The very last thing you expect to see at the offices of a 150-year-old tweed designer is a miniature samurai sword and helmet display. It certainly contrasts with the quintessentially English image you would associate with Huddersfield Fine Worsted (HFW) – a company which, among other things, is the sole supplier of the Royal Family’s exclusive Balmoral tweed.
But it appears the contemporary craze for fine English design is nothing new in Japan – and the display was given to the company as a gift from presumably happy Japanese customers many years ago. “In 1907, J & J Minnis, one of our brands, was the first fine worsteds company to export to Japan,” says design executive Ellie Disley. “And it’s still very popular there today. “I’m not exactly sure when or why this display was given to us but I like to think it was to say ‘we really like your cloth’.”
Designing the patterns is a lengthy and laborious process, typically spanning two years from conception to production, but then they are made for everyone from Savile Row tailors to Vivienne Westwood’s Gold Label collection. The designs are explored by producing samples with a myriad of different colours and patterns – something which Ellie says can be very fun indeed. “Inevitably, you might end up with the white, brown and green but, because of the way the loom works, you get all these crazy colours as well. And, because there seems to be quite a market for younger people to wear tweed of late, we do produce some interesting colours like purple and pink.”
Since a takeover by one of its American customers in 2009, the company has not woven the tweeds on its own premise, which were themselves moved from Huddersfield to Elland at the same time. The cloth is instead made by two Huddersfield companies which could not be further apart in their production methods. One of these, Paragon Textiles, produces samples for HFW in a tiny mill quite literally hidden away in what looks like an abandoned garage on the outskirts of Huddersfield.
Stepping through its doors, however, quickly dispels this illusion, as the furious roar of chattering, clattering and clanging fills the air and the feeling of having stepped back in time takes hold. The firm is notable for producing fabric with mostly 50- and 60-year-old machines as well as a Jacquard loom – a machine invented in 1801 and a precursor to modern computers.
“This is a craft industry and we’re trying to hold onto it because we can’t survive without them,” says HFW production manager Paul Myall. “Where there were lots of spare looms before, now there are very few and it means that, when it’s busy, we struggle but when we’re quiet, they’re quiet, so we’ve got to give them something to do, like scarves and accessories, to keep them going. It used to be a very dog-eat-dog industry but what’s left of us have to look after each other now.”
But, while Paragon is something of a ‘living museum’ of they heyday of Huddersfield textiles, Antich & Sons operates very much on the cutting edge of 21st century technology. Every piece of fabric which enters the company’s enormous factory is barcoded, making it trackable by clients at every stage of production over the internet, and the oldest machine is only 18 years old. Owner Chris Antich started the company in 1989 and says, despite the industry’s decline, believes it has what it takes to compete with rising giants like China.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in China and they do a lot of great cloths but they don’t have the versatility and it just isn’t to the same quality as Huddersfield cloth. “We stay ahead of the game and it’s not an easy business but we are doing very well. A lot of people think it’s finished but there are good firms out there – there’s life in it and good life at that.”
This feature was originally published by Mosaic magazine.