A look behind the scenes at Huddersfield cloth merchant Dugdales ahead of Heritage Open Days festival

Behind the scenes at the company.
Behind the scenes at the company.

Dugdales is the last independent cloth merchant in the centre of Huddersfield and is involved in this year’s Heritage Open Days. Stephen McClarence reports.

Four lengths of top-quality dark blue worsted are awaiting collection on the long cutting table. “An order from Australia,” says Robert Charnock, chairman of Dugdale Bros. “There’s an order for Japan over there. And that one’s going to China – to Shanghai.”

The cutting room at Dugdale Bros, one of a warren of rooms at Northumberland'Street, which the company moved into in 1906, 10 years after it was founded.

The cutting room at Dugdale Bros, one of a warren of rooms at Northumberland'Street, which the company moved into in 1906, 10 years after it was founded.

Dugdales is the last independent cloth merchant in the centre of Huddersfield. Over the years, I’ve often walked past its offices, in a solid Victorian building next to the town’s Open Market. But I’ve never suspected what a hub of international trade it is.

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It has agents and distributors all over the world, says Charnock. Where, for instance? “Well,” he says, uncharacteristically pausing for breath, “Canada, the USA, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland.” Another pause. “New Zealand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea – that’s South Korea, obviously. Though,” he laughs, “North Korea would be magnificent – all those military uniforms!”

With an office in Mayfair, the company supplies the likes of Savile Row and Milan fashion houses. “Made in Huddersfield,” says Charnock. “The most prestigious label in the world.”

To show what’s behind that prestige, Dugdales is running guided tours during this year’s Heritage Open Days, the annual “festival of England’s history and culture” which is marking its 25th anniversary by spreading itself, for the first time, over 10 days (September 13 to 22).

Dugdale Bros chairman Robert Charnock.

Dugdale Bros chairman Robert Charnock.

Some 5,000 events are being staged across England – more than 700 of them in Yorkshire, with many at places not normally open to the public.

In and around Huddersfield, for instance, there are three dozen events, including chances to go up Lindley’s famous clock tower and behind the scenes at the town’s library. Or to join a walk celebrating Suffragists and Suffragettes and another exploring the town’s radical heritage (starting at the Harold Wilson statue outside the railway station. Harold Wilson: radical? Discuss).

Meanwhile, back at Dugdales... all too aware that I’d be meeting people who live and breathe high quality cloth, I’m wearing my smartest, best-cut jacket. “A nice bit of Saxony, that,” says Charnock approvingly as we shake hands. Saxony, he explains, is a type of wool fabric; this is going to be a steep learning curve.

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The company was founded in 1896, when Huddersfield had perhaps 150 cloth merchants, drapers and merchant tailors. The business moved to its present premises in 1906 and was run by the Dugdale family for much of the last century.

Dugdales is the last independent cloth merchant in the centre of Huddersfield.

Dugdales is the last independent cloth merchant in the centre of Huddersfield.

Its hefty scrapbooks are a window on a now lost world of tailoring. Company brochures from the 1920s and 1930s feature dapper chaps with spats and canes and suave gents in trimly cut evening dress (“We have a worldwide reputation for our formal wear,” says Charnock, who joined Dugdales in 1990).

There are adverts for “riding tweeds”, “motor cloths” and “heavy tweeds for country wear”. Also for fur wraps and ties, made – unthinkable today – from “real squirrel” and “natural skunk”. Customers were given useful instruction leaflets about the best way to fold “dress coats”.

Military uniforms were a speciality, but ironically trade was challenging during the two World Wars. Restrictions on the sale of wool were imposed during the first war and clothes rationing was introduced during the second.

Robert’s father Keith joined the company in the 1960s and subsequently bought it. The Charnocks, however, went back two further generations in textiles. Great-grandfather John Henry was a weaver. “But he came out of the trade and became a barber. And a great banjo player.”

Grandfather Thomas was a mill manager. “He said: ‘When you take wool off a sheep, you’ve got to be kind; you’ve got to love the whole process’,” Robert tells me. Thomas’s 1920s technical college notes on the wool trade are on display in the offices’ panelled vestibule. Like much of the building, it has a gently time-warped atmosphere.

Charnock takes me round its warren of rooms – stacked over four floors and a mezzanine and linked by steep staircases and a vintage lift. “The building reeks of history,” he says, as the 20 or so staff get quietly on with things. In the cutting room, Dean Berry, here 13 years, wields drapery shears with impressive confidence.

So how has Dugdales survived when so many other companies have gone? “Luck,” says Charnock. “We were very small; we could adapt. The heyday was probably the Fifties and Sixties. Huddersfield ruled the world for fine worsted.”

In the cloth stores, he points out batches resonantly labelled Dark Navy Subdued Chalk Stripe and Silver Grey Marle Sharkskin Pick-and-Pick. There’s a range called Town Classics – “a cloth with real integrity and inspired by our heritage”. Charnock reads out that description reverently. “That’s it in a nutshell,” he says.

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The range of different styles is astonishing. One pin stripe must be very like another, you might think. Oh no. There’s Narrow Pin Stripe, Wide Pin Stripe, Single Pin-Stripe, Extra-Wide Pin Stripe, Charcoal Pin Stripe, Narrow Subdued Chalk Stripe: a long list. Checks (tartans) include (alphabetically) Baird, Bannockbane, Blackwatch Ancient, Black Watch Miniature, Black Watch Modern, Black Watch Muted, Brunswick, Buchanan and (naturally) Burns.

As we leaf through the scrapbooks, Charnock says his first memory of mills is “the smell of the wool – the lanolin – when I was 10 or 11. And the noise, the shuttles going across the looms, clattering, and blokes shouting across the mill. And the bustle. It was alive.”

Another pause, very thoughtful. “We’ve got our Scandinavian agent coming tomorrow. He’ll see a fleece and a man picking wool from it. It gives me a sense of pride that we’re still doing it. I want to establish a new legacy for cloth in this town. We’ve not blown our own trumpet enough.”

We discover a leaflet issued to Dugdale’s customers in 1931, at the height of the Great Depression. On the cover is a single enigmatic word: Optimism. “In times like the present,” it says, “when reports of depression are so numerous, it is refreshing to strike a note of optimism which must be the dominant note of all successful businessmen. Tailors are overcoming obstacles in a manner worthy of the solid British character.”

We agree there’s a certain contemporary resonance here. As I leave and we shake hands again, he eyes my jacket. “Yes,” he says, “a nice bit of Saxony.”

Dugdale Bros & Co, 5 Northumberland Street, Huddersfield (www.dugdalebros.com). Free tours on September 22. Must be pre-booked. Call 01484 223200 (www.huddersfield.information@kirklees.gov.uk).