range of over 2,000 colours.

“Our fabrics can be used equally well in a period house or in the most avant-garde setting’’ claimed Sir Nicholas at the time, and rightly so. He referred to himself as a rebel, he was not one given to false modesty and was mighty proud of what he had achieved with “my talent and enthusiasm’’, accepting he had a good support team.

In July 1955 the silk mills had become a public company with Sir Nicholas and Tomi de Gara as joint managing directors. Miki was in charge of publicity and design and Tomi looked after production and finance.

Nicholas Thomas Sekers (formerly Szekeres) was born in Sopren, Hungary, in 1910 and would have liked the opportunity to study music, but his industrialist father had other ideas and it was into the fabric industry he went.

Miki was married, to Agota, with three children: Christine, born 1942, who married Jean Baudrand, the son of a Lyons textile manufacturer; David born 1943, who married Simone Caplan, daughter of the general manager of Glyndebourne; and Alan, born 1947, who went into the field of film production.

Miki Sekers’ activities in Whitehaven were not confined to the factory. It was his love of music and performance that drove him to build the theatre at Rosehill which was opened in September 1959.

Sir Nicholas, who died in 1972, aged 62, was knighted in 1965 for his services to the arts. He had received the MBE in 1955 for services to the fashion industry and in 1962 he received the Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize for Elegant Design for his furnishing fabric range. In 1965 he received a Design Centre Award.

Supported by his fellow West Cumberland industrialists, Sekers managed to get his “jewel box theatre’’ at Rosehill opened, in September 1959, when Dame Peggy Ashcroft read a specially-written prologue.

At a celebration in 1968 to mark the business’s 30th anniversary Sir Nicholas told gathered guests: “After the war we had to sell about 80% of our production for export. When I went for the first time to sell in the States, on the morning of my arrival, by special messenger, a copy of Women’s Wear Daily arrived at the hotel. On the main page was a sketch of a dress worn by the late Princess Marina, made by Bianca Mosca, in a Sekers fabric.

“This gave me self- confidence and when I continued my tour to Canada, New Zealand and Australia I knew I could not fail.’’

In 1968 Sekers introduced fire-proof fabrics into its range, widely used in hotels, public rooms, and by shipping lines.

Both as a textile designer and as a theatre impresario Sir Nicholas enjoyed considerable publicity during these years and numerous articles were written about him.

In 1970 Sir Nicholas had an operation for a faulty heart valve and retired from the Silk Mills. His former colleagues had arranged to provide him with a pension and offered him the option to purchase Rosehill House (which belonged to the company).

By spring 1971 however he had recovered from his operation and his dynamism returned, declaring that he did not have enough money to retire.

Living partly at Rosehill House and partly at his London flat, he began operating as a freelance consultant and was working with the Lister Group of Bradford, a competitor of West Cumberland Silk Mills.

This created tension and the relationship between him and the majority of Silk Mills’ directors rapidly worsened.

He declined the option to buy Rosehill House and it was ultimately sold to Dr John Blackburn, managing director of Vantona Textiles.

A year later Sir Nicholas suffered a heart attack while on holiday in Yugoslavia and died.

In 1983 the Blackburns sold Rosehill House which was converted into a home for the elderly.

Sekers fabrics were used in the wedding gowns of Princess Margaret and Moira Shearer.

Calls have been made for a plaque to commemorate the life of Sir Nicholas.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of Rosehill Theatre.

(Film digitised by North West Film Archive. The Sekers video clip is a section of a movie film entitiled, This is Britain No 37).