Bill Hamilton (1916-2013)

Bill Hamilton

Written by Thomas Tuohy

Occupation: Textile Designer

Bill Hamilton was born in Glasgow ( 20.10.1916), his father, William Hamilton, was a wheelwright and his mother Mary MacFarlane, was a seamstress. He attended John St Secondary School,( renamed Tullis St), Bridgeton, Glasgow, and before the war Bill worked first at Templeton's in Glasgow where he trained as a textile technician and then worked for Viyella in Macclesfield.. During the war, serving in the Caribbean with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders he met his future wife, Kitty in Jamaica .  In 1946 his father applied on his behalf for a job for design work at West Cumberland Silk Mills in Hensingham. He was still in uniform at the time of the interview with Miki Sekers.  The West Cumberland Silk Mills were founded by two Hungarians, Miki Sekers (1910 -1972) CDB, and  Tomi de Gara (1914 – 1976) CDB who  came to Whitehaven in 1938,  moving into a factory built for them in 1939. Sekers, was in charge of publicity and design, and it was as Sekers Silk that the organisation established an international reputation.  Starting with dress fabrics, during the war the mill produced parachute silk, and subsequently fashion and furnishing fabrics. Bill was the only senior figure in the team who was not a Hungarian. He retained his distinctive Glasgow accent. He lodged with Miss Taylor in Sneckyeat Road. George Spira, who ran technical production at the Silk Mills, lodged nearby in Hensingham with Mrs Logan, and as young bachelors they established a friendship and a remarkable working relationship. Bill always considered George to be the best friend he ever had and after working together from 1946 until 1972, when George moved to Bolton and later to Australia they kept in touch until George died in 2011.

Bil  had experience in the production of fabric for ties, made of silk and wool, which was bought by a Mr Ullman in London. In 1947 Dior’s New Look required a fairly stiff fabric that would not flop in a wide skirt, and tie silk had the right rigid quality, so it was adapted for brocades. Jacquard weaving cards were supplied in Switzerland , but Bill was sent to Lyons to discuss terms there, and he was not pleased that he had to go to St Etienne where the cards themselves were made! He developed a love of France especially Paris, where he regularly attended fashion shows until the early 1960s, and enjoyed French cinema.

The Silk Mill started producing furnishing fabrics in 1960, and Bill's work expanded accordingly. Man-made fibres were used to create a luxury look, and this involved inducing yarn suppliers and dye makers to develop the raw products needed to create mostly plain fabrics that were durable, flame and light resistant, but which had the necessary feel and drape of natural fibres.  These were available in a very wide range of colours (some ranges had up to 60 colourways) and this is where Sekers fabrics were leaders in their field. An article in The Glasgow Herald in 1966 described how Bill was ‘using Lurex thread to make solid panels of shiny surface, interwoven with nylon thread repeating the design but with matt finish’.

As head of the design department and a director, it was Bill who was presented with The Duke of Edinburgh Award for Elegant Design in 1962.  He also ran the design team of around 6 people. Designs were bought in selectively from France, and Italy where another Hungarian, Paolo Farkas, was involved. Bill also got inspiration from architectural design in Persia and India. He was responsible for naming the colours and ranges, some, such as Samarkand, inspired by the Orient. One range was called Ramwong which his daughter had mentioned was a Thai dance when she was living in Thailand in 1970.  Robert Heap was his chief assistant during the 1960s, and he, and his wife Hilary, who was another designer, lived in Beckermet, first at the Lodge, opposite Barwickstead, then at Hunter How, where they later sold farm land for the housing development called Hunter Rise. Pat Willis was one of the most skilled people in the design team. For patterned fabrics, brocades, matelasses, etc it was a painstaking job for a skilled trained artist to produce the designs in such a way that when it was put into repeat the effect was continuous.

In 1973 upholstery fabrics Bonito, Bida, Bardolino and Baccarini, designed by the design team of Sekers Fabrics Ltd  were selected for a Design Council Award.

