A history of tailoring in Leeds

15 January 2015

As a tailors based in Leeds, the Hemingway Tailors team are well aware of Leeds’ rich tailoring history. We’ve drawn on centuries of tailoring knowledge to craft the very best bespoke suits for clients across the UK and around the world. Despite the city’s hugely significant role in the UK’s textile industry over the past several hundred years, many people are unaware of the extent and importance of tailoring in Leeds. Let’s take a look at how the industry developed and matured in Yorkshire’s largest city…

 Early beginnings

In the 15th century, the population of Leeds likely hovered around the 1,000 mark. This small town was insignificant in national terms. While Leeds was home to many different trades, wool production emerged as the dominant industry. Wool was woven, fulled (a set of processes where the wool is cleansed, thickened, and becomes more waterproof) and dyed. It was sold at weekly markets and annual fairs.  In the 16th century the town expanded rapidly, driven by the wool trade. By the end of the 16th century, Leeds’ population had tripled from the 15th century figure.

 An export hub

The 17th century brought more growth to Leeds and its industries. It became a wealthy town. Leeds’ fortunes continued to improve with the construction of the canals and the railways from the 18th century onwards. In the early 18th century, the Aire and Calder Navigation improved Leeds’ links to nearby towns and villages, while additional canals (including the Leeds-Liverpool canal) further expanded its export opportunities. By the start of the 19th century, the population of Leeds had reached 30,000. Just 50 years later, it reached the 100,000 mark. The railway arrived in Leeds, first linking it to Selby and then to York. Leeds became an export hub for wool.

 The move to tailoring

By the late 19th century, demand for wool products had slowed. Leeds diversified and delved into many other industries, including the production of leather, shoes and boots, as well as tailoring. The start of the 20th century brought the golden age of Leeds tailoring. Montague Burton chose Leeds as the home for his empire of tailoring and menswear. The Leeds factory employed 10,000 people, and Burton’s name remains a fixture on our high street even today. Countless other textiles firms flourished in the city, with further expansion spurred by the two World Wars, when the city’s tailors were put to work to manufacture uniforms.

 Hemingway Tailors

After the war, competition from abroad brought about the decline of Leeds’ large-scale tailoring industry, but the city is still known for its highly skilled tailors, not least Hemingway Tailors’ own: Toby Luper. Toby’s uncle and father ran the largest single-storey factory in the country, making garments for Burton and Burberry. Toby’s grandfather was one of Leeds’ master tailors during the height of the city’s tailoring industry. Ninety years on, Toby continues with his family’s work.

 Our tailored garments owe a great deal to the city’s tailoring history. To own a Hemingway tailored suit, coat or shirt for yourself, book an appointment with us today. 

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