Fashion – Enter Wales on BBC Radio Cymru – Whoever Would Open a Factory During a Pandemic?
In April 2022 Fashion-Enter Wales was featured on BBC Radio Cymru. The programme discussed the history of the Pryce-Jones building, the ex-Laura Ashley workers and the future for Made in Wales production. Below is the English version of the accompanying article…
“Whoever would open a factory during a pandemic?”
2020 was the end of an era in Wales as the last Laura Ashley factory closed. Siân Sutton has met some former workers who are keeping the local clothing industry alive…
When the CEO of a London fashion company visited Newtown in 2020 she was inspired to invest in the clothing industry in Wales.
Jenny Holloway from Fashion-Enter has kept the local connection with the garment industry alive after the last of the Laura Ashley factories closed.
In March 2020 the company, established in Carno in the 1960s, went in to receivership and 57 people faced losing their jobs.
“It was sad and hard to see people leaving for the last time and never to return,” said Eddie Bebb a manager at Texplan Newtown who had been with Laura Ashley for 38 years.
He joined the company in Carno in 1983 before the work moved from creating tea towels, aprons and oven gloves to being a world leading fashion company headed by Laura and Bernard Ashley. Before long the famous Victorian style clothing and materials were sold in shops around the world.
After the death of Laura Ashley in 1985, there was a change in management and the company was floated on the stock market. The company losses in the following period led to outsourcing of the garment production to cheaper factories overseas. But at one time over 800 people were employed in the factories in Carno and Newtown.
And discussing the closure of Texplan two years ago is still painful and emotional for the former workers.
“It was difficult,” explains Eddie Bebb, “for a week I was the only one left, the last man standing, and it was difficult to go through the gate for that last time… very sad.”
A ‘tragic’ loss of skills
As the final workers produced scrubs for the NHS, a leader in the fashion industry from London visited Newtown.
“When I went to Texplan the object initially was to look at machinery,” remembers Jenny Holloway from Fashion-Enter. “When any company goes into liquidation you tend to have machinery at discounted prices. And I was just unprepared to meet a small team of women and one lady in particular, Anwen, who had gone to the effort of baking cakes.
“I remember sitting around the boardroom table with managers and directors and seeing cakes and thought how kind it’s such a lovely thing to do… she doesn’t have a job and her future is uncertain… they made my heart melt really.
“As CEO for 16 years there was no business plan, cash flow budget forecasts none of that, it was just that’s a lovey cake I’m going to open a factory.”
The new factory opened with 77 former Laura Ashley workers in October 2020 with a £300,000 grant from the Wales government for machinery and job creation on top of the investment from Fashion-Enter. Since then the unit in the famous Pryce-Jones Warehouse in Newtown has supplied on-lein companies including ASOS.
Hope for “life after Laura Ashley”
Rachel Bufton worked for Laura Ashley for 40 years starting on the sewing machines and progressing to supervisor and manager.
“It was very sad after all the years but then in came Jenny who made it easier to accept that we were leaving and that the team could stay together in the Pryce-Jones building,” says Rachel Bufton as she remembers the events of 2020.
“It gave us a lot of hope that there was life after Laura Ashley and that we could continue with sewing and the clothing industry.”
Sewing wedding dresses was the first work for Sheena Pugh at Machynlleth before she moved to Carno and then Newtown with Laura Ashley. After working “a month less that 29 years” and a short time on furlough, Sheena Pugh is back at work in Newtown and glad of Jenny Holloway’s decision to invest in the new factory.
“She knew that she had the right girls to make it work. We’re like a family, very close and we’ve known each other for years.”
As well as contracts from British companies, the factory has created it’s own brand Spyce Jones once more creating aprons, oven gloves and tea towels. And since January has established an Academy to train and offer stitching qualifications to students at Coleg y Drenewydd.
Turning back to buying locally
Fashion-Enter is a not for profit company established in London 16 years ago in order to ensure the future of the British clothing industry. Jenny Holloway is a leading campaigner for improving working conditions and encouraging companies to buy locally produced clothing.
The Newtown factory is looking for 20 new stitchers to join the 45 already a part of the new workforce in order to meet new orders this year and will be offering apprenterships which will continue to provide skilled workers in mid Wales.
“You don’t come across so many experienced stichers very often,” says Jenny Holloway about her decision to set up a new factory two years ago. “It’s such a shame that retailers don’t understand the importance of local sourcing…
“Why on earth do we need to import clothes from China with all the problems of transporting goods and Covid? Why not buy locally, save jobs and work with communities?
“I’m not sure if we will be able to turn the clock back, but we’re going to give a good try at creating a centre of excellence and sewing skills once more in Newtown.”
LLUNIAU – Fashion-Enter
1. Eddie Bebb a Rachel Bufton / 2. Jenny Holloway a Sheena Pugh
3 Ffatri Fashion Enter, Y Drenewydd / 4. Adeilad Pryce Jones y Drenewydd
Y FFATRI DDILLAD – on BBC Radio Cymru, Sunday, April 17 at 18.31 a Wednesday, April 20 at 18.03
And on BBC Sounds Y Ffatri Ddillad – BBC Sounds