AW Hainsworth has been in the same family on the same site in Leeds since 1783. The mill is responsible for some of the UK’s most iconic garments, from developing khaki to protect British soldiers in the 19th century to the scarlet doeskin still worn by the Royal Guards outside Buckingham Palace.
At the same time, it is continuing to produce luxury woollen cloth for some of the most prestigious fashion brands in the world and forging close relationships with emerging designers.
“Fashion designers want to stamp their own identity on their collection, but with smaller ranges it is often difficult to meet the minimum order quantities for most fabric suppliers,” says Julie Roberts, Marketing Manager at AW Hainsworth.
“We’ve been offering bespoke colourways for several years, but we needed to go a step further to support these fashion startups. At Hainsworth we started thinking about a service where we could offer short runs of bespoke fabric designs.”
When AW Hainsworth acquired Replin, which specialises in transport interiors, it gained new manufacturing resources to create short runs in more complex patterns. That was when the team at Hainsworth spoke to Suzy Shepherd, founder of Yorkshire Textiles and Co-Director of Future Fashion Factory, and developed a plan to test the potential for translating these capabilities into the luxury fashion market.
Through the non-profit organisation Yorkshire Textiles, Suzy was looking for new opportunities to bring designers into the manufacturing process, giving them an insight into how their fabric is made and highlighting the unique history and pedigree of Yorkshire’s mills. She suggested going back to some of the earliest innovations of the Industrial Revolution.
“The jacquard loom is credited as one of the earliest forms of coding,” Suzy explains.
“Mills in this region have been innovators for centuries and I wanted to illustrate how that spirit lives on today.
“I knew there was an archive of punch cards from the old jacquard looms held at Leeds Industrial Museum, and I thought this project would be a great way to bring those historic designs to life.”
Together Yorkshire Textiles and AW Hainsworth developed a project which would take heritage designs from the punch cards in the museum and use them to develop a bespoke fabric pattern to be produced as a short run at the mill.
To keep the designer at the heart of the process, independent fashion and home interior brands based at the AW Hainsworth site would have creative input at each stage, using the finished fabric in their own products.
The project began in spring 2019, when weaver Rebecca Ough was tasked with working backwards from the punch cards to uncover the heritage designs.
“Each card holds one line of weaving and each hole represents a cross on a peg plan where the warp yarn is lifted,” Rebecca explains.
“It’s dash or 0, lifted or not-lifted – it’s binary code. The patterns it enables can be very complex. In fact there is so much data it’s very difficult to translate into modern design software, so we took elements of different patterns and created our samples from there.”
Rebecca initially translated the patterns onto point paper by hand, taking elements from these designs and re-creating them in the latest design software. Digitalising the patterns enabled them to be woven on contemporary looms.
From there she wove a variety of samples in different patterns and colourways, which were whittled down with the help of Suzy, Julie and the designers based at the mill. In the end, three patterns were chosen – two different designs, one of which was produced at two different scales – and the designers selected a striking colour combination of navy and ecru.
The finished product was a stunning short run of bespoke jacquard cloth which was displayed Future Fashion Factory’s Year 1 Showcase in October 2019. Unique accessories and home interiors by designers including Future Fashion Factory members The Odd Bobbin and Charlotte Luisa were all on show.
Garments were also created in the New Heritage cloth by the fashion team at the University of Leeds, based on a student project using pieces from the Yorkshire Fashion Archive.
Rebecca has spoken about the project at events including the Year 1 Showcase and a special workshop organised by Future Fashion Factory in partnership with Leeds University Library Special Collections.
The New Heritage cloth has continued to play a role in bringing designers closer to their fabric: fashion students from the University of Leeds visited AW Hainsworth last December, where they watched a new short run of the cloth being woven in red and black.
Dr Kevin Almond, Lecturer in Fashion at the University of Leeds, said: “The project was an exciting opportunity for the students to observe the weaving of the jacquard fabric and utilize this fabric in creative and innovative ways in the design and production of a fashion collection. Seeing how the jacquard coding process brought historic designs to life has been inspirational for the students & will enhance their creative understanding of the use of textiles within the fashion design process.”
For Yorkshire Textiles, this is part of equipping tomorrow’s fashion designers to work more collaboratively across the industry.
“Understanding each stage of the manufacturing process opens up opportunities both creatively and commercially,” Suzy says.
“For designers, knowing where your cloth came from and being able to engage with the process can be a source of inspiration and can enrich the story of your brand.”
At AW Hainsworth, the success of the project demonstrated that a short run bespoke fabric service was both possible and viable. The mill has started offering the service to specific designers, and new collaborations are in the pipeline as a result.
“There is so much potential to forge new relationships by meeting designers’ need for small volumes of beautiful bespoke cloth,” Julie explains. “We’re looking forward to demonstrating what this new service can offer them.”