Mills and boom – textiles still woven into the fabric of Yorkshire’s economy

As worldwide demand for British heritage brands grows, Sebastian Oake asks, can it spark a great textile revival in Yorkshire?

The story of the Yorkshire textiles industry is one that’s all too often filed under “h” for history. It’s true that the expansion of the wool mills in the 19th-century, which helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, then gave way to a long, painful decline, but it seems the industry is far from dead.

From Huddersfield to Keighley, there are still companies not only still involved in producing yarn and cloth but against the odds making a success of it.

Companies like Abraham Moon, which this year is celebrating its 175th anniversary. At its Netherfield Mills base in Guiseley every aspect of production, from dyeing, carding and spinning through to weaving and finishing takes place within its walls and each week up to 30,000 metres of cloth is produced by a workforce of around 170.

The mill stayed in the Moon family from 1837 until 1920 when it was sold to Charles Walsh, whose descendants still run the company today. It’s been an incredible journey through history.

When it was founded – in the same year that Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne – the wool industry was expanding rapidly. In 1838 there were 106 wool mills in Leeds alone.

Different parts of Yorkshire had begun to adopt specialisms. Huddersfield was known for heavy woollens – blankets and greatcoats – and went on to carve out a reputation for fine suiting cloth. Carpets meant Halifax, Bradford was the worsted capital and Leeds augmented its wool factories with a flax-based linen industry. Meanwhile, Batley and Dewsbury became the centre for rag-pulling and fibre recycling.

Giant mills changed the shape of the skyline. In Leeds Benjamin Gott’s Bean Ings Mill on Wellington Street was perhaps the first industrial-scale steam-driven wool mill in the world.

One of the best known worsted mills was Black Dyke Mills at Queensbury outside Bradford. It was founded by John Foster who became a wool magnate of great standing. In Halifax, the Dean Clough Mills were the world’s largest carpet factory. Marshall’s Mills and the Egyptian-inspired Temple Mills in Leeds housed John Marshall’s flax business. And in Bradford the massive Manningham Mills, owned by Samuel Lister, once employed 11,000 workers producing fine silks and velvets on a floor area that amounted to 16 acres.

Perhaps the most distinguished textile baron of all was Titus Salt. He was a man with a vision. He built Salt’s Mill and an entire model village to house his workers at what is now called Saltaire. When the mill opened in 1853, it was the biggest factory in the world. Inside were 1,200 looms producing 30,000 yards of cloth every day. Salt’s success lay in specialisation of worsted wools and his blending of alpaca and mohair with cotton. He also blended silk with alpaca to produce material for striped waistcoats.

But at every one of these great Yorkshire mills, textile manufacturing has stopped. Countless other smaller companies have vanished too.

Margaret Tylee is the chair of the Industrial History Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. She points to the period following the First World War as the start of real decline in the industry.

“Imports were coming in from abroad, produced more cheaply than they could be here,” she says. “There was competition from India in particular. The continuation of individual businesses in Yorkshire depended on the ability of the people running them to create new markets. How good they were at doing that determined whether their business survived.”

By 1949 the writing was on the wall, although in that year the Yorkshire Textile Industry Directory still listed more than 600 woollen and worsted cloth manufacturers alone. But synthetic fibres were beginning to make their appearance and reduce the demand for natural yarn and cloth.

Margaret Tyler believes much of the industry wasn’t changing with the times. “Yorkshire mills weren’t embracing the new fibres enough. But those involved in specialist areas have been able to last longer.”

Michele Jones, marketing manager at Abraham Moon, says being a family firm has helped ensure success in the face of decline elsewhere. “It has always been about reinvesting back into the mill, particularly in machinery. This has kept us going, helping us work more efficiently.”

The company has also moved into new markets, taking its apparel fabrics up a level in the 1980s – it now sells to names like Dolce and Gabbana, Paul Smith and Burberry – diversifying into furnishings in the 1990s and more recently taking over the Brontë brand.

Michele Jones is upbeat about the future. “Abraham Moon has such a heritage and also, being British, we’re riding on an upsurge of interest in British textiles. Right across the globe people are reverting to buying British – they want something with a story behind it.”

Moon’s is seeing its markets growing in Japan and America and in other European countries.

