There was a time when West Yorkshire was full of wool mills. From the early days of water power, through steam and then electric power, Yorkshire’s wool mills employed thousands of workers.
But in recent decades, many wool mills have closed. Now only a few survive – and one of the survivors is Hainsworth’s, of Spring Valley Works in Pudsey. So it was a treat to pay a visit for Dalesman’s June 2015 issue.
Hainsworth’s has been around for a long time, and is currently marking the fact that its wool clothed soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo, two hundred years ago.
Founded in 1783
Hainsworth’s, however, predates Waterloo, and was founded in 1783 by Abimelech Hainsworth. Seven generations on, Tom Hainsworth is one of the family team that still runs the company. So to what does he attribute the firm’s survival?
Many factors contributed to Hainsworth’s survival, believes Tom, including innovation, attention to quality, and keeping debt down. But the most important thing, he says, is people. He says that a business is only as good as its people. They aim to use the right people in the right places, and work hard to develop their skills.
Tom himself went away to study, train and gain experience elsewhere before joining the family firm. And back at the Mill, the company invests in its staff, training them to greater skill. Tom says, “We’re always learning, always looking for a better way of doing things. You can’t say that things should be as it was, because they can’t. There’s always more efficient ways – it’s a continual process of innovation.”
Innovation has been a theme of the company throughout its history – as have been exports. Tom explains, “The reason why this part of the world works is access to soft water, access to wool, and, in 1817, the Leeds-Liverpool canal opened, half a mile away at the bottom of the valley. That gave access to world markets, including the New World. So we’ve always been an export company, trading with America, India, etc. China used to buy our woollen products in the 19th century.”
So when Tom joined a trade delegation to China, he felt he was renewing old ties, rather than forging new ones.
After generations of supplying red coats to the British Army, Hainsworths experimented with Khaki Serge – so supplied cloth for Army Uniforms during the Great War of 1914-18.
Since then, they’ve continued to supply the MoD, and, says Tom, “MOD clothes have to be consistent over generations. So the cloths are made to very tight specifications.”
That skill serves them well today: not only can they supply authentic cloths to military historians and re-enactors, they can also transfer the skills to other technical fabrics.
Wool, enthuses Tom, has properties that other fibres simply can’t replicate. He explains, “It’s unreplicable by any man-made fibre, because the core is hydrophilic [soaks up water] and the outside is hydrophobic [repels water]. That makes it breathable but waterproof, and it reacts to the environment. For instance, sheep in the outback at 40ºC – how do they survive that? But overnight, there’s dew, and the wool absorbs moisture from the atmosphere. In the daytime, it releases the moisture through the fibre, maintaining the microclimate around the sheep. And it does the same for humans, in that process. It’s why wool has been used for blankets for generations. And in stately homes, if you use wool wall coverings and curtains, it maintains the environment around them.”
“Wool is the only fibre that does that. It’s been understood for thousands of years, but lots has been forgotten in the new marketing of synthetic fibres. As we start re-learning things that we’d forgotten, wool is coming to the fore.”
Wool is also naturally fire-retardant, and Tom’s contribution to the firm’s technical knowledge is in exploiting this characteristic to make protective clothing for firefighters. He says, ““In our lab, we apply technology to UNDERSTAND the science behind the fire retardance. That understanding allows us to innovate, and we have several world-wide patents in this area.”
While pursuing innovation, Hainsworth’s doesn’t leave behind its traditions. They still make blankets that are traditions in Canada and Lesotho, as well as in Britain. They are leaving nothing to chance: they work on traditional products, cutting edge new technologies, and work with fashion designers to make wool cloth desirable in the modern world.
With an eye to the future, the eighth generation of Hainsworths has now joined the firm. And they still maintain a partnership with another famous family: the Royal Family. Their cloths clothed both The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge at their weddings.
With another generation of Royalty now, and another generation of Hainsworths at the Mill, there’s every hope that the partnership will continue.
Learn more at Hainsworth’s
Read more in Dalesman Magazine, June 2015 issue