SEATING: Holdsworth

By: Ian Porter


A venerable British weaver almost disappeared in sight of its 200th birthday

SEATING: Holdsworth
The Holdsworth fabric ‘mother lode’ in the United Kingdom

You know you are doing something right when your brand name becomes a part of everyday industry language.

Not long ago, when bus operators were deciding how to fit out their buses, if they didn’t want leather or vinyl, they would simply say they wanted "a Holdsworth", meaning a cloth fabric made by John Holdsworth & Company of the UK.

Holdsworth was in a dominant position in the Australasian bus market 20 years ago but a period of poor corporate performance for the UK parent company led to the famous old weaver being put on the auction block – twice.

It was an ignominious period for a company that was founded in 1822, as steam power was revolutionising the manufacturing industries of Britain, then the world.

John Holdsworth bought some of the new powered looms and seized on the opportunities offered by the growth of the railways from 1830 and, in particular, the creation of the London underground train system in 1863.

If you have ever ridden on the London Underground, you have sat on a moquette fabric, the fabric that the Holdsworth company has refined and improved for almost 200 years.

What founder John Holdsworth managed to do was mechanise the production of moquette, a traditional fabric whose name is derived from the French word for carpet.

It was literally a light carpet for seats on trains as well as seats on horse-drawn carriages. Its superior durability soon made it the preferred fabric for these high-wear applications.

Moquette is a pile fabric in which cut threads form a short, dense pile-like velvet. The pile provides a flexible surface that is soft to the touch, minimizes abrasion and possesses strong anti-stain qualities.

"It’s hard to get market share numbers, but I believe Holdsworth is still the market leader in transport fabrics in Australia," says Holdsworth Australasia’s National Sales and Marketing Manager, Rodney Peterson.

"Around 15 to 20 years ago, Holdsworth was known as the Hoover of transport seating," he says.

"When a bus operator was speccing his new vehicle, it was either vinyl or it was a cloth fabric and if cloth was chosen it was simply called a Holdsworth.

"Holdsworth meant cloth in Australia."

CLASSY PRODUCT

Peterson, a qualified wool classer, says the company’s trademark moquette fabric performs better than a straight twill or jacquard weave. It comprises 85 percent wool and 15 percent polyester, the highest wool content of any high-volume transport fabric sold in Australia.

This is welcome news for travelers who used to have the unpleasant experience on a hot day of their bare skin sticking to a vinyl seat cover.

"That’s where the benefit of 85 percent wool comes into it," Peterson says.

"The wool helps wick away perspiration and the pile is not long enough for the wool to be prickly."

The use of wool makes the Holdsworth moquette a premium product, almost three times as expensive as the company’s synthetic fabrics. Australian bus operators appear to appreciate the quality as the wool-based product represents almost 90 percent of the company’s sales volume.

While it would be nice to say that the wool is all sourced from Australia, that is not the case.

"It’s a blend sourced from a Bulgarian spinner," Peterson says.

"The wool is from Australia, South Africa, Britain and possibly New Zealand."

And because it has a pile, moquette is also known for its durability. Peterson says all the Holdsworth products are guaranteed for 5 years although "with proper care, you can look at 10 to 15 years or longer".

All Holdsworth fabrics are woven in Europe, with the bulk of the moquette now produced in a purpose-built Lithuanian plant that was completed only four years ago.

The Lithuanian plant is fitted with the latest weaving machines, which combine as many as 3000 threads into the warp (the longitudinal strands) and the weft (the crossways strands) to produce the fabric.

From Lithuania the fabric goes to Holdsworth’s operation in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, where the loops of yarn are cut off the tops of the fabric to make the pile an even depth.

The Huddersfield operation also applies any post-fabric treatments, especially fire retardant and smoke suppressants. These are generally required for trains in Europe, especially when they regularly use tunnels.

"As well as the bus industry, we also supply into the rail industry in Europe," Peterson says.

"That’s where high fire and toxicity standards are specified."

It’s the volumes in the European rail industry that allow Holdsworth to offer 85 percent wool fabrics in Australia. The highest proportion offered by a competitor is 50 percent wool.

"Instead of us having two products, one with 50 percent wool and one with 85 percent wool, it’s all done at the highest level so therefore everybody gets the benefit," Peterson says.

For the bus industry in Australia, the post-fabric treatments are not required by the national safety standards as the high wool content provides sufficient fire retardant action.

While fire is, thankfully, a rare occurrence, bus operators do have to grapple with vandalism on a daily basis and Peterson says this is another area where wool-based moquette fabrics shine.

"Moquettes are hard targets for vandalism. In the past, you could get a Texta on the vinyl, or a pen, or have your seats slashed. The vinyl seats on a bus are virtually a white board for graffiti.

