Monday, 10 June 2013

The craft of... W.T. Johnson & Sons

"Finishing is the instrumental process between weaving and garment making," Alan Dolly, W.T. Johnson & Son's Technical Manager begins as we embark on an intimate and extensive tour of this Textile Finishers' Bankfield Mills home. Having explored and celebrated the craft of both weaving and garment making across a plethora of previous posts, the world of finishing was wholly unfamiliar until my visit to Huddersfield with Woolmark and Lou Dalton a couple of ago. As London Collection: Men's curtain raising design talent researched the possibilities for spring/summer 14, my eyes were opened to the artistry and alchemy of the finishing touch.

Helping to create unique garments that help distinguish themselves from all others, the finishing process – which invariably dictates the appearance, handle and performance attributes of a fabric – is receiving more attention than ever before. There's no better place to explore these processes than Huddersfield. The history of textile manufacture in England is intricately woven into the history of this town. For over seven hundred years, weavers have been attracted to this area of West Yorkshire by a combination of conditions ideal for sheep grazing and a plentiful supply of soft water streams for washing or scouring wool. By the mid nineteenth century the town had a well established reputation for the manufacture of fine worsteds, fancy tweeds, and woollens and there were several large woollen mills in and around the town. W. T Johnson & Sons was born out of this boom. One of the thriving mills was Glendenning’s where, in 1910, the middle-aged Walter Thomas Johnson arrived at the bold decision to take his skills as Foreman Finisher and set up his own, specialist finishing firm. It would prove to be a wise decision for, within a few decades, the large mills began to close one by one, beaten by cheaper offshore competition. Today, W. T Johnson & Sons is one of four cloth finishers left in Britain. They are a Huddersfield institution and have been on the same site for over one hundred years. "We're the only town in the world that can add value to a bit of fabric by having its name on the edge of the cloth and we're very proud of that," Paul Johnson excitedly exclaimed to Nicholas Crane on a recent episode of the BBC2's TOWN. This pride and passion is infectious.

With unmatched craft skills and expertise having been handed down through four generations of master fabric finishers, from Walter Thomson who started the company in 1910 to Paul and Dan Johnson who continue and evolve its offering, plus a skilled local workforce who today are seeing the business lead the world in the craft of fine fabric finishing. As I hovered over its hive of activity, it was obvious that despite being hugely proud of its heritage, this is a family run company that is constantly striving forward.

"The long term investment in machinery and careful selection of smart innovative machinery gives us a huge range of finishes and possibilities. Added to that we have the luxury of working on most of the wide range of fabrics that the area produces, so we have a very privileged view, and are consistently asked for something more. Hopefully we add value to everything we finish, whether £10/m or £1000/m.
Alan Dolly, Technical Manager at W.T Johnson & Sons.

As I toured the space and bounced from machine to machine, I was amazed by the variety of finishing options. From milling to scouring, decating to drying and cropping, the opportunities to transform cloth are seemingly limitless. "The fact is that there are almost infinite possibilities and the market wants these differences more and more. With the right customer, finishing is recognised as an important part of the design process," explains Alan over the hum of a machine in full momentum. "As a commission business, our customers put a lot of trust in us to deliver and when we suggest and then hand over the finished article to their approval, it is very rewarding." As Lou Dalton's mind raced through her whims and finishing fancies, our senses were treated to a cacophony of sights and sounds, from the traditional wooden scouring dolly to jets, the familiar yet large scale image of tumbling cloth in dryers to the ultra high tech precision of Swiss machinery intricately removing surface fibres.

A cocktail of tradition and technology within the craft of the finishing touch.

From its Bankfield Mills home, W.T Johnson & Sons employs ninety skilled finishers and I was fortunate enough to interact with a few of them. As I happily snapped away I could clearly see their passion. The family ethos of the company‘ if we look after our employees, they’ll look after us,’ quietly echoes throughout the space. The workforce skill-base and perfectionist attitude is an invaluable part of the company’s success and helps to drive their goal to be the world leader in high quality textile finishing. "There is a strange relationship that develops over time between WTJ and the employees," explains Alan Dolly drawing the whistle stop tour to a close. "They clearly learn what is required of them and at the same time are 'looked after' and valued by the company. The work is hard at times and its essential the quality has to be very good. From recent figures thirty two per cent of the workforce have been here more than twenty years!" Has the demographic changed? "Historically textiles generally was a major employer in the area. People were able to find employment in their 'local mill'. We still have a large number of our team living locally, but the industry as an employer is a fraction of what it was in the 60’s and before. Recently we have had some success in convincing younger people that textiles can still offer a career, and have been able to start with hopefully the next crop of expert finishers."

With its insatiable appetite to collaborate in the creation of the finest and most innovative cloth, feeding the imagination of designers like Lou Dalton and exciting the research teams at Woolmark whilst upholding its tradition and investing in its future, W.T. Johnson & Sons offers a welcome reminder that the British manufacturing industry can still thrive.


Jamie said...

Love this. Stunning shots and great insight.

Mat said...

it's fair to say i wouldn't know about most of these places without this blog, you act as my modern newsround.

thumbs up, great detail images as always


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