A Unique Legacy of five generations - Our Family – Reed Family Linen

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A Unique Legacy of Five Generations

Our Family
From sheep farmer to industrialist

I decided to write down some of our family history below so that it can be passed on to our daughter Pagan. Amos Hargreaves Reed grew up on a farm on the slopes of Pendle Hill in the wet landscape of North East Lancashire. Like his fathers before him, he tended to his flock of sturdy hill sheep and farmed them for wool and mutton. Lambing in Spring was a tough business, but he made ends meet most years. When an offer to home weave cotton fabrics came from a Liverpool agent in nearby Colne, Amos was intrigued and wanted to find out about this new business opportunity. He started with a few handlooms in his cottage for himself, his wife and his children, and soon moved these to the outside cowshed which they renamed the “Weaving Shed”. By 1852 Amos Reed was making more income from commission weaving than sheep farming and he pooled his assets in with fellow farmers to create the Spenbrook Mill Co-Operative Society where they all shared space, water wheel power and several sheds of looms. Without knowing it at the time, “Grandpa Hargreaves” as he is known in the family, had started a family tradition in textiles which would last for over five generations and is still flourishing today.

Amos Hargreaves Reed
The largest weaving shed in the world

Only a decade after starting to home weave, Amos’s two sons William and Tom had amassed enough capital to build their own stand alone weaving mill. They chose a site across the valley from Pendle Hill on the banks of the newly opened Leeds & Liverpool Canal – their plan was to power with steam generated from coal which would be delivered using barges on the canal. Despite their strict Methodist upbringing, the two brothers had ambition and built Springbank Mill with three weaving sheds, one on top of each other. The ground floor they used for themselves as William Reed Weaving and the two upper floors they rented out to make extra money to payback their investment in the building. By 1891 the main ground floor weaving shed contained 748 shuttle looms and was one of the largest in the world at that time. The deafening noise of shuttles and picking sticks (“clickety clack, clickety clack”) could be heard all around the new town of Nelson except on Sundays when Chapel was mandatory. Their business specialised in weaving narrow width Venetian & Florentine fine cotton dress fabrics and was a main supplier to Arthur Liberty in Regent Street and Nelson soon became renown worldwide for fine cotton weaving.

Springbank Mill, Nelson
Money talks

The new town of Nelson flourished in the early twentieth century and produced a few millionaires. One of these was William Reed who was an exacting and demanding taskmaster. He expected his weavers to take up all broken ends in their warps to ensure best quality cloth and was often seen himself in the weaving shed tending to his looms. He expected the same attention to detail from his bank and following a small accounting error which made him so annoyed, he decided to change bankers in his own eccentric way. William walked into County Bank in the centre of Nelson one morning and asked to see the manager at the counter. In a loud voice he asked “What is the balance of our company account, Mr Earnshaw?” When the manager replied and William Reed was satisfied that several other customers had heard his reply, he said “Good. Please make out a cheque to withdraw the entire balance and credit it to your competitors, District Bank, across the road!” Both District and County Banks were eventually merged into today’s Natwest Bank so William’s day of satisfaction was shorted lived.

Reed_Family_Linen_County and District Bank Nelson
Nelson town centre
Two textile dynasties woven together by marriage

John Moorby & Sons Limited were tenants in Reed’s Springbank Mill on the second floor. Unlike their landlords, Moorby’s specialised in weaving wider width fabrics (up to 90 inches) for use as drapery and bed sheets. Like the Reeds, the Moorbys were strict Methodists and tee-totallers; however unlike William Reed, John Moorby had two daughters rather than two sons. Whether by their parents design, or by weekly Chapel seating plans, romances blossomed between the two Reed sons and the two Moorby daughters resulting in two pre-war weddings in 1913. These two marriages united the Reed and Moorby businesses and created a powerful weaving dynasty of nearly two thousand looms producing fine and narrow width fabrics. The two families built an Edwardian country home in the middle of Nelson close to the mill called Spring Cottage which had modern features such as a room-to-room intercom, and one of the first plug-in Hoovermatic cleaning systems. Uncle Tom Reed had stables built for his horses and foxhounds, and the family imported two Wyllis-Knight limousines from Detroit which sported maroon livery with a gold R monogram on the doors. Jeffs the family chauffeur was a well known figure as he drove around the town on errands and spent hours polishing the cars whilst waiting in the mill yard. Invitations to dine at Spring Cottage were coveted – both Lloyd George and John Wesley were dinner guests, and at Christmas a huge tree in the hallway stood over presents which were connected to their recipients beds by a tangled web of threads which ran throughout the house. Ultimately twelve children lived and grew up in the house – the oldest, John Reed, was killed in action over Dresden in 1940 and the youngest, my father Peter, later chose to continue the family sheet weaving business. His first cousin, Robert, managed the narrow fabric business and both their sons (John and myself) later followed them into these businesses.

