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The surprising story of textiles in Southwold

 

Whilst Blackshore Coastal Clothing is currently the only clothing workshop in Southwold, it is very far from being the first. The town has a long and rich history of textiles.

A century ago Southwold was buzzing with the making of clothing and other fabric items.

The best known example is Denny’s which has had a busy shop on the High Street for nearly 170 years. Denny’s remains a thriving clothes store, but at its height it was a maker too: employing 26 tailors and two pattern cutters. An extraordinary enterpise for such a small town.

Other smaller stores on the High Street employed dressmakers and tailors too.

And there were larger fabric busineses in Southwold as well, most notably Fordux Manufacturing and Southwold Homeknits.

Fordux started life at the beginning of the 1920s, when F L Pallant took over the former Smith & Girling steam-powered flour mill and converted it to house the Fordux bedding factory. The name, Fordux was apparently an inversion of ‘Duxford’, the airfield where Mr Pallant had been stationed during the Great War.

The Fordux brand used an illustration of four ducks in a row as its logo and its popular advertisements.

Inside the Fordux flock mill

The company had mixed fortunes. It went into liquidation in 1928 but was reborn the following year as a limited company, with its finances restructured to enable expansion. They built an extension to the factory to become on of only two UK plants producing flock as a mattress-filling material. 

Employing around 50 people, the factory was considered very advanced. The local press reported: 

"The factory, a fireproof building, is of steel and asbestos construction, and embraces the most modern requirements for the health and well-being of employees. Machinery of the latest type is installed to produce materials of the very highest standard of purity. Motive power is supplied by Messrs Crossley Bros of Manchester, by one of their new model, high-powered oil engines..."

The rollercoaster of fortune continued for Fordux which went into liquidation again in 1947, but in the same year reappeared as Fordux Mills, diversifying into making high-quality mattresses, divans, pillows and other accessories which were supplied to leading bed manufacturers. Clients included the much better known Slumberland brand.

Just a few years later Slumberland bought the Fordux business and continued to manufacture bedding in Southwold right up until 1974, when the factory finally closed to be sold and converted to flats.

In 1909, a decade before Fordux launched Mr and Mrs Andrew Critten set up their new Southwold Hosiery Company in the centre of Southwold, employing four staff and operating three small hand knitting machines.

A year after its foundation, the business, by then known as Southwold Homeknit Hosiery Company was growing fast and had taken over both floors of the building it occupies. 

Then, on the brink of the First World War, the company won a very large contract to provide socks to the Army which led to it outgrowing its original premises completely. The Crittens bought the premises of the former auction house in Mights Road, near the town’s railway station, as the company’s new home.

Inside Homeknits Hosiery, Southwold

Starting with just a few staff, Homeknit soon began recruiting apprentices, and developing its manufacturing technology. By 1921 the company was using state of the art Swiss machinery to semi-automate production.

At its height around 100 people worked at Homeknit, many travelling in from villages outside Southwold. The business made fashionable knitwear for stores in Knightsbridge as well as clothing for local customers. It even produced silk jumpers for royal princesses.

Homeknit has a reputation as a progressive employer, providing bed and board for apprentices, and with policies including equal pay.

But the industrial life of Britain was changing in the 1950s and 60s, with greater centralisation and automation, and the very beginnings of offshoring to cheaper countries overseas. Homeknits soldiered on until the early 1960s before finally closing.

But we’re in a different era again now. With concerns about sustainability, the environment, and a backlash against wasteful fast fashion, small scale manufacturing in the UK is having something of a renaissance. 

Blackshore Coastal Clothing is tiny at the moment, even compared to its predecessors in Southwold. But it is part of a growing UK-wide movement of small-scale makers focused on quality and sustainability.

Source: Southwold Museum

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