In 1815 three brothers, David, Peter & Thomas Whitehead formed a textile company in the Rossendale Valley. The Company has a long and fascinating past with many twists and turns. These include everything from Luddite attacks to supplying denim to the 1957 Polar Expedition.
The 1950’s saw the Company taking a radical turn. During the Second World War (1939-45) raw materials were in short supply. There were restrictions on the use of colour in furnishing fabrics and the labour force was drastically reduced. This made for rather drab interiors in most homes. However, when the austerity of the war was over a brave new world emerged in the field of interior design. There was rapid progress in fabric printing techniques. Previously, the block printing process was very costly and restrictive to innovative design. Manufacturers tended to stick with old conservative patterns which were well tried and tested and sold well thus yielding regular profits. Innovative designs were risky as there was no guarantee that they would be received well by the market. Screen printing came along and reduced printing costs. David Whitehead & Sons led the way. Firstly, they invested heavily in modern machinery. And
secondly, a Director of Furnishing Fabrics was appointed – John Murray. John Murray was radical and had great foresight. He had a revolutionary idea - to buy designs from young up and coming designers and artists whilst still keeping the Whitehead design studio. New and exciting designs began to emerge. In the meantime, former war time bomb sites gave way to new houses and flats. These new dwellings were often uniform in appearance and the new occupants wanted to personalise their new homes. Fashionable and contemporary soft furnishings were born and David Whitehead’s were leading the field. The new fabrics were designed by artists, the first being Sir Terence Conran. Closely followed by Marian Mahler and Jacqueline Groag and many others who sold their designs to Whiteheads.
In 1951 The Festival of Britain was held on the South Bank of the Thames in London. It’s mission was to promote the most exciting and progressive new British design of the day. No less than twenty David Whitehead fabrics were chosen for the fabric display. In fact Whiteheads were the largest exhibitor of furnishing fabrics.
John Murray decided to leave Whiteheads in 1952 and prior to leaving he recommended his friend the architect Tom Mellor as his successor. In 1953 Tom Mellor took up the post of Design Consultant. He soon proved to be an excellent design leader and built further on what John Murray had begun.
Later, the Ambassador Magazine sponsored an exhibition, “Painting into Textiles” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1953. Twenty Five modern artists of the day were invited to produce works that might be worked up into textiles. The significance of this being that the artists were largely unaware of the complex processes required to produce fabrics and were not restrained by concerns for the manufacturing process. Tom Mellor was swift to purchase six works including those offered by John Piper and Henry Moore. The resulting fabrics were commercially available six months later; a very short lead time for the day. They were a great success and there was a lot of publicity around the story.
As ever Tom Mellor was keen to keep Whitehead’s name in the media. He remained close to the editors of Ambassador Magazine, Hans & Elspeth Juda. They approached Whiteheads to participate in a publicity campaign to promote Lancashire textiles. The campaign “Milling around Lancashire”. Hans & Elspeth brought one of the best known fashion models of the day, Barbara Goalen, to Lancashire. Elspeth photographed Barbara in various mills, including Whiteheads. Barbara was wrapped in fabrics and posed for the camera on machines, cutting tables and mountains of fabric. The photographs were Avant Gard and the campaign a great success.
Whiteheads stopped fabric production in Lancashire around 1980 having been sold to Lonrho in 1969. The mills were closed and some of the machinery exported to Lonrho’s operations in Southern Africa.
The company continued to trade albeit on a much smaller scale. It diversified into many different areas including supplying additional machinery, dye stuffs, chemicals and raw materials to Africa.
In the mid 1990’s, Lonrho decided that they would consolidate their business back to it’s core activities. Whiteheads was to be closed. Bernard led the management buy out in 1996 and business continued but further diversity became necessary.
Despite selling large quantities of greige cloth and schedule three Inter-liner fabric, other avenues were explored and today the firm deals predominantly in sundries for the shirt making industry overseas and fall bags for the construction industry.
Having always known that the firm had a rich design heritage we decided to explore this a few years ago. Our knowledge was built up from our own records, information from museums and asking questions of our employees, former employees and other interested parties.
The fabric archive had long been given away to the Whitworth Museum in Manchester and so we had to start buying pieces from Ebay and a museum supplier. From this we have made digital images and had new fabric printed in Lancashire.
We plan to sell the fabric on our own website but we are also interested to hear from anybody who would like to work with us.
Our initial range consists of reissues of early 1950’s fabrics. These designs were launched at a small celebration which was held in the Lake District in September 2015. The event was held in celebration of 200 years of David Whiteheads and the relaunch of the reissue fabrics. A combination of guests attended including academics, the trade, family and friends. We were very pleased to welcome Jane Horrocks who was joined by her Mother and Aunt. Her Aunt had worked in Whitehead’s offices in Rawtenstall in the late1940’s. We were also lucky enough to welcome two former designers:
Sir Terence Conran who sold many designs to Whiteheads in the 1950’s and 60’s and artist Keith Armstrong who designed for the company for the African market. Our next launch will be of a small collection of Sir Terence Conran’s early work for the Company.
Future plans may include further designs from the 1950’s and a selection of 1960’s designs which we believe will make fabulous wall hangings, framed pictures and stretched canvas.
If you would like any information, please feel free to send up a message.