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Living Linen Interview LL2_R00/38 2 of 2


Sound Recording on Reel: Spence Bryson. Library Transcript: Transcript. Summary: In his last year at Methody (1946), Mr Hanna saw a job advertised on the school noticeboard. The position was Administrative Executive in Spence Bryson. As Mr Hanna was the first apprentice started by the firm since 1939, there was little structure for training in place. He moved around within the group, filling in where required and learning at the same time. After completing three of the proposed five-year training period, the company gave him the title of Assistant Manager. Wilson Hanna gravitated towards the handkerchief business. Spence Bryson handkerchiefs were woven in Portadown and Markethill. Each division was run independently and was expected to show a profit. This led to some internal difficulties. The mills refused to sell yarn to the weaving factories at preferential rates while Milltown bleach works refused to discount or give priority to Spence Bryson goods. At one stage Spence Bryson was the largest manufacturer of handkerchiefs in the world. Under Mr Hanna the division never made a loss and produced upwards of 12 million handkerchiefs per year. This output was due to three major factors: handkerchiefs were a utility item, an essential part of smart male dress, and were a staple of the gift trade. During the Christmas season, handkerchiefs gave Marks & Spencer a greater return per square foot of floor space than any other item! Linen is particularly suited to handkerchief manufacture. It is long lasting, absorbent and retains its pristine whiteness after laundering. Spence Bryson produced coloured, hemmed, corded, embroidered and printed handkerchiefs. Handkerchiefs were produced from the very finest cambrics, woven from yarns in excess of 200 lea. While different qualities were produced, the coarsest handkerchief yarns would still have had a lea of 70-80. Spence Bryson bought a number of independent handkerchief manufacturers: James Crosby, William Cowdy and Blane who were, more or less, in direct competition. These companies were run as subsidiaries and marketed under their original names. They also owned a 50% share in the Belfast Swiss Embroidery Co. In the marketplace the Spence Bryson name was important, as was the heritage of the company, their reputation for quality, and ability to meet deadlines. Irish linen continued to be a strong marketing point, particularly in the USA. In 1977 Mr Hanna was appointed a director of Spence Bryson. This was an important break with tradition, as previously only members of the families were permitted to hold seats on the Board. Although the handkerchief division contracted, it remained profitable. The firm lost out to changing fashion, a widening range of gifts and the growing popularity of paper tissues. The growing importance of the handkerchief division, was not recognised. Handkerchief production does not require much investment. In the end Singer not only stopped making the stitching machines that Spence Bryson were using, but also ceased to supply parts and technical back up. The sale of the company to Richards and then to Ulster Weavers made little difference to the handkerchief line, which still exists today. The proportion of linen woven has contracted greatly. This was due to retail stores demanding handkerchiefs of a certain price rather than quality in order to compete with other items and accessories. Mr Hanna retired in 1991. Wilson Hanna 'Mr Handkerchief’, to use Ralph Spence's term, bought his first box of paper tissues, ''I would not deign to give them the term 'handkerchief''' in the year 2000.