A CENTURY ago cloth designer Harry Harrison left his job to start his own business.

At the time he worked at William Fison, manufacturers of worsted cloth, in Burley-in-Wharfedale, and felt he needed to strike out alone. He set up his business in Swaine Street, Bradford.

This was not unusual - in those days it was a common feature of the textile industry for designers to start businesses in cloth manufacturer. They did this with the aid of overlookers, who started small weaving companies known as ‘commission weavers’ to weave for the designers.

“The businesses set up by the designers became known as ‘manufacturers without looms’, which seems to be a strange description,” says Richard Harrison, Harry’s great-grandson, now director of the firm. “But it actually described their business perfectly as the designers bought the yarn, designed the cloth and sold it, doing everything a normal manufacturer would do except weave it.

“This proved to be advantageous to both parties, saving the designer the expense of buying his own looms and saving the commission weaver the cost of buying the yarn to keep his looms going.”

Harry was joined by his son Arthur in the business, which stayed in Bradford until 1939 - including periods on Ivegate and on Vicar Lane - when they bought premises in their home village of Burley-in-Wharfedale.

The business had to close during the war years, due to the fact that wool was rationed, the ration being handed to the weavers.

After the war business resumed. The cloth made for the menswear trade continued to be sold to the many clothing manufacturers in the UK, most of whom were based in the Leeds area. In 1949 the company became a limited company trading under the name of Harrisons(Burley) Ltd.

“Arthur had managed to build up a good business with some of the multiple retailers, who dominated the scene in those days - Burton, Hepworth and John Collier to name but a few,” says Richard. “In those days, for many men, a decent wool suit would cost their weekly wage.”

In 1960 Arthur’s son John joined the company after studying textiles and economics at the University of Leeds. Sadly, a year later Arthur died at the early age of 57, leaving John to continue running the company.

“There was a great deal of interest from overseas in English cloths, which resulted in overseas agents begging English companies to represent them,” explains Richard. “John - my father - saw this as a great opportunity because of his lack of selling experience and the fact that the multiple clothiers were starting to buy cheaper imported cloths for the home market.

“Business was very good for 10 to 15 years, to Singapore and Hong Kong in particular, both these markets being awash with merchants selling to the many surrounding Far Eastern countries.”

Eventually, however, those countries opted to buy direct. and the bubble to Singapore and Hong Kong burst. “Fortunately at about this time a London merchant was looking for a company to produce lightweight cloths for the Middle Eastern market, which turned out to be a saviour,” says Richard.

After a few years that company left the cloth business, but was kind enough to introduce their Middle East customers to the family firm.

“Hence we were introduced to many customers with whom we still do business,” in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Doha in Qatar. Since then we have added customers from Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman,” says Richard, who has a suit made from Harrisons’ cloth which he wears for meetings with customers.

The markets have certainly changed over the years. John singled-handedly ran the business through the demise of the tailoring industry in Leeds, which saw the turnover of the company switch from a wholly-UK market up to the mid-1960s, to 85per cent export by the mid-1980s.

Richard joined the business in 1983 after studying textiles at the University of Bradford, despite reservations that the cloth trade was on the decline. “Since then we have tried to move away from the reliance on exports and the split is now about 65 per cent, 35 UK,” he says. “The pandemic has affected us but we will manage to hit 65 to 70 per cent of our usual turnover.”

The premises in Burley were not ideal space wise, with the operation on two levels. "Dad and I used to carry cloth upstairs on our backs," recalls Richard.

In 1994 the firm moved to Cross Hills., to premises which Richard, 55, and other family members spotted while travelling to watch Burnley FC. “We are all season ticket holders and it was on the route we take, that’s how we came to be here,” he says. They make a variety of cloths from fine worsted to tweeds and coatings, gabardines and mohairs. Over the years the firm has clothed many high-profile and famous people including the Emir Of Kuwait and the Sultan Of Oman. They provide the uniform fabric for door staff at Harrods and the Bank Of England, plus many famous music stars and members of the clergy.

Richard works hard in the business, maintaining relations with companies in the Middle East and visiting those markets twice a year, but simultaneously adding UK merchants to their portfolio of customers. Business is still being carried out in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan

Richard loves his job. “Every day is different and you learn something new every day. You are continually finding out things about cloth that you did not know before. I also travel all over the world, taking the business to the Middle East and Far East. It is always interesting.”

John, 81, is immensely proud of the company in its centenary. “There are not many of us left in the textile trade - to do 100 years is fantastic. All being well we will be able to hold a celebratory dinner this year.”

Despite the advice of his granddad, mother and father, James, 28, Richard’s son, joined the company in 2011. His expertise in IT has been invaluable.

Around four years ago James set up a separate business selling worsted suiting lengths on line, which met with success and now has a growing number of customers worldwide.

“James’s internet business has helped us to keep our heads above water,” says John, who no longer runs the business but takes an active interest in it, at times using his design skills.

Both John and Richard are able to produce new designs to meet current demands.

John’s wife Anne, Richard’s wife Liz and James’s wife Alice assist and support their respective husbands in the business.

“What Harry started really is a family business, of which we are very proud,” says John. Adds Richard: “It is quite an achievement, especially in textiles. We are still the original company, which is wonderful.