"If someone sprays anything on to moquette, or writes on it with Texta, with the right cleaning agents that can all be cleaned off."

Although an operator could order a moquette with some carbon fibre in it if a bespoke fabric was required, Peterson says the standard fabric is already unrewarding for vandals.

"The cuts don’t show if you slice a seat. Moquette is a very robust fabric. If there is a cut along there, it won’t open up. With vinyl, it opens up, then it falls out and is uncomfortable to sit on."

PATTERN FOR A LIFETIME

Making a fabric this resilient, guaranteeing it for five years and expecting it to last for 15 brings some responsibility in the area of customer service, Peterson says.

Holdsworth shares a warehouse with another Melbourne company but has to make sure it has a wide inventory of patterns in stock so it can quickly satisfy demands for repair orders.

"There are operators now that are refurbishing their buses after 15 years and they ask for a 15-year-old pattern. They may want to do 4 seats out of 44, and we have to have it," he says.

"We are there for the lifetime of the vehicle; we have to keep that pattern.

"If we don’t stock it here, we bend over backwards to get our masters in the UK to run a bit off for us."

There are 12,000 metres of fabric, worth around $500,000, in the warehouse and while more recent patterns walk out the door regularly, some patterns might only be sold once in two years.

Holdsworth receives its fabric in 25-metre rolls, but does not charge extra if a customer wants less than that, a point of difference Peterson is proud of.

"If someone wants two metres, that’s what gets shipped and we don’t charge more for that.

"Others say you have to buy it by the roll.

"It costs us, because we pay the freight.

[But for customers]it’s freight-free anywhere in Australia."

Operators that want a unique pattern on their fabric just have to ask.

"We also make bespoke fabrics, so if a bus operator wants their own colours, designs or logo, we can put those into the weave as well.

"For instance, the Brisbane buses are upholstered with fabric that has the Brisbane Town Hall in the design.

"The State Transit Authority in New South Wales (NSW) has its own design on all its buses."

On the other hand, Peterson will also visit one-bus operations to help the operator – more often the operator’s wife – design the interior fit out.

CUTTING A NEW CLOTH

It was the heavy accent on customer service that almost brought the company down after more than 180 years of operation and six generations of Holdsworth family management.

Coming under attack from cheaper fabric producers, management tried to retain customers by producing whatever they wanted, almost in whatever volume they wanted.

This led to a profusion of small production runs at the 183-year-old mill in Halifax, West Yorkshire and did not solve the problem of relatively high operating costs.

Focus was lost and market share eroded in various markets.

The family was forced to sell in 2005 and the buyer was a property developer wanting the historic mill premises for redevelopment. The operations were moved to Huddersfield.

It took two years, but the new owner finally found a buyer for the Holdsworth textile business, Camira Group, which makes what are known as "contract" fabrics mainly for use in large buildings like hotels, hospitals, cinemas and offices.

Peterson sums up this period of uncertainty matter-of-factly: "Holdsworth could have disappeared."

Camira was formed by a management buyout in 2006 and then acquired Holdsworth in 2007, so it turned out that one of the textile industry’s newest companies acquired one of the industry’s oldest. Together, Camira and Holdsworth sell around 10 million metres of fabric a year.

It was under Camira’s guidance that Holdsworth established the Lithuanian plant that has restored the company’s competitiveness. The plant makes both contract and transport fabrics.

The new owners have gone even further, making the group almost self-sufficient by acquiring a yarn spinning business and building the group’s own dye-house at a total cost of around £6 million ($A8.7 million).

The group’s new facilities have all been designed with the highest environmental standards in mind, and the group has been accredited to ISO 14001 environmental standards, as well as the OHSAS 18001 health and safety standards and ISO 9001 quality standards.

Peterson says the company’s renewed independence and the directors’ emphasis on sustainability have seen a resumption of research and development and a move into interesting fields.

"We are working on new products, more for the contract industry, working with alternative fibres such as thistle (stinging nettles), and hemp.

"So, it would be a blend of wool and thistle woven into a yarn."

Peterson says there is a very good chance that hemp, in particular, will find its way into transport fabrics.

"It’s a renewable resource and environmentally friendly.

"It’s a weed that grows.

"You can crop it and cut it," he says, pointing out that it is the non-intoxicating version of hemp that is being studied.

"Hemp gives a much higher yield, much faster turnover, more than one crop a year and you can make paper with it, not to mention rope and clothing."

After entering the 21st century in serious trouble and then going through the worrying period of uncertainty that comes with two changes of ownership, Holdsworth appears to have restored stability and laid strong foundations for the future.

Whether bus operators will ever go back to referring to cloth upholstery as "a Holdsworth" remains doubtful.

But there are other attributes that the company shares with its products that might fill the bill, words like "survivor" or "indestructible".

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