Monday, June 25, 2012
Words by Eric Musgrave
Photos by Hainsworth
Millions of people watching the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II around the world saw the immaculate red uniforms of Her Majesty’s Brigade of Guards. Only a tiny number had any idea that the iconic cloth is produced by Hainsworth, a family-owned textile business in West Yorkshire that was founded in 1783 and continues to thrive thanks to its expertise in producing specialist cloths.
Hainsworth manufactures an extraordinary range of textiles that includes baize cloth for the world’s best pool and snooker tables, felt for the hammers of Steinway pianos, the Hudson Bay Company’s famous “point” blankets, high-tech protective clothing for fire fighters and military personnel, the cloth for classic university scarves, pea coat cloth for the Danish navy and biodegradable woollen coffins. Some 180 people are employed at the company’s Spring Valley Mill in Pudsey on the edge of Leeds.
The company’s board includes managing director Tom Hainsworth and his cousins Adam, the financial director, and Rachel, who is in charge of quality. Astonishingly, the trio are seventh-generation descendants of the splendidly named Abimelech Hainsworth, who started a cloth business in the area in 1783 selling the products of weavers who worked hand looms in their cottages. Also known as Old Bim, he set up his first mill in 1810; the current site was acquired by another Abimelech Hainsworth (aka Young Bim) in 1882.
Part of the secret of the company’s continued success is that it is a fully integrated vertical mill. Any tour of the 200,000 sq ft multi-storey plant starts with the wool store, where bales of raw fibre from Australia are stacked to the ceiling. Virtually every process, including a vast range of specialist finishing techniques, which transforms this smelly, oily wool into marvellous textiles is done on the premises.
Princes William and Harry were both in Hainsworth paradewear cloth at the Royal Wedding last year, as were the page boys, Prince Charles and probably every other man wearing a ceremonial uniform from Great Britain or overseas. Normally, the most widely seen Hainsworth product is the Brigade of Guards’ red uniform cloth. Incredibly, as recently as the early 1990s, colonels of the British regiments could decide on the cloth they wished to see their troops in. In those days Hainsworth produced an incredible 16 shades of red, which makes a mockery of the term “uniform cloth”. Sanity prevailed in the British Ministry of Defence and now there are only two hues for the Guards – scarlet or crimson.
There are also two qualities of this celebrated jacketing. Officers traditionally wear a 100% wool “doeskin” variety that weighs a substantial 380-400 grams (13-14oz). It has a “faced finish”, which means that it has a directional nap that always lays in the same direction, a typical example of Hainsworth’s expertise. The Other Ranks’ tunics are made in a melton that is even heavier at 550 grams (more than 19oz). Wearing that in the heat of even an English summer truly represents making sacrifices for Queen and Country.
Apart from the British Grenadiers and their comrades, the doeskin is worn by ceremonial troops as far apart as Canada (yes, the Mounties wear Hainsworth), Norway, Denmark and Malaysia, where that country’s finest parade about in a shade of bright yellow. The mill is an essential resource for military re-enactment groups, including American Civil war enthusiasts. Hainsworth produced the cloth for a replica of Stonewall Jackson’s uniform that’s displayed in the general’s museum.
Hainsworth’s robust worsted double baratheas and cavalry twills are reliable favourites with British bespoke tailors and the famous doeskin has even found its way on to the designer catwalks with Patrick Grant’s E Tautz line having a bright yellow pea coat in its last winter collection.
To escape the anonymity of parade grounds, pool tables and piano recitals, Hainsworth is slowly building a portfolio of consumer brands for its goods. The most curious is Natural Legacy, which is the name for the heavily felted wool coffins introduced in 2009. The wool, from British flocks, covers a recycled cardboard frame and the entire product, like its occupant, is biodegradable. The inspiration came from ancient practice of wrapping corpses of the wealthy in wool shrouds. Wool is antimicrobial and it helped prevent the smell being too obnoxious when family tombs were opened to add the most recently deceased.
More cheerfully, with the stylish living in mind, this year Hainsworth launched Scarlet & Argent, a lifestyle brand that uses the inherent skills of the mill to produce luxurious blankets and throws. The marketing at present is biased towards the feminine. We await with great interest the arrival of more Hainsworth products for men who appreciate a Made in England label.