Joan Fruen who has retired after nearly 25 years of working at the Silk Mill. (Click to enlarge)

Whitchurch Silk Mill’s longest employed skilled worker has retired after nearly 25 years service. Joan Fruen, 68, a weaver at the town’s leading visitor attraction has put away her bobbins!
The town website was honoured to have a wonderful opportunity to meet with Joan.

25 years ago, Joan, used to work at the town’s watercress beds but was attracted to the Mill by an advertisement from the then manager Mike Fisher. She started on the pirn winder but soon became the Mill’s most experienced weaver on the loom. Those early days lead to lots of memories…

“I was absolutely terrified when I started, but on seeing the result of the weaving, it was lovely” said Joan.

Theatrical and film work…
Much of her work was weaving ottoman silk which is used for formal dress in the legal and academic professions, and most went up to London. Over the years many film and theatre dramas have also used work by Joan, including Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Scarlet & Black and Mary Poppins. Her most enjoyable activity was creating colourful silk ribbons, and these have been used in Back to the Future III and many other productions.

When Joan started, the Mill was solely a production facility and there have been changes over the years. It has since opened itself to visitors with over 10,000 now coming each year to see both the wonderful building and the working machinery, while schools also regularly come on educational tours. These visitors also now enjoy the well-stocked shop with its books and range of gifts, as well as the tearoom. Special exhibitions are also popular and events are often held in and around the building and grounds.

A presentation was made by staff and well-wishers to Joan on her retirement. (Click to enlarge)

Extensive knowledge…
The weaving machinery is Victorian and can be temperamental. “You never stop learning” was a statement she often repeats, and it is uncertain what will now develop after her retirement. Presently there are no short apprenticeships which could help continue the work, although Joan’s extensive knowledge and experience could perhaps still be used in other ways.
For now she will give advice where necessary as well as having more time for her gardening and allotments, but this work on the looms is now in her blood.

Joan recounted many memories including a time when looking over the lawn a visitor taking a photo of the Mill kept walking back, framing his shot, then fell backwards into the River Test. She helped fish him out!

” I’ve loved working here, it’s been my life” she said as she looked out over the lawn.
“Its been an absolute pleasure working with silk, while also watching the squirrels pinching the walnuts off the trees. You can’t get a better place.”

A legacy…
Memories of Joan’s work are also held in the hearts of many who meet her. A young Whitchurch girl who undertook work experience in the gift shop several years ago, still remembers the day when Joan handed her a small bag of ribbon oddments at the end of her two weeks. Now a young lady she has just graduated in Costume Production and may be using silk from the Mill in her creations. She still recalls her excitement in receiving the small gift.
Joan’s legacy at the Mill will last for a long long time.

Details of the Silk Mill can be found on their website: Whitchurch Silk Mill

Thank you to the Silk Mill for the use of the photographs.

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