Fabric of life at Alfred Brown Mill

A fabric-making family have been weaving their magic in Leeds for 95 years. <br/>Jo Haywood reports

There’s a real buzz about the Alfred Brown mill. Actually, it’s more of a thunderous rumble that shakes its very foundations as the 28 looms go about their deafening business.

Trying to have a conversation in the weaving room is like playing Chinese whispers in the engine of a jumbo jet. But this doesn’t deter Nigel Brown from checking with his staff that all is well. He’s passionate about his product, and not even an ear-splitting cacophony is enough to put him off his quality control mission.

But that is precisely what makes Alfred Brown stand out from the crowd. Every single metre of fabric that leaves its Leeds mill is checked, checked and checked again. And that’s quite a claim when you consider that they produce in excess of one million metres a year for the likes of Paul Smith, Gieves & Hawkes, Next, Marks & Spencer and the elite tailors of Saville Row and Jermyn Street.

‘We are one of the few remaining Yorkshire mills that specialise in bulk production,’ said Ian Brown who, along with his siblings Nigel and Jo, are the fourth generation to run the company. ‘We trade on a reputation for quality, value, honesty and service but, unlike many other mills, we also have the benefit of speed.’

Yarns and fabrics might be cut, but corner are not. This is a company that prides itself on doing things right, from buying in the best natural products to employing a team of eagle-eyed menders – all women – who scour every inch of fabric for mistakes and painstakingly put them right.

On the day of our visit, one mender was removing a single thread of colour – inch by inch – that had been woven through a large swathe of cloth and replacing it with another because the customer had changed their mind on the shade of stripe they wanted. Fiddly is not the word.But it is precisely this level of attention to detail that propelled Alfred Brown to the top of the textile tree and has kept it there for four generations.

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‘Any family business that’s survived almost 100 years has inevitably gone through a lot of changes, but we have always remained focused on our core strengths,’ said Nigel. ‘We know what we can do, and we do it well.’

The company has never left the family’s ownership for a single day of the last 95 years, but no one has ever been pressured to roll up their sleeves and get weaving. If family members have wanted to pursue other interests, their shares have simply been bought back in. And if they’ve returned to the family fold later, they’ve been welcomed with open arms.‘Ian and I ran our own quality furniture business for a while,’ said Nigel.

‘We had no intention of joining the family firm and our father didn’t press us on it. I think that was a very wise decision because it meant we got a real taste of what it’s like to run your own company – how hard it is as well as how satisfying.’

Ian and Nigel eventually joined the firm in 1986, just a year after Roger McArdle came on board. Twenty-five years later, he’s still there as sales director. And he’s not alone in his long-term commitment to the mill.

Three more men are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, and one of their mothers was an employee for 50 years.

‘I wanted a long-term career, not just a job,’ Roger explained. ‘I didn’t know what to expect when I came here, but it soon became clear that this was a place ripe with possibilities. I’ve always been treated like a member of the family – and a very good family it is too.’

Alfred Brown is a company with a firm grasp of its roots, but it’s also forward-thinking, always looking for the next sale, the next market and the next technological breakthrough.

‘We’re having 12 new looms installed at a cost of around �750,000 with the option of buying 12 more,’ said Ian. ‘You have to keep moving forward in this business, but still take it one step at a time. It’s about evolution, not revolution.’

This level of investment is a positive sign of prosperous days ahead for both the Browns and their 65-strong workforce. And it’s also a ringing endorsement of the Yorkshire textile industry, which appears to have successfully swapped doom for boom.

‘Working out of Yorkshire is a definite advantage,’ said Nigel. ‘People around the world are well aware of a our heritage and history.’

The name Alfred Brown is now recognised as a very British brand across Europe, America and Japan – fast becoming a key export market.

‘Our label “Alfred Brown: Woven in England” is seen as a mark of prestige, and it is sought after by retailers, bespoke tailors and merchants worldwide,’ said Jo, who looks after marketing. ‘It says a lot that people are willing to pay a premium for fabric produced here in Yorkshire. It really is recognised as a badge of quality.’

Alfred Brown family tree

Herbert Brown, a successful politician, businessman and deputy mayor of Leeds, set up Brown & Sons of Bramley in 1915 to produce uniform cloth for the military, police and fire services.

His sons, Alfred and Stanley, steered the company through the tough economic times of the twenties and thirties and led the way when the Yorkshire textile industry enjoyed a technological boom.

The company was renamed Alfred Brown (Worsted Mills) Ltd in 1955.

Alfred’s sons Alfred Jnr and David and their cousin Peter came on board and expanded the business further with new looms and a state-of-the-art weaving shed.

Sales director Roger McArdle joined the firm in 1985, closely followed by the fourth generation of the Brown family, Ian, Nigel and Jo, who took on roles in production, design and marketing under the continuing leadership of their father, Alfred Jnr.

Alfred Jnr stepped back in 2000 but retains an active interest in the company, which employs 65 people and produces around 22,000 metres of quality fabric a week for clothing manufactures around the world.

For more details about Alfred Brown, phone 0113 256 0666 or visit www.alfredbrown.co.uk

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