Another old family company that’s looking forward rather than back is AW Hainsworth, started in 1783 by Abimelech Hainsworth. Today it is run by the seventh generation of the family and manufactures fabrics for apparel, industrial or technical uses, and interior furnishings, with everything made at Spring Valley Mills at Stanningley, Pudsey.

Many of the company’s products are highly specialised, including fabrics for flame-retardant clothes and body armour, snooker and pool table baize, military uniforms and ceremonial parade-wear, train washing facilities, hot air balloons and cloth for Steinway pianos. Hainsworth cloth also covers the woolsack in the House of Lord and has been used for furnishings at Windsor Castle.

Tom Hainsworth is managing director of Hainsworth. Born in Leeds in 1967, he joined the company in 1992.

Hainsworth undoubtedly owes much of its success to marketing very specialised products on a worldwide scale.

“We have to be global in what we do,” he says. “Some markets in the UK are small, even in Europe they are small, but in a niche market, you can lead globally. Often we’re one of only two manufacturers in the world for the things we do. Sometimes we’re the only one.”

Does such a modern company shed a tear for the heyday of Yorkshire textiles? “Yes, it’s sad in a way to see old mills but we don’t see ourselves as an old mill but a forward thinking company.”

He even thinks it was perhaps inevitable that the bulk end of the textiles industry would shift elsewhere and makes the point that before the Industrial Revolution, textiles tended to come from India and the Far East anyway. “But we win by being small and specialised and by paying huge attention to detail.”

Abraham Moon and Hainsworth are far from being the only textile players left standing in the region. A journey around West Yorkshire reveals a showcase of dynamic, modern companies, working with both traditional and modern fibres.

In Huddersfield, Arthur Harrison, Taylor and Lodge and Edwin Woodhouse are now part of the Bulmer Lumb group and still produce high quality worsted fabrics for clothing. J Bradbury makes seating and screen fabrics. Nearby at Glendale Mills at New Mill is the iconic Bower Roebuck firm, supplier of cloth to Savile Row tailors. David Beckham’s suit at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton came from Bower Roebuck material.

Across in Meltham, Lawton Yarns supplies yarn for carpets and upholstery. In Slaithwaite, both John Cavendish and Schofield and Smith weave fabrics for suiting. Over in Dewsbury, G Wilson Fibres continues the area’s tradition in fibre recycling and today manufactures underlay.

Peter Jackson of Halifax makes pile fabrics using wool, polyester and acrylic fibres. Calder Weaving in Mytholmroyd was actually set up in 1960, just as the textiles storm raged fiercest. It has found a niche making fabrics for curtain linings, electric blankets and other household fabrics.

SIL Holdings, based in Bradford, processes luxury fibres. It includes the John Foster company – formerly of Black Dyke Mills and rescued from administration in 2009 – together with Joshua Ellis, William Halstead and Charles Clayton. JH Clissold works with wool and wool blends for 
clothing. Multiple Fibres in Bradford makes industrial 
filters. Drake Extrusion in Bradford and Ogden Fibres in Keighley focus on synthetic fibres. Hattersley Narrow Fibres in Keighley makes wicks and mantles.

Into Leeds and Alfred Brown at Empire Mills in Bramley manufactures worsted cloth. And back out to Guiseley there is also Thomas B Ramsden, maker of yarns for knitting. There’s not room to mention everyone.

There may be many fewer textile manufacturers than there once were but the companies that are still in business are lean, fit and very good at what they do.

Rather than mourn the past, perhaps we should celebrate the survivors. After all, they are the future.

Age of the dark satanic mills

In the 19th-century the wool industry turned the West Riding into a major industrial centre.

Chimneys belched out smoke and the factories became the “dark satanic mills” predicted by William Blake in his famous poem Jerusalem.

Until the passing of the Factory Acts in 1833 and 1844,children were particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and were often forced to work long hours in terrible conditions.

In one notorious case in 1832 a child died in a Leeds mill when he was not allowed to stop work to go to the toilet.

The mechanised mills themselves were inherently dangerous places with power looms responsible for numerous injuries and fatalities.

The noise must have been infernal and the risk of fire was always high. Indeed the industrial history of the West Riding is peppered with incidents of factories burning to the ground.

The expression “trouble at mill” clearly had its origins in reality.