A Tale of 1,001 Fabrics – the Hepworths Collection

Gentlemen of a certain age (OK, then, over 50) are more than likely to have owned a suit which was made in Leeds, once the capital of the British clothing industry. Leeds boasted many clothing manufacturers, large and small, including the likes of Sumrie, Browns, Berwin & Berwin, John Collier, the Fifty Shilling Tailor, Burtons and Hepworths.

Burton’s factory in Harehills was the largest of its kind in the world, boasting the world’s largest sewing room, photographs of which are still awe inspiring. Hepworths, founded in Leeds in 1864 and now transformed into Next plc, was famous for many reasons, including its monstrous HQ building on Claypit Lane and the first association of a famous designer (in this case, Hardy Amies) with a High Street tailor/retailer.  In the battle of one-upmanship, Amies was a trump card.

Inside the Burton’s Factory sewing room.

Hepworths is part of Leeds’ heritage and, not unnaturally, Leeds City Museums and the magnificent Discovery Centre have lots of Hepworth-based material. These include the in-house newspaper, the ‘Hepworth Mercury’, which printed news about employees and about the company itself. Did you know that Hepworths provided uniforms for all sorts of groups, including Olympic athletes and Leeds Rugby League football club?

Volunteering with the Textiles collection

Several of my relatives worked in the Leeds clothing industry, so textiles must be in my genes (and jeans).  It seemed natural that my working life should relate to the industry and I ended up as head of the Textile department at Huddersfield University. When I retired, I looked at doing some voluntary work in order to make use of whatever expertise I have. So, I arrived at Leeds Discovery Centre under the tender care of Natalie Raw, Curator of Textiles and Fashion, and have been involved in digitising parts of the clothing collection ever since, from 18th century women’s dresses to 20th century men’s waistcoats.

So when Natalie mentioned that there was a box of Hepworths menswear fabric swatches to look at, dating from the 1960s/70s, I jumped at the chance. These have been sent to Armley Mills Industrial Museum for visitors literally to get a feel for Leeds made fabrics. The rest are in my gentle hands being catalogued.

My textile design students at Huddersfield came up with weird and wonderful colour combinations, but even they would be amazed at what I have come across. There are fabrics the colours of which don’t so much shout at you but yell at the tops of their voices. Some are absolutely hideous (to a 2014 fashionista like me!) but must have had some sort of market then. Some are beautifully subtle (how did they sneak in?).

There are the top of the range fabrics (Golden Heritage, usually pure wool) and the ‘bog standard’ range, often containing polyester.  Some of the fabrics might even be in vogue today (although for men much younger than me): the bright red jacketing and bright yellow trousering would certainly appeal to some.  Overall, it provides a fascinating review of a bygone age and an endless source of inspiration for me.

Discover more about Leeds tailoring

If Leeds tailoring is your thing, do visit the magnificent tailoring gallery at Armley Mills, which is about the history of Leeds tailoring. And if you like delving, exploring and being amazed, join the army of volunteers at the Discovery Centre (Find out how to volunteer for Leeds Museums and Galleries)!

By John Pearson, Dress and Textiles Volunteer

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