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Living Linen Interview LL2_R01/73

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Sound Recording on Reel: Ulster Weavers UK. Library Transcript: Transcript. Summary: Mr Harle's father-in-law, Brian Shaw, was a main board Director of Ulster Weavers and encouraged him to leave the teaching profession to fill a vacancy in the London office. Mr Harle joined UW in 1974. The London operation, then as now, has no direct connection with the apparel side of the business. Until the early 1990s the London office was based on Carnaby St. 8 people were employed in the London operation. Mr Harle moved the office to Richmond in Surrey. The firm still retains a office in New York. Although the London office has since closed, the firm employs 4 salespeople who cover the Greater London area. The rest of the UK and further afield is dealt with by agents. In the 27 years Mr Harle has spent with Ulster Weavers Home Fashions (UWHF) the percentage of linen goods produced by the firm has fallen from 50-65% to 25-30%. Tea-towels remain the single largest individual item manufactured, but the firm also produces successful lines of PVC goods, kitchen coordinates, table linens and sheeting. UWHF supplies a wide range of customers from Harrods to Tesco and also produces special designs for charities such as the RNLI and National Trust. There is no direct retailing done in the UK. The international market is split into 3 sections: America, The Far East, Australia and the Middle East, and Europe. Overseas business today accounts for approximately 50% of the total. When Mr Harle joined the firm the home market accounted for 66% of the business. The change has come about thanks to success in Europe. The firm welcomes the introduction of the Euro but can quote in a range of currencies. The weaving factory is run by the apparel division, or more correctly the sister company, and UWHF gives an annual prediction of cloth requirements which is produced over the year. Although business tends to be fairly steady throughout the year, there is a cycle to demand and the firm has experienced both good and bad years. The country of origin (Irish linen), quality and the strength of design are Ulster Weavers major selling points. The bulk of the business today is in the gift trade and it is extremely important for Ulster's lines to remain fashionable in terms of `in' colours and designs. Customer feedback is treated seriously and market research is carried out from time to time. Ulster can respond very quickly to market demands - the current turn around time from paper design stage to items on the shelf is 8 weeks! Linen remains the best fabric for drying purposes and Ulster's tea- towel business is now more utility than souvenir orientated. Due to escalating costs, Ulster's involvement in textile exhibitions has contracted sharply over the past couple of years. Packaging and presentation are important and more than pay for their own intrinsic costs in terms of the extra revenue generated through sales. The London office had served as a showroom where buyers could come to see and `feel' the product. It is this wish to touch the product that Mr Harle uses to explain the limited success of catalogue sales and Ulster's decision not to get involved in this area. At the height of the troubles, buyers were reluctant to travel to Belfast and London was built up as a preferred venue. Coupled with the recent peace process, the improvements in communications have negated the need for a London office. Mr Harle feels that the future for Ulster is very bright. The company is expanding and diversifying its range to sell within existing markets and to penetrate new markets with more textile and non-textile products.