The sheep on Leicestershire’s coat of arms is testament to the county’s long association with the textiles industry. The region has been a traditional centre for knitwear, hosiery and footwear as well as high street retailer Next, and other well-known, well-respected British brands.
Before the Industrial Revolution, textile making in the region was a cottage industry, often a sideline for farmers. But factory mechanisation saw the Leicestershire textiles sector take off.
One of its great success stories was Nathaniel Corah & Sons Ltd of Leicester, a family concern established in the early 1800s. At its height in the 1960s, Corah was one of the largest knitwear producers in Europe, employing some 6,500 workers. The company had a long and close relationship with Marks & Spencer, supplying most of its knitwear from 1926 onwards. However, recessions in the 1970s and 1980s, together with M&S moving its manufacturing abroad, saw a once mighty company finally having to close its doors.
A similar fate befell many other notable, long-standing Leicestershire names in the 1990s, including the corset maker Symington’s; Pick’s, pioneers of the sleeveless pullover; hosiery specialist Atkins of Hinckley; and the nightwear and leisurewear maker Cherub.
However, many long-standing brands are still around and flying the flag for Leicestershire. The oldest company in the Next Group is actually 150 years old. Byfords, originally set up in 1919, is still successfully selling men’s knitwear at home and abroad. Wolsey, one of the oldest textile companies in the world, and holder of a coveted Royal Warrant, is also continuing to make Great British menswear.
That was then. Now’s the time to write the next chapter in the history of Leicestershire textiles. We already have the tradition and infrastructure. Now we need a new generation to take the county back where it belongs.