As Miki's son, David Sekers, who worked at the Silk Mill for some years, has written:

" I think he knew very well (as I did) that his personal contribution to the success of the Silk Mill was considerable, over many years. But he was quiet about it and much to his credit, never sought the limelight. It was always a joy to work with Bill: he had tremendous commitment, and at the same time a positive, even phlegmatic response to the occasional excitements that my father provoked.  I still think he deserves greater recognition as a highly skilled and original designer of woven textiles. His talent as a weave designer was exceptional, it went beyond the understanding of techniques to get artistic effects, such as texture, lustre, loft, etc – and involved the ability to construct fabrics with outstanding technical performance; (such as crease resistance; fire proof qualities, resistance to fading, or to wear and tear, etc).  These qualities combined made a huge contribution to the commercial success of the Silk Mill’. 

From the early 1970s the Silk Mill concentrated on the more lucrative market of contract upholstery, designing seat covers for Ford trucks, and for Cunard cruise ships, so Bill  exchanged the glamour of Paris for Dagenham.  After Bill retired from the Silk Mill in 1983, he continued consultancy work with companies that made tweeds included G & G Kynoch in Keith, Banffshire, Dartington  Hall Textiles in Devon, and  designing fabrics for caps made by Kangol in Cleator. He finally retired in 1998.

Bill’s wife was Catherine Macfarlane Fowler, known as Kitty (22.4.1918- 1.3.2014), born to a planter Horace Fowler and his wife Agnes in 1918 in the parish of St Ann in Jamaica. Her brother Henry Fowler (1915-2007) was a Rhodes Scholar and a distinguished Jamaican educator, and Kitty was a school mistress when she met Bill.  They married in Glasgow, moving to Whitehaven in 1947 when they lived in a house that belonged to the Silk Mill, 7 Coronation Drive. They later bought a four storey house, 3 Hensingham Road, where their children Myrna (b 1951) and Ian (b 1953) grew up.  Kitty was a good cook and they entertained a wide circle of friends, but when she first came to Britain she had to learn to cook as she had been used to having servants in Jamaica. In that she was helped by friends connected with the Silk Mills - Aniko Spira and Lilian Veith- and Pat Taylor, the daughter of Harry S. Taylor, who had a wholesale business in Whitehaven, who married Stefan Bychowski. For 25 years Kitty delivered Meals on Wheels around Whitehaven for the WVS.    

It was at the house on Hensingham Road that the Workington painter Percy Kelly was given space for an exhibition by Bill and Kitty, and he became a frequent visitor. In 1965 Kelly had turned up at the mill asking if he could paint it and Bill initially took him for a decorator before he was shown the paintings in the back of his van. Impressed, he organised the exhibition to show Kelly’s work to influential local people, several of whom bought his work. Although Miki Sekers did not attend the opening, he visited it later, and as a result of this exhibition Kelly was taken up by him, commissioned to do a series of paintings of the interior of the silk mill, given an exhibitions at Rosehill Theatre, in 1966, and then at the Sekers show room in Sloane Street in London. Miki also introducing him to potential patrons. Bill and Kitty acquired some of Kelly's early work and visited him when he moved to Wales and Norfolk, and they were sent many of Kelly's painted letters during a life-long friendship.

 Bill and Kitty moved from Hensingham in 1971, having built a bungalow on the Rheda estate near Frizington.  Bill designed the house himself, but engaged an architect from Zagreb recommended by Michael Friedlander(CDB)  The main feature of the interior was a large drawing room with a stainless steel chimney breast with windows, hung with Sekers fabric, looking onto the secluded garden. Furniture had been bought over the years at Kelly’s antique shop in Whitehaven, and a large Percy Kelly of Melbreak had a prominent position. There was a raised platform serving as a dining area with access to the kitchen and a smaller sitting room. The house was sold in 2014. Some of the contents, including painted letters by Percy Kelly were sold at Mitchells, Cockermouth in March 2018.


  • Interview with Bill and Kitty, 2009
  • Information from Myrna (Hamilton) Higgins and David Sekers