It’s All in the Finish
Huddersfield Fine Worsteds goes from strength to strength supplying tailors and fashion houses old and new. Much of their success is down to their close relationship with cloth finishers WT Johnson
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Over a textile career spanning decades, Iain Milligan, the managing director of Huddersfield Fine Worsteds (HFW), has seen the landscape of the English cloth industry ebb and flow. Gratifying, he can report that the regard it is held in and desire for the finest English cloth has never been higher. From supplying the tailoring houses of Savile Row through to international brands such as Louis Vuitton and Prada, the world once again is clamouring for English woven and finished cloth.
Certainly in the late 1990s, the view was not quite as rosy. Iain recalls that for many years a small number of large mills had dominated the Huddersfield cloth trade until, literally in a six month period, everything went east to China as brands sought cheap suppliers. The smaller heritage mills had struggled through this dark period yet, by keeping alive and surviving, have so reaped the renewed international desire for transparently high quality, provenance and the history these mills have.
Huddersfield Fine Worsteds has also benefited from the investment that has come from being brought by New York based HMS Gladson, one of the largest cloth merchants in the world. The relationships that are key in this most personal of industries have been nurtured over years, Iain remarks for example, he’s known the cloth representative for Louis Vuitton for over 20 years. “People want the two fold yarn and the traditional way of making it,” he comments, “they want the timeless designs.” Muiccia Prada adores British cloth and the history behind them, her brand also buying gabardine from HFW. The firm’s other great advantage is, “we are not just a merchant, we are a design house” in Iain’s words and this ability to work closely with a brand – Huntsman, Ralph Lauren and Christian Louboutin are just a fraction of the houses they’ve worked with – has meant a loyal global clientele.
There are certain perennials that remain in constant demand. First trademarked by Martin & Sons – one of the firms HFW has absorbed over the decades – in 1907, Fresco continues to be the firm’s staple bunch of suitings, “we just can’t make it fast enough” Iain laughs. At the other end of the scale, HFW has worked on printed flannel for Christian Louboutin shoes and an increasing amount of their cloth is now used for accessories. “It’s a fun part of our business,” Iain says, “we are catering to something a little different that allows us to show off what our cloth is capable of being used for.” In a similarly avande garde arena, HFW has worked with the crowd-funded French brand Asphalte. “In this case they needed the cloth very quickly to answer the brand’s demand; on the one hand we had to take a risk a start weaving earlier because of this short turnaround, on the other side of the coin with the successful Kickstarter it meant there was no cash flow issue at their end when it came to settling – it’s certainly an interesting and evolving business area to keep tabs on.”
Whilst a merchant’s and designers, HFW is not a weaver; the firm commissions Huddersfield weavers CJ Antich. Being taken round their large premises, the scale of British weaving is still clear to see, CJ Antich have 40 looms of which at least 25 are constantly in operation. The continuing strength of English cloth is clearly apparent in the levels of investment in new machinery such as a Karl Meyer warping machine. One trend the weaver has seen – and has evolved to answer – is the increasing desire by customers for a shorter run of cloth, it’s as much about being able to also supply the small rugby or hockey club that wants something one – off, not just large scale garment makers and tailors.
After weaving, the unfinished cloth heads to cloth finishers WT Johnson, “that’s where the magic, the dark art, happens” says Iain. Being taken round this noisy, bustling workshop it becomes clear the finish is what takes the very good to quite remarkable. WT Johnson’s skills are globally renowned; the buckets and piles of cloth from famous British mills shows how much this fourth generation family firm’s unique skills are in demand. Being shown round by Andrew Broadbent their Marketing Director, the newly woven cloth comes into the factory needing to be washed to get rid of excess oil and lubricants. The firm uses water from its own borehole; much of Hudderfield’s success in becoming an epicentre for cloth manufacturing has been down to its water. Very soft, it is perfect for cleaning and scouring fabric. WT Johnson’s washing and decanting machines, even though they are Italian made, are completely programmed by the firm with the settings a closely guarded secret allowing the final result to be extremely consistent.
Once scoured, the cloth needs to be dried, being fed into an oven. As the cloth needs to be kept taut to prevent shrinking, it is hooked onto the frame the feeds it through the oven, the reason and origin behind the English phrase, “to be on tenterhooks.” WT Johnson works closely with its clients to calculate the best finish for the cloth it processes, for example some firms – including HFW – prefer a longer wash for their cloths. Worsteds will be cropped, effectively shaved to carefully remove the hairs on the surface of the cloth whereas other cloth and customers require a more “natural” finish.
A critical part of the cloth finishing process sees the cloth feed through one of two Ecofast machines – again set up to WT Johnson’s in house settings – where it is subjected to high pressure and steam to stabilise it, effectively ensuring the final fabric will not warp or shrink when being used.
With such local specialist firms as well as the regard English cloth is held in, it is hardly surprising, “ the majority of our cloth is still made in Huddersfield” as Iain remarks proudly. However, as a merchant there is the requirement and expectation that HFW offers a comprehensive selection so the firm offers Italian linings as well as more fashion oriented bunches such as their Portofino range. A selection of jacquard cloth means HFW can supply the more colourful evening fabrics British brands such as Favourbrook use. “It’s about presence,” comments Iain, “having offerings across the board means we are always in the customer’s mind. It fuels the way we see social media; for us it a wonderful tool for brand awareness and presence rather than an outright marketing tool.”
HFW has embraced the digital age. It has a team of four working full time to process electronic orders and their website stock is updated every hour, “this means for example, a client in Japan can check availability and order whilst we’re asleep. Our stock site is also linked directly our manufacturing site so we know when to commission fresh cloth.”
Away from technology, certain standards and heritage remain undimmed. Through Hardy Minnis, the firm retains its Royal Warrant, the only cloth merchant to have one, for supplying the Balmoral Tweed. Working closely with WT Johnson, HFW proves a stunning range of cloth and suitings to satisfy the most demanding clients in the world. Whether you are going fully bespoke or more modestly made to measure, perusing their selection of cloths should be both your starting point and a pleasure.
Huddersfield Fine Worsted/ www.hfwltd.com
CJ Antich/ www.cj-antich.com
WT Johnson/ www.wtjohnson.co.uk/
Riddle’s road trip was generously supported by Jaguar Land Rover with the kind loan of a Jaguar XF R-Sport Saloon (RRP from £35,735) #riddleroadtrip