Great great granddaughter of founder of Leeds mill Alfred Brown launches jewellery collection inspired by the loom

Featuring archive photos of inside her Yorkshire family mill, jeweller Megan Brown tells Stephanie Smith how growing up as part of a weaving dynasty inspired her beautiful new collection. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Jewellery designer Megan Brown, great great granddaugher of the founder of Alfred Brown, with her woven designs in the family weavers mill in Bramley. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

As a child, Megan Brown took her family firm for granted. Founded by her great-great grandfather, Alfred Brown is a globally revered Yorkshire cloth manufacturer, weaving 1.2 million metres a year, supplying Celine, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Savile Row and working with Prince Charles on his Campaign for Wool initiative.

“Growing up, dad would bring the fabrics back,” Megan says. “And we would often go to the mill. Dad might have to pick something up so we would all go, so I’ve always been there, and it’s nice because you know everyone who works there. There are a lot of long-standing employees so it’s very much like a family business.”

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Cloth and the weaving process are in her blood, so it is no surprise that they have been the inspiration for her own work as a jeweller, transforming silver and gold into exquisite pieces that reflect Alfred Brown’s weaving heritage, exploring how the softness and fluidity of luxury fabric can translate into metals.

Alfred Brown employees in 1918.

Brown & Sons began making uniform fabrics for the military in 1915, founded in Bramley by Herbert Brown, a Leeds retailer, pawnbroker, Liberal politician and deputy lord mayor. In 1954, Herbert’s son Alfred took over the business and it became known as Alfred Brown. Third generation family members Alfred, David and Peter grew the company and in the 1970s, its biggest customer was Montague Burton, which at one time had the largest clothing factory in the world, producing over 30,000 suits a week.

Alfred the younger’s sons Ian and Nigel joined in 1986 and Joanne, his youngest daughter, joined on the sales side in the 1990s. In 2000, Warner Bros asked Alfred Brown to weave the black fabric for the Hogwarts cloaks in all the Harry Potter films, and the firm also supplied the fabric for the Next Team GB suits for the 2012 London Olympics and for the M&S suits worn by the England football squad for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

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“Because it’s a family business, it is in the background and you don’t realise how much it influences you,” Megan says. “I’m always drawn to line and form and actually it’s the fabrics that have influenced that.”

Jewellery designer Megan Brown with her woven designs in the family weavers mill in Bramley. Pictured with, from left, brothers Sam, Ben and dad Ian. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Now 25, Megan grew up near Harrogate with her father, Ian Brown, joint managing director of Alfred Brown, mother Rhian and brothers, Ben, 30, and Sam, 29, who also work for the family firm, and sister Hannah, currently studying English at Nottingham University.

After school at Ashville College in Harrogate, she took a foundation year at Leeds College of Art before heading off for Edinburgh College of Art to study fashion design and textiles. “I would have carried on that path but after a year I had to drop out because I had glandular fever,” she says. “It was one of those things where life turns its head on you. You don’t expect it.

“It made me stop and rethink everything, which glandular fever literally does because you have to pause. It was actually a good thing, because it made me find what I really love doing.”

As she recovered, Megan decided to make the most of her enforced pause by learning new creative crafts. Her mum introduced her to jeweller Debbie Moxon, of Moxon & Simm at Pateley Bridge, who offered to teach her. Sitting with Debbie at her bench, Megan made herself a stone bangle and soon found that people were asking where it was from.

Jewellery designer Megan Brown wears her Handmade Silver Woven Blanket Earrings, £265 . Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

She says: “I really fell in love with jewellery making. I love the attention to detail and the history, and the miniature sculpture aspect of it. The processes are really hard and you make a lot of mistakes in the beginning but I am quite determined and I do have a lot of patience.”

Megan became an apprentice with I’Anson Jewellers in Harrogate. “A lot of the time you are repairing antique pieces and you can see all the mistakes the past jewellers have done, so you learn from the ground up what not to do,” she says.

She worked there for three years while also working on her own designs, and then a year ago she decided to concentrate wholly on her own business and create a new collection. “Because of the mill, I wanted to experiment with the idea of weaving and I loved the textures. I have always had ideas in the back of my mind for a flowing piece,” she says.

“Then I found that I started using chains to create an idea of movement, and they allowed a really fine weave. When I stumbled across it, I loved the texture of it. When it catches the light, all the tiny facets on the chain really sparkle.

Elsie Naylor was a weaver at Alfred Brown, the image was taken in the 1950s. She worked there all her life and her son also worked at the mill.

“The first piece was the woven hoop which curls behind the ear almost like an illusion. I developed that on to the draped earrings, which look like a piece of fabric flowing off your ear.”

With her designs already gaining recognition (she currently features in Goldsmiths Shine 2020, showcasing up-and-coming jewellery designers), Megan credits her family with supporting her all the way. “I’ve got two very creative parents,” she says. “Mum is a great networker. She has been really amazing, pushing me forward and inspiring me to go further.

“Initially, you don’t have much confidence in yourself and it’s the family that encourages you to keep going with it, because it’s good. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Lockdown has seen a rise in considered commissions, she says. “People have more time to think. They might have a piece and they want to do something with it. It’s coming back to family and craftsmanship. They want something they can have forever. They have gone to the simpler things and what really matters.”

Now Megan is exploring collaborations, including with a paper artist, to create sculptural designs. She is also considering a move to London where she would be more able to work with other young jewellery creatives.

“I am torn about it but I think it would be an interesting new chapter,” she says. “Nothing was planned but maybe the best things aren’t.”

Jewellery designer Megan Brown inside Bramely mill Alfred Brown, with her father, Ian, who is joint managing director of the family firm, started by Alfred in 1915. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Megan Brown Jewellery Weaving collection is available on Shine 2020, an online showcase, until December 22 at www.goldsmiths-shop-talent.org and also through Megan’s website, www.meganbrownjewellery.com.

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Employees gathered together before lockdown at Alfred Brown in Barmley.
The Alfred Brown mill in 1918. Copyright Alfred Brown
Megan Brown Weaving Necklace, price on application, photograph by Stuey'B
Megan Brown Gold Woven Hoop Stud Earrings, £320. Picture by Stuey.B
Jewellery designer Megan Brown wears her Unique Silver and Gold Woven draped Stud earrings, £480. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
Handmade Tapestry Gold and Silver ring, £560