Reed Moorby wedding - the Reed & Aitken children at Spring Cottage with their governess, Miss Gardener
Pendle Witches and Weaving

Alice Nutter was accused and hanged for witchcraft in 1612. She was the last gentlewoman to be accused of this crime and is often remembered in the area around Halloween. She owned land on the other side of Pendle Hill to Nelson and passed this down to her great grandson James who grew up in the nearby cotton town of Barnoldswick during the mid 1800’s. James Nutter & Sons Limited was another successful Lancashire weaving business which flourished at the turn of the century. James built Bancroft Mill complete with a majestic Roberts steam engine with two horizontal pistons. The engine was christened by his wife Eliza Jane in 1920 and the cylinder drives are named Eliza and Jane in her memory. James built seven identical houses for each of his children along Tubber Hill overlooking the mill so that there would be no jealousy amongst them. Forty years later his youngest grand daughter, Patricia Anne, would marry into the Reed Moorby family in nearby Nelson.

Eliza Jane Nutter in 1920 at Bancroft Mill, Barnoldswick
Embroidery fit for Rome

In 1988 I had a brief ‘Gordon Gekko of Wall Street’ moment in that hedonistic era of success and we purchased Imperial Linens based in New York. At the time little did we know the long history of this niche business. In 1928 Imperial Linens were honoured to receive a commission from the bishop of Madeira to deisgn and make an embroidered alb as a gift for Pope Pius XI to celebrate his 50 year anniversary of being ordained. The alb was designed by Henrique Franco da Souza and made entirely by hand at our Funchal factory. Today it sits in the Vatican museum as part of the past Popes’ collection. Though our family has strong Protestant Methodist and Church of England roots, we are proud to have contributed this heirloom to the then head of the Catholic Church. A hand embroidered altar cloth was also gifted to the English Church in Funchal following a remembrance service held on the island for Peter Reed after his death in 2000.

Imperial Linens
Mayor Clifford

My grandfather Clifford Reed took over the management of William Reed and John Moorby weaving companies after the First World War during a booming business period. His stature as a well respected entrepreneur in the rapidly growing town of Nelson enabled him to become one of the first elected Mayors. He is remembered for bringing electricity to Nelson and for investing in the famous Victory V lozenges factory which later became the Fisherman’s Friend. His handlebar moustache and spats were trademarks of his appearance at town council meetings and at the Royal Cotton Exchange in Manchester.

Clifford Reed's manifesto when he was elected Mayor of Nelson
The Queen of Spades

My maternal grandmother, Annie Reed nee Moorby, was a matriarchal figure in the local Calder Valley community. On Tuesday’s she would travel to Manchester by train, as many weavers’ wives did, to join her husband who attended the Royal Cotton Exchange and lunch together at the stylish Art Deco Kardoma Cafe in St Anne’s Square to share gossip amongst the industry. Fortunate friends were then invited to Spring Cottage for Thursday Bezique card game tournaments where Annie was regularly the winner – so much so that she earned the nickname “Queen of Spades” in the valley after her strategy to collect this card and the Jack of Diamonds at every opportunity. When my wife, daughter and I now play Bezique a century later, we still refer to the Queen of Spades card as “Mrs Clifford”.

Annie Moorby Reed - Mark's maternal grandmother
English and Irish weaving innovation

Both the Reed and Moorby sides of the family were active in designing innovative engineering solutions in their quest to weave and produce the ultimate dress, drapery and sheeting fabrics. Clifford Reed patented the “graduated reed” which enabled looms to weave cloths with a higher thread count in the centre than towards the selvedge and hence help with the post-war demand for affordable bedlinen. He also pioneered the concept of “Beetle Finish” sheetings where cloth from Lancashire was finished in Northern Ireland with a 24 hour beetling run where wooden blocks pummelled the cloth continually with stream water in an effort to create a super soft finish. Both Peter and myself continued this tradition of innovation by re-engineering looms to weave 94″, 112″ and 124″ as mattress sizes have grown ever wider and deeper.

