harvey nichols cloth
There's a widely held feeling that the Yorkshire textile industry is no more – mills closed, workers laid off, production transferred to Asia. Dead and buried in other words.
No-one could miss the fact that much of it has vanished from the landscape of West Yorkshire, especially in Bradford, the one-time wool capital of the world.
Many mills remain, but have been turned into something else. Fifty years ago, 140,000 people worked in them. Today, the figure for textiles is down to about 2,000. The real decline set in during the early 1960s and a historian of the industry describes what has happened since as a catalogue of woe.
This may be true of the mass market. But Yorkshire never lost its footing in the top-ofthe- range niche. In the 1950s, Huddersfield cloth was renowned as the finest in the world.
Today, a slimmer, fitter, more upmarket version of the industry has emerged from the wreckage with something worth shouting about. To get a proper hearing they needed a louder regional voice and at last they have one. Eleven mills from across Yorkshire have been given the opportunity to show off their best in a dramatic in-store display at Harvey Nichols in Leeds that runs until the summer.
Their fabrics can be found covering display shelves, draped down the stairwell and creating changing-room curtains. Even chairs have been upholstered in Yorkshire woollen fabrics while cosy throws have been draped on chairs in the outdoor cafŽ. Store designer Andy Berrington has also created displays with lengths of fringing, swatches of fabric, lengths of yarn and even binary pattern cards.
The idea of bringing the mills together to market their wares was the brainchild of Suzy Shepherd and Carolyn Lord. They are the founders of Leeds Fashion Works, a group of professionals dedicated to raising the profile of the area by coming up with eye-catching fashion and retail ideas.
Discovering behind the old Yorkshire woollen textiles image a vibrant and dynamic industry, they decided this was worth celebrating. "One of our objectives has been to dispel the belief that the Yorkshire textiles industry has died and to highlight the amazing international success of the high quality products that our mills now specialise in," says Carolyn Lord.
Working with individual mills they came up with a collective brand – Yorkshire Textiles. Coordinating it is Jonathan Dyson, president of the Bradford Textile Society, who says: "As far as I'm aware, this is the first time there has been this sort of coming together. The Yorkshire mills have become more aware of the need for marketing in recent years because the market is just so much more competitive." A chance meeting with Harvey Nichols's general manager, Brian Handley, made it happen.
Some of the mills go back a long way. In the case of Bower Roebuck in the Holme Valley, the date on the stone of what used to be a finishing house (where the washing, cutting and pressing part of the job was carried out) says 1779.
In those days, water was the key. The abundance of it tumbling down the steep valley sides gave them free power and its wonderful softness brought out the best from the fruit of the looms. Good water, good land and lots of sheep were the geographical advantages which helped give Yorkshire textiles domination. The human ones were inventiveness, enterprise and determination.
The phenomenal decline of the industry was down to cheap imports. But complacency and a lack of innovation also played their part. Bradford entrepreneur Jonathan Silver, who came from a textiles background and studied them, spent part of the 1980s looking over mills that were all washed up. He discovered in some of them that the machinery which the last shift had switched off not long before had been installed in the 1900s.
Silver eventually bought a derelict mill for himself, a prodigious Victorian palace of business whose presence spoke of the magnificence of Yorkshire textiles and its bosses. His revival of Salts Mill and the subsequent elevation of the model village of Saltaire surrounding it to World Heritage site status was a singular private enterprise achievement. But the late Mr Silver's storming success at Salts which has given it a national profile, had nothing to do with wool textiles.
In Leeds, the oldest textile mill, Hainsworth, is still in the same business. Tom Hainsworth, who is part of the fifth generation of his family to run it, says moving with the times is essential to survival. "Innovation is the lifeblood of any business creating a future."
Hainsworth makes a wide range of things, from fire-resistant textiles to the cloth for the uniforms worn by the sentries outside Buckingham Palace and high quality wall coverings used in the home of the boss of Microsoft, Bill Gates. And how's this for diversity? Hainsworth recently launched the first ever woollen coffin. They describe it as affordable, sustainable product that is already being exported throughout Europe and America.
Others in the exhibition include Alfred Brown, Arthur Harrison, Edwin Woodhouse, John Cavendish, John Foster, Joseph H Clissold, Abraham Moon, Savile Clifford and Taylor & Lodge. For all these mills, survival has come through diversification as well as a core business of quality textiles. Trading at the top end of the market has brought custom from the likes of Aquascutum, Burberry, Gucci, Prada – client lists read like a fashion Who's Who.
Savile Row comes up in force from London to the Holme Valley to Bower Roebuck to see for themselves the manufacture of cloth there for trousers with very deep pockets. One has crushed diamond fragments incorporated into the yarn. Another has lapis lazuli woven into it. And how about 22 carat gold? Certainly sir, no problem, when would you like it?
Robert McQuillan of Taylor and Lodge in Huddersfield (makers of the cashmere and mohair fabric for a Tom Ford suit worn by 007 Daniel Craig in the film Quantum of Solace) thinks it's about time Yorkshire textiles were celebrated on their home turf. "Wherever I travel in the world, people are aware of Yorkshire textiles, yet at home we are not so well known," he says. "Some 25,000 people go through the doors of Harvey Nichols each week and I'd like to think that many of them will now be made more aware of Yorkshire textiles."
Brian Handley says that what initially excited him about the project was that so many of the fashion houses represented at Harvey Nichols are supplied by mills practically on their Leeds doorstep.
"Visiting the mills was a real eye-opener," he says. "Each one produces something completely different. We didn't want this project to cost the mills vast amounts of money, so we've actually used things in our store display, such as offcuts and waste products." One example are the lengths of green felt with punched-out circular shapes. The circles themselves are used in Steinway pianos, but the by-product delighted Brian's in-store team so much that they've used swathes of it to decorate the store.
Brian Handley notes that Government funding for marketing initiatives is meagre compared with other countries. Yet in Italy – our main competitor in the production of top-end woollen fabrics – there is huge investment in marketing and infrastructure.
It's generally reckoned the Italians are streets ahead of us and that broadly speaking they have succeeded because they kept the mills together as family businesses. Over there, family tradition is the basis of success – along with the ambition that their cloth should remain the finest in the world. Dividends to the shareholders are not the sole yardstick of success. It's difficult to ignore the fact that it has taken people not directly involved in the cloth trade to have the inspiration for this exhibition. Maybe as long-time competitors, the Yorkshire mills can't see the wood for the trees.
"Perhaps it has taken an outsider to see that there is a bigger picture, to realise how much the mills have achieved and how important what they are doing is for British industry," says Carolyn Lord of Leeds Fashion Works,
Has this old-school industry now woken up to the fact that marketing is essential in the long-term?
Jonathan Dyson says: "I think the mills have really enjoyed this project and want to do more of the same. They focus a lot more on marketing now after what in some ways has been a slow start compared to other industries.
"When you look at equivalents, in Italy for example, there has been an enormous government contribution compared with the UK."
The Leeds exhibition also has turn-of- the-century archive books from the Sunnybank Mills Textile Archive, one of the most complete textile archives in Yorkshire. The exhibition also has a new commission by sculptor Peter Maris, whose stone and anodysed aluminium sculpture is based upon a suit jacket on a coat hanger. Leeds Fashion Works also has educational ideas to bring in students.
The long-term significance of this project is that it has led to a new spirit of collaboration that should help the mills face up to world competition. As those guardsmen wearing Leeds cloth on their backs will know, there's strength in numbers on the battlefield.