In Conversation: An Insight Into Dugdale Bros & Co.
Words by Benjamin Clark.
Sitting right between the rivers Holme and Colne and right underneath the Millstone Grit Pennine hills is the town of Huddersfield. This little town has been the centre of the cloth for centuries because of its key geographical location. We went to meet Robert Charnock, chairman of Dugdale Bros & Co, to find out more about this incredible town and the cloth merchants situated there.
Dugdale is based in a beautiful 19th-century building that used to be the old Post Office. Built in 1874 and designed by William Henry Crossland, it matches the gorgeous architecture of the whole town, evidently steeped in a rich history. In 1896, Henry Percy and Frederick Herbert Dugdale opened their cloth merchant business in Huddersfield, already established as the centre of Britain’s fine worsted industry. They took over their current premises in 1906. Dugdale remained in the family for two generations, through prosperous times and perilous war years until it was later acquired by Keith Charnock and now chairman Rob Charnock. They are now the last remaining, independently owned cloth merchant in Huddersfield, supplying classic, contemporary and luxury fabrics to tailoring professionals throughout the world.
The incredibly charming Rob met us outside and took us upstairs to an ornate room full of cloth and sketchbooks. The fascinating conversation we had really helped us to contextualise why Huddersfield is the epicentre of the British cloth industry. Cloth is made from sheep’s wool and the first step in the process is washing this wool. Unlike the water from the east coast or the south, the water from the Pennines is incredibly soft and pure. This water imparts nothing into the wool, no impurities and no chemicals, creating a “beautiful lather” when the natural soaps are added. It’s this quality of water that is unparalleled in the United Kingdom and what makes Huddersfield the nation's capital for top quality, luxury cloth.
Rob then went on to tell us that he is the 4th generation of clothworker in his family. His great-grandfather, John Henry, was a weaver and his grandfather, Thomas, was a mill manager - a rather innovative gentleman. Thomas wanted to keep the wool as close to the sheep as he could throughout the weaving process. He told his staff: “You have to love the wool and be very kind during the whole process”. When the wool was stored before spinning, he opted to leave it outside, uncovered and unprotected from the rain. Just like the sheep. Thomas also championed a technique called ‘cold pressing’ - once the cloth was made, it would be left in a well ventilated, slightly damp room. The material was circulated and left for a considerable amount of time so that the air and life could get back into the material. This part of the process is time-consuming and has since been dropped by a lot of cloth merchants, but it’s what makes the material so fresh, so natural and so luxury. “Treat wool with respect until the end of the process, after that it’s the tailors’ problem.” Rob reminisces on his grandfather’s sense of humour and continues: “we’ve done everything we can to make the cloth perfect for the tailors”. And we promise, your cloth is in no better hands than Morgan & Fenwick.
Rob went on to show us his grandfather's old sketch and scrapbooks with his designs and samples from as early as 1920. The quality of the cloth was quite incredible and the overwhelming factor was that quite a few of the designs are still as popular today. This cloth, this art, this fashion is utterly timeless. So what’s changed since the 1920s or the Huddersfield heyday of Worsted in the 1950s? Well, the cloth might be timeless but the practices have changed, with many cloth merchants leaving out crucial parts of the process to save time and money. Rob and Dugdale are pioneering innovative ways of bringing back elements of this classic process, whilst making sure everything they do is as sustainable for the environment as possible. He says “we’re moving a little further in each area to make the cloth stand out, and people are starting to notice”. Rob has developed a new collection of cloths called ‘Merchant Fleece’. “We wanted to do something discernibly different but quite extraordinary”. The finest wool is always taken from the sheep’s chest area but the issue that you encounter is that the cloth ends up rather delicate and not very durable. Rob wanted to create a cloth of this luxury quality that was just as durable and sustainable as the rest of the Dugdale cloths. So, for ‘Merchant Fleece” Dugdale combine this chest fleece with other wool and cross-weave it. This way you get a very high quality, very durable piece that still looks and feels incredibly light and fine. More time is taken in the weaving process and Rob’s grandfathers’ ‘Cold Pressing’ stage has been brought back to create a truly authentic feel whilst having the durability of a modern cloth. The dye is applied to the raw wool instead of the cloth which helps to achieve much more colour continuity. It’s kinder to the wool and you don’t encounter any shade variations. With minimal heat pressing, there are no loose fibres in the twill creating an incredibly soft material. This attention to detail in the weaving of the cloth is a virtue we share with Dugdale here at Morgan & Fenwick. We love how Dugdale is putting a modern twist on an old process as it’s what we do here as well. We take the tailoring process back to its modest roots whilst keeping our pieces stylish, modern and luxury.
To prove that the quality is as good as it used to be back in the height of the Huddersfield cloth industry, Rob fetched us some Dugdale cloth from 1964. We compared it to the Merchant Fleece and the results were fascinating. It was very hard to tell the difference. Dugdale is managing to achieve this bespoke quality cloth using the perfect combination of old and new processes. Rob tells us that they are rolling out this way of making cloth across their entire range. It’s a remarkable achievement.
The last area we wanted to explore with Rob was Dugdale’s sustainability, so he told us about their ‘Ecology’ range. We all increasingly want the products that we buy to do more than the simple task that they were created for and we are all, quite rightly, increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of how these products were produced. This was precisely the thought process that Rob went through during the creation of this ‘Ecology’ collection. These woollen cloths are made exclusively with sheep from Yorkshire, Cumbria and Wales. The wool is then spun locally in Meltham - not even 20 miles away from Leeds. The wools are completely natural, there’s no dye or chemicals and the water used to wash it is as clean, if not cleaner, than that of Yorkshire Water. Naturally hardwearing and insulating, wool is possibly the most environmentally friendly of all the fabrics. Combine that with having your suit tailored with Morgan & Fenwick in Leeds and you’d have one of the least travelled suits in the world. Further to this collection, Dugdale is trying to use British Wool for their Worsted cloths and are constantly looking for new ways to make this happen.
Dugdale Bros & Co are a modern and dynamic cloth merchant with an innovative captain at their helm. From our tailor’s perspective, their materials are wonderful to work with and make beautiful suits for both women and men. Rob rounded up our time with him by showing us a leaflet that went out with Dugdale cloth in the 1930s during the great depression, something that we found very striking due to the current economic climate. It read: “when reports of depression are so numerous, it is refreshing to strike a note of optimism which must be the dominant note of all successful businessmen. Tailors are overcoming obstacles in a manner worthy of the solid British character.”