A "Beetling"machine at Cullybackey in Northern Ireland
The Frick Museum in Manhattan

Max Romer fled from Nazi Germany to the artist colony of Madeira in the mid 1930’s. He ended up designing fine table linens for our subsidiary company Imperial Linens in Funchal & New York. On a visit to Manhattan he became fascinated with the Frick Museum and its collection of Fragonard’s romantic figurines and scenes. From this inspiration Max designed our famous “Romance” tablecloth, placemats & napkins. As the letter attached from 1968 shows, a 12 seater cloth with napkins then sold for $1,275 which would be about $30,000 today.

Sales letter to a client in Missouri dated 1968 about design 3442 "Romance"
Young Peter continues the textile tradition

Peter was the youngest of all twelve Reed & Moorby children. After service in the Royal Marines and a delayed university career, his ambition was to teach classics and be a Scoutmaster. But the collapse of the Lancashire textile industry in the mid 1950’s and the loss of his older brother in the war caused the family to draw him into the John Moorby family business which finally closed under the Textile Scheme in 1959. Against the trend Peter rented space in his new father-in-law’s mill and re-invested his share of the government compensation payout into starting a new weaving business which catered for the emerging trade in bedlinen for five foot mattresses – like his grandfather before him, he re-engineered his existing Lancashire looms to weave at 112″ wide and launched the first “KING” size sheets. This innovation was to be the start of a long and successful run for Peter Reed (Textiles) Limited as the company grew into being a leading worldwide brand for quality household linens. Peter followed his father Clifford as a local magistrate and an elected member of his town council.

Peter and Pat Reed arriving on holiday at Biarritz airport in 1959
Blondes have more fun

My mother Patricia Ellison grew up a mill owner’s daughter and was expected to marry into the industry as her mother and grandmother had done before her. After boarding school she enrolled at Burnley Textile College and spent the afternoons bunking off classes at the local “picture house” with boys and cigarettes. Her dashing looks and mischevious character soon caught the interest of Peter Reed who was eight years older after his national service in the Marines and university. They fell in love and were married when Pat was eighteen. Her love of style and especially everything French fascinated her, and her sense of humour and love for playing patience were legendary, as were her visits to Harrogate every Friday where she learned Cordon Bleu cooking and bought French porcelain. An example of Pat’s humour was related by one of my cousins who visited during school holidays and asked her to go shopping. Pat came downstairs a few minutes later dressed in nothing but high heels and a shopping bag. My mother was a memorable character and we all loved her! Our daughter Pagan wore Pat’s wedding dress for a debutante ball sixty years later.

Reed_Family_Linen_101 - Patrica Anne Reed Ellison Nutter
Patricia Anne Reed Ellison Nutter
Linens for Hollywood royalty

When the US Embassy in Paris ordered a wedding gift for Princess Grace’s marriage to Prince Rainier in 1957, they turned to our Madeiran embroidery factory for a unique design of tablecloth. The artist Max Romer created an organdy and linen appliqued masterpiece which was loosely based on Grace Kelly’s wedding veil and which we still sell over seventy years later. The same tablecloth was ordered recently by a Saudi Princess in terracotta for 48 place settings; this was shipped to a palace in Riyadh and has never been seen again. Karen Reed took this design from our embroidery archives in Funchal and turned it into a rich jacquard bedlinen which is available in five dyed shades. Recently she has developed this same design into a textured heavyweight towel to match the bed linen.

Princess Grace in Terrocota at Stonyhurst College
Clothing for the White House

REED fabrics had been purchased and used by Imperial for many years before we acquired the Imperial businesses in 1988. Our fine percale was used for making hand embroidered blouses and children’s clothes by Imperial Childrens Wear through the factory in Funchal. Our original range of hand smocked dresses made from REED fabric printed with Liberty designs was an instant sucess in Nieman Marcus and Saks in the States. The range later grew to include hand embroidered applique designs and was famously used by President Kennedy’s children.

