Books about our textile heritage often include tales of dark satanic mills and industrial decline. Regina Lee Blaszczyk tells Sarah Freeman why she wrote one with a happy ending.
Every so often Abraham Moon and Sons will receive a call from someone asking to speak to the man himself. They never quite know what to say. While it was Abraham Moon who established the famous Yorkshire textile firm back in the early 19th century, he died in 1877 and not much is known about the figure whose name looms so large over the company, still based in Guiseley, near Leeds.
It was that lack of knowledge which got current managing director John Walsh thinking the firm really ought to have recourse to an official record of the previous 180 years. However, with so much of the company history interesting but anecdotal, he realised that he would need the help of a forensic historian and two years ago contacted the newly appointed head of business history at Leeds University.
Regina Lee Blaszczyk was in some ways a curious choice. An American academic, she had only just moved to Leeds when Walsh made his approach and knew little about the textile industry on which the city’s wealth was built.
However, it was those fresh pair of eyes that make Fashionability stand out from the rest of the often dry and weighty tomes about Yorkshire’s textile heritage.
“Funnily enough though I am from Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is the New England equivalent to Leeds,” says Regina. “It was known as a major producer of worsted cloth and my grandma was a weaver and my mother worked in the winding room.
“By the time I was growing up most of the industry was long gone. However, I grew up against the backdrop of these great, hulking mills and as a result I have always felt an affinity to the textile industry.”
Having accepted Walsh’s commission, Regina headed to Leeds Central Library assuming there would be a rich resource of material.
“I remember taking a couple of books down from the shelf thinking, ‘Right, these should give me some good background’, but I quickly came to realise that the kind of book I wanted to write about the mills hadn’t been done before.
“Most of the histories which do exist stop in 1914 and are really concerned with labour issues or examining how the industry declined. That’s not what I wanted to do.”
As well as telling the history of the company, Regina wanted to show how Abraham Moon has influenced and been influenced by the fashion of the times. Today Abraham Moon sells its cloth to global brands such as Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger and Dolce & Gabbana and it has always been able to marry commercial savviness with the needs of the fashion industry.
“I really wanted to look at Abraham Moon’s relationship with its customers. You can produce the best wool fabric in the world, but if your designs aren’t right then no one will buy it. When the firm was started it was one of dozens of mills in Leeds, but I wanted to find out why it had survived while the others didn’t.”
Key to the success story says Regina is a commitment to invest in technology and the ability to adapt to changing times.
“The Walsh family took over the firm in 1920 but they had been involved in the firm for much longer than that. What I found really interesting was that Charles Walsh who worked for Abraham Moon in the 1880s was a graduate of the Yorkshire College of Science.
“There is a misconception that the college trained spinners and weavers. It didn’t, it was a hi-tech institute and trained those destined to take the top job in the industry.
“Charles was an expert in chemical dyeing, he had very sophisticated knowledge and I think that shows that Abraham Moon was at the cutting edge even then.”
Now one of the country’s last “vertical” mills – meaning that all the functions which transform raw wool into finished fabrics take place on one site – the latest chapter in the Abraham Moon story has been the recent opening of a flagship store in York selling its homewares and accessories alongside its clothing range.
“Up until the 1950s, pretty much everyone in Britain wore wool outfits throughout the year – just take a look at an episode of Miss Marple and you’ll see what I mean,” says Regina. “But then everything changed.
“Synthetic fibres arrived and companies like Abraham Moon were also experiencing increased competition from Italian textile houses. While they were still getting good winter orders, the summer trade dried up.
“Many other firms collapsed, but Abraham Moon looked at what else they could do. They went into accessories and homeware and that proved to be a really smart move.”
Add in international trade wars, fluctuating tariffs and quotas, alongside dramatic changes in market structure and disparities in international labour costs, Abraham Moon’s survival now stands as a great British success story.
“It’s interesting that many of those firms manufacturing a luxury, high-end product which managed to weather the storm are now thriving and partly because our approach to retail is changing.
“The Victorians had a keepsake attitude to buying clothes. That was replaced by a disposable, throwaway society but now things are coming full circle.”
■ Fashionability by Regina Lee Blaszczyk is published by Manchester University Press, priced £25. She will be talking about her book at Leeds Central Library on November 24 at 1pm.