Living Linen Interview LL2_R01/53


Sound Recording on Reel: C Blane & Sons. Library Transcript: Transcript. Summary: C Blane & Sons Ltd was founded by Mr Blane’s great-grandfather Christy in 1865. He began by distributing yarn to handloom weavers from a small yard. He paid his workers in vouchers redeemable at his own general store. During WWI, Mr Blane's grandfather (James) expanded the business into handkerchiefs. He introduced Swiss embroidery into Ireland, purchasing a number of machines and securing the services of a Swiss national. The firm established a Swiss embroidery school. Swiss embroidery is an automated system of hand embroidery, where the repeater needles are held in grippers. The machines could produce up to 500 individual handkerchiefs from a single pattern. As this expanded, the handloom weaving was phased out. Development continued under Mr Blane's father - Murray. Murray Blane introduced novelty packaging and pushed the handkerchief as a gift item. During the fashion conscious early 1960s, buyers responded favourably to this approach. In 1957 Blane's bought the rival firm Robert Watson in Lurgan. Blane's continued to use the Watson name. Blane's often supplied wholesalers while Watson's dealt directly with retailers such as Dunnes and Harrods. The only differentiation is in terms of design and packaging. James Blane trained in Business Studies and joined the firm in 1972. He took an ATI course in Belfast ‘Tech. The works (vacated 3 years ago) were located between Gilford and Lurgan. The buildings were purpose-built in 1910-12. Business was booming in the early 1970s and Blane's sub-contracted a lot of work. Blane's today buy in a lot of goods from China. They source their linen from Ulster Weavers and very often order cloth to their own specifications rather than buying from stock. The definition of `Irish Linen' and `Made in Ireland' today means that the cloth can be bought outside Ireland and converted. Blane's had their product bleached and dyed at Ballievey, Murlands, Inver. Hannas and Milltown. Blane's employed their own embroidery designer and had up to 50 designs at any one time. The quality of handkerchiefs and the attention to detail (hems and stitching) has become less important as other gift items have come to the fore and price has assumed a new importance. Hand rolling and hand embroidery stopped 20 years ago. The firm has enjoyed recent success with licensed motifs such as the Simpsons and South Park. The workforce, including outworkers, has contracted from 400 to 50 during James Blane's career. The informality of men's fashion and the rise of the paper tissue have hit the handkerchief business hard. Blane's have a controlling market share in S Ireland and do business in N America and the Netherlands. Many handkerchiefs bought in S Ireland are taken out of the country as souvenirs and gifts. Blane's trade name was `St Patrick', but many customers now label their own product. During the troubles there was a backlash against Irish produce. Packaging and presentation are key, and Blane's regularly attend textile exhibitions. The handkerchief trade is seasonal. The firm works flat out in July in anticipation of large Christmas orders. Blane's still manufacture relatively expensive linen handkerchiefs. Murray Blane retired 5 years ago and James succeeded him as MD. Mr Blane sold the firm to Richards PLC 3 years ago and has no children in the trade. Although handkerchief manufacturing is competitive, Mr Blane is confident that a niche remains for innovative and high quality firms to maintain an Irish presence in the marketplace.