Kennedy family in Imperial Childrens Wear
Tuesdays & Thursdays "On 'Change"

Before telephones and emails the Lancashire Cotton industry used to trade face-to-face at the Royal Cotton Exchange on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Spinners, weavers and merchants would travel into Manchester by train and stand on the floor in their allocated pillar spot so that their customers and suppliers could meet them. Top Hats were the style until the second world war when Bowlers replaced these. Special train services from the spinning & weaving towns into Piccadilly station were filled with smoke and hats twice a week – ladies travelled on a later train to avoid this inconvenience. Members of the Reed & Moorby companies maintained representation on their pillar space (C14) until the Exchange finally closed in 1968. When I first started working at the mill, spinners would still call on us every Tuesday morning out of habit and respect for the Exchange – and the meetings always started with a shared cigarette before discussing any business.

Manchester Cotton Exchange - Last Day of Trading
Sea Island Cotton & the Bee Gees

With the closure of the Cotton Exchange, spinners from abroad started to flood the UK with their weaving yarns. We were the first company to buy and weave Egyptian cotton yarns directly from MISR in Alexandria and were pioneer members of the Alexandria Cotton Exchange. A few years later my father was elected to the West Indian Sea Island Cotton Exchange and began a love for the West Indies which changed his life. Regular visits to Barbados followed during which time he socialised with the Bee Gees and a whole new circle of friends. When he visited me at boarding school on his return, he sported white suits, gold medallions and flared trousers – a luxury period in his life which he had earned and richly deserved. REED wove and produced the world’s first pure Sea Island Cotton sheets which were sold in boxed sets in Harrods at eyewatering prices. When my father tried to buy a second crop from Barbados in 1977 there wasn’t enough fibre available and I often wonder where all the Sea Island Cotton we see today comes from?

Boxed pair of Cross Stitch sheets woven from West Indian Sea Island Cotton
The golden Harrods era

Many will remember how London boomed in the 1970’s as Arabs and their wealth flooded into Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Five star hotels were booked out during the Middle East summer months and the demand for quality bedlinen sky rocketed. As Arabs bought property in Central London, so the demand for large size beds, mattresses and linens literally exploded – and everyone shopped at Mr Fayed’s store, Harrods. Business out of season and during the legendary Sales periods boomed, especially in household linens. It was a tradition that suppliers always worked in the store on the first and last days of the Sale and I recall duirng the Summer of 1978 when ushers were asking shoppers to exit Harrods as they were concerned about structural safety caused by the weight of people on the floors. During this period Roy Cox (Linen Buyer) demanded “Super King” size bedsheets and we responded by developing a new wide width rapier loom in Belgium which produced the first 120″ (3 metre) wide sheets.

The PR range of Egyptian cotton bedlinen
The future King visits Lancashire

We remember with fondness when HRH Prince Charles visited our mill in Nelson in 1985 and sported a red rose in his lapel to honour Lancashire. One of our then employees handed the then bachelor prince a pair of our best quality Sea Island Cotton “Cross Stitch” pillowcases as a gift which he gratefully accepted.

Prince Charles visit to Burnley & Nelson
First "Switch On" for over 80 years in Lancashire

Propelled by the Thatcher economic boom of the early 1980’s, and by her personal use of our sheets, my father decided to build a new weaving shed in Nelson just as his grandfather had done in 1891. Although “Mrs T” was booked to open the mill, due to a late security threat she was replaced by Kenneth Clarke who was Paymaster General at the time. It was the first new weaving mill “Switch On” in Lancashire for over eighty years – and is almost certainly the last weaving mill to be built in the UK. The Switch On of Springfield Mill, Lomeshaye was attended by over a hundred selected guests from the industry and was the culmination of my father’s lifelong involvement in the Lancashire textile industry.

Weaving shed at Springfield Mill Lomeshaye
The fifth generation makes their mark

After ten years working abroad in textiles, I was pressured to join the family business by my father, Peter, in the late 1980’s. I soon realised that the business wasn’t big enough to support both of us and I set off for New York and spent five years building a loyal customer base from East to West coasts. One of the first clients I went to see was Gus Oser at E Braun & Co on Madison. I sat with this legend of the household textile industry for a hour whilst he touched and identified all my sheeting thread count samples correctly – he was blind and possessed such skill with his fingertips. My wife and I still use our “Gus Oser Test Kit” when we train store staff today. One of the highlights for me was seeing REED advertised on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard for sale at Helmy Linens with the caption – “dressed for business….” on top of a picture of a girl in our bedlinen with a Bowler hat, furled umbrella and a copy of the Financial Times on the bed. The recession period from late 1990’s to 2005 was less enjoyable as luxury spending collapsed post 9/11 and the RBOS scandal decimated our company as we sold off assets and repaid debt under pressure before the bank itself actually went bust. Several attempts to bring in new shareholders proved difficult, but we finally joined with London bankers who had great plans for a Bond Street and overseas stores. Following an acrimonious period we parted ways.

