Halifax was once the global capital of carpet-making and now one local firm is leading a revival

In the hills above Halifax, a renaissance is taking place. In a draughty unit, which was once a garden nursery in Southowram, Richard Hughes is pursuing his ambitious vision to restore the town’s global reputation for producing the finest narrow-loom carpets.

Richard Hughes pictured checking the looms. (Simon Hulme).
Richard Hughes pictured checking the looms. (Simon Hulme).

Dean Clough, the gigantic mill at the heart of Halifax, stands as a modern day reminder that this was once the world’s biggest carpet factory in a town that was the global capital of carpet-making.

From the early 19th century onwards, the town’s fortunes have been intertwined with that of the carpet industry. Halifax carved a worldwide reputation for producing the finest carpets as more than 5,000 workers proudly crafted luxurious narrow loom Wilton and Brussels carpets at John Crossley & Sons.

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But by the 1970s cheaper foreign imported carpets had seen the workforce shrink and Crossley’s ceased production of narrow loom carpets in 1975. Avena Carpets bought some of the old looms and continued producing these carpets but when it stopped manufacturing last year, it looked like Halifax would no longer produce the carpet which made its name worldwide.

Rachel Tighe checks the Archive Slips at Avena Carpets. (Simon Hulme).

Richard learned about production ending at Avena and was excited by the opportunity to relaunch narrow loom carpet weaving in West Yorkshire. “I knew the demand was there for these products. The light went on in my head,” he says.

“I wrote a business plan and approached potential backers, people with manufacturing experience in Yorkshire and other parts of the UK. My family has also backed me and when I commissioned someone to do a report on the state of the looms, he actually invested in the business!”

Richard, 36, acquired the assets, archive and goodwill of Avena Carpets including 10 of the original Crossley carpet weaving looms that date from 1850. They have been painstakingly restored and five are being used to weave carpets by Avena Carpets in Southowram. Such is the intricate weaving process that just 30m to 50m of carpet a week are produced on each loom.

The firm recently completed and fitted its first order, a stair carpet for a private home in the UK, while further orders have been received for historic properties in Germany and Norway and the National Trust. Interest is high and only expected to grow given that the firm holds an archive of over 5,000 designs dating back 150 years.

Avena's seven founding members at the Denholm premises in the mid-1970s.

This incredible carpet treasure trove, hanging in its warehouse, means the firm knows the exact pattern and size of carpet for every order it has ever made. Volunteers from Calderdale Industrial Museum are helping to catalogue the archive, enabling Avena to document and promote these historical patterns to interior decorators, curators and national heritage bodies worldwide.

The firm has also recruited weavers that used to work for Avena many years ago but who had moved into different industries.

John Joyce works on one of the looms now powered by electricity rather than steam, proudly pointing out the intricate patterns and colours involved in the process of creating a narrow loom carpet. “I never thought I’d ever be back doing this, it is truly amazing,” he says with a combination of emotion and exhilaration.

The business employs eight full-time and two part-time staff, including 72-year-old Alison who had retired but has returned to work to stamp the cards which determine the pattern on the loom. “She will train up a young person to do the job,” says Richard.

The machines at work in the factory near Halifax. (Simon Hulme).

He is proud that Avena is producing carpets the traditional way but there is one area where he does want to buck history. The firm has taken on a young female apprentice who will train to become a weaver with an apprenticeship in textile manufacturing with the Textile Centre of Excellence in Huddersfield.

“All the weavers are male, she will be the first female,” says Richard, “I don’t want it to be a male-dominated workforce, I want it to be diverse. When you think about it, this all started out as cottage industries with women weaving in their homes, then the factories were built and men went out to work.”

Production and design manager Rachel Tighe has been in the carpet industry all her life – her father was one of the original owners of Avena and she worked for the company in the early 1990s. “I’m so emotionally involved,” she says, as she explains the heritage of Crossley carpets and traditional narrow loom weaving in Halifax.

Richard, in his previous role, commissioned carpets from the old Avena business and he and Rachel realised they had been in contact in the past, but never met. “We found emails between us – fortunately they were very polite,” says Rachel, laughing. Now they are working together on the rebirth of Avena and Crossley carpets.

Richard worked in a carpets business in London for a decade, creating and fitting carpets for the Royal Household, oligarchs’ superyachts and for the luxury homes of celebrities. He left in July 2020 and started to look at other opportunities, but when he heard Avena had stopped producing carpets, he started talking to the firm about taking on the business and only completed the deal in April.

Despite its modest beginnings, Richard and his enthusiastic team are confident the business can uphold the tradition, history and quality of narrow loom carpets made in Halifax. “Carpets woven on Crossley looms are well known for their particular fine pitch quality, and we will promote the carpets throughout the world and restore Halifax’s global reputation, for this very specialist product,” he says.

“We are at the start of a very long process, but the stakeholders are very excited about what the future has in store for this new venture, there is so much history and connection to the area.

“All of our supply chain is local, there is nothing that isn’t from West Yorkshire. All are from within 25 miles of here – the yarn, dye houses, wires, engineering and forklifts are all local, and even the compressor is from Elland.”

Garsides, the local removal company, completed the meticulous and laborious job of removing the looms from their original location at Bankfield and then rebuilding them in Southowram in just three months. “I’m quite overwhelmed by the support everyone is giving us. I love the product, it is quite versatile, it doesn’t have to be traditional, it can be contemporary,” adds Richard.

He says things have happened so quickly since acquiring the business in April that he isn’t ready to pause and reflect on things just yet. “But it does make me smile,” he adds.

You can follow Avena on Instagram, where it is documenting its story.