Mark Reed
The start of the sixth generation

Mark and Karen met through a bedlinen launch in Johannesburg in 1990 and were married two years later. Karen’s international modelling background and innate sense of style and fashion quickly had a strong influence on the direction of our bedlinen designs in the 1990’s. I insisted that Karen “start at the bottom” (as I had done) by cleaning the embroidery department, running machines on nights, and cataloguing the design collection. By 1995 Karen’s horizontal stripes and pleated trim bedlinen designs were the talk of trade shows in Frankfurt and New York – and she worked closely with Conran Shop and Designers Guild to develop their first in-house bed linen ranges by combining our Lancashire weaving skills with our Madeira embroidery. As our Managing Director today, few others have as much experience and knowledge of how fine quality household textiles are spun, woven, finished, stitched, embroidered, packaged and marketed as Karen does with her thirty five years of experience in the business.

Mark, Karen & Pagan Reed
By Royal Appointment

My father worked with Norman Hartnell for a few years prior to the Charles & Diana wedding in 1981. He was asked to design and develop a range of bedlinen for the future royal couple and a relationship with the Palace commenced. REED supplied bedlinen to Balmoral, Sandringham, MV Britannia and Buckingham Palace and he was awarded the first manufacturer’s Warrant for bedlinen in 1993 – an accolade which he cherished until his passing in 2000.

The first manufacturer's Warrant for bed linen in 1993
Working with transatlantic designers

Like buses come all at once, our private label bedlinen collaborations mushroomed from 1988 until 1995. Our initial work with Polly Dickens at Liberty and then the newly launched Conran Shop caused labels such as Designers Guild, Margaret Howell, Donghia, Angel Zimmick, Nicole Farhi, Mulberry and Fired Earth to work with us and design bespoke bedlinen collections for their brands. The original colourwoven Designers Guild range of bedlinen was particularly successful and went viral in North America through mail order catalgues like Chambers before the advent of online sales. This was a golden period of sales and created a headache for mill production and stock management as sales until then had been “95% white…”. We still refer to this period as the ‘colourful nineties’!

Donghia & Designers Guild
Pamela asks a question

Some of you may remember the explosion of interest in home textiles caused by the above licensing agreements and a brand called Portico which launched on Wooster Street in the Village in 1993. The creative genius behind this brand was Pamela Schumacher who was later head hunted by Calvin Klein to set up their Home Collection. We remember the exasperation of Pamela as she was being asked “What is the point of difference? What is the point of difference between us at REED, an authentic sheet supplier, and a new fashion house entering the home furnishing market?”. The global brands of the day had licensed their names to sun glasses, shoes & cosmetics and were looking for new product areas. The point of difference we later realised was the creation of new higher thread counts by using twisted yarns from the fashion industry. This led to a frenzy of inflated thread count labelling and subsequent Class Action law suits in the States which culminated in Bed Bath & Beyond filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. We battled through two decades of this fraud but are happy to note that this has finally come to an end. Please Google search ‘Thread Count Fraud’.

Is it Fraud ?
2005 to today
The Manchester of India

The tough decisions to downsize our manufacturing in Lancashire and Maderia was a painful period in our company’s history. Karen Reed was adamant that our family’s provenance and heritage in the business was worth saving and she set out to find a new manufacturing base. Twenty years later our company is refinanced, restructured and delivering better quality and more intelligently priced woven constructions than Mr William, Mr Clifford and Mr Peter (the three previous generations) designed all those years ago. Karen’s challenge to other suppliers is to show her how products which are labelled “Made in Italy” or “Made in England” but are grown in China, purported to be woven in Italy, sewn in Portugal and warehoused in England have a low environmental footprint. I am proud not to hide the fact that our Suvin Egyptian staple length cotton is grown in India within 200km of where it is spun, woven and sewn into bedlinen. Just as my father built a new weaving shed when others were closing, and just as we insisted that 400 thread count is the highest plain weave which can be achieved, again we are defying the trends in our quest to supply authentic and sustainable products at an intelligent price.

Karen Reed continues the family tradition