Interview with Woods of Harrogate
It was a decision no 17-year-old would have wanted to make. Still reeling from the tragedy of losing both parents in a car crash, a young William Woods faced a decision which would change his life forever and turn him into one of the most highly respected linen merchants in the world.
Fortunately for Woods of Harrogate, William’s loyalties were clear. Abandoning his dream of pursuing a law career, he chose instead to take over the family firm which had suddenly, and brutally, become his.
Supported by his uncle, and three loyal staff members who would eventually share more than 160 years’ service between them, William stepped onto the bottom rung of a ladder he would eventually climb to the very top.
It was a daunting prospect. Although William had grown up surrounded by the finest linens in the world, he realised there was a lot to learn if he was to pick up the mantle and take the business into a new era. But the teenager possessed an inherent passion and quest for quality and set about developing his skills, serving an apprenticeship with an Irish manufacturing company to develop a broad technical knowledge of the spinning, weaving and dying processes, before training as an interior designer in London – ultimately working for Heal and Son.
It was a steep learning curve which took him from wrapping parcels in the finest string and brown paper to the design of multi-million pound interiors – always fuelled by the drive for perfection, good manners and respect which are the Woods’ enduring trademark.
Today William’s passion is so ingrained that he still lives, breathes and talks the family business which has played no small part in putting Harrogate on the Royal’s radar. But times are changing.
After close to half a century in the business, having secured Woods’ position as one of the finest linen stores in Europe – and possibly the world – William is handing over the helm to his daughter Sarah.
It’s a natural succession. Sarah has grown up surrounded by the opulence of beautiful fabrics, the highest quality textiles and the most luxurious soft furnishing accessories. Along with her father and her husband Nicholas Richardson, she has travelled the world in search of perfection. Like her father, she marvels at the softest goose down pillows, admires the most expensive silks and searches for the ultimate linens – expecting nothing but the best whether it’s a multi-thousand pound duvet cover or a simple – but beautifully made – dishcloth. But with passion comes progress and Sarah’s vision for Woods of Harrogate extends far beyond the welcoming doors of a company which is regarded by many as one of the last bastions of traditional values.
Building on these ethics which have made Woods unique in the UK, Sarah is keen to move with the times. There is talk of opening a second shop in London, developing a higher profile on-line presence and encouraging as broad a customer base as possible, without losing sight of the quality which underpins the company’s extraordinary success.
‘ There is massive world-wide potential for Woods, but we also need to refine what we have and develop slowly,’ says Sarah. ‘I am looking to launch my own bed linen collection, for example. It’s about applying and developing the skills we have. I am always looking at new things and new ideas which will take the business forward.’
Sarah’s enthusiasm is infectious, a family trait which has passed down the generations since her great-great grandfather, then manager of the linen mill in Knaresborough, launched Woods in 1895 in Princes Street, setting a standard in linens which has remained unrivalled ever since . The business moved to Prince Albert Row in 1928 shortly after receiving Royal patronage.
The Royals are still among Woods’ prestigious client list, but Sarah’s mission is to make sure quality – whether it’s in textiles or design – is accessible to everyone. The design team, headed by William who is one of only a handful of people in the UK to be a Fellow of the British Institute of Interior Design, is supported by the company’s comprehensive in-house services. These include hand sewn furnishings and curtains, upholstery, antiques, fine art, gilding, wood carving and decorative plasterwork. It is rare, these days, to find a company which has its own team of crafts people.
Rarer still to find a company in which traditional skills and a timelessly elegant store have become the catalyst of forward-thinking ambitions.‘Jonathan, my brother, joined the company three years ago and he is passionate about IT,’ says Sarah. ‘Through him, we have invested a lot of time and money in a new website because we believe the potential of Woods worldwide is huge. For example, last month we received an order from Australia for Merino wool blankets, and we regularly supply to the States, the Far East, South America and Europe.’ At the same time, Woods has been developing its interior design sector which currently includes an apartment in London, an Elizabethan house in Surrey, a Lincolnshire manor house and – in a demonstration of their ability to stay ahead of the times – a contemporary new build in South Yorkshire.
Sarah plays a major role in all aspects of the business, and made sure that when she left Leeds University with an honours degree she broadened her horizons in order to gain experience in other areas before heading back to Harrogate and the family firm.
This included a spell at the KLC interior design school in Chelsea Harbour and work experience with one of London’s top interior designers, but Sarah still claims it was working for her father at Woods which gave her the broadest and most valuable experience.
‘I learnt so much just by watching my father and learning as I went along,’ she says. ‘I feel as passionate about the business as my father and just as I have learnt from him, so he now learns from me. We care so much about the reputation we have built up over 116 years that we will go out of our way to do everything possible to please a customer – often beyond the call of duty.’
Sarah has brought a freshness to Woods’ interior design element which draws on tradition to create a style which is progressive and modern.‘I don’t have any specific style but what our team and I try to achieve is both practical and visually exciting, comfortable and unique to every individual,’ she says. ‘Traditional needn’t be old fashioned. You can create the Country House style but with a touch of real glamour. Old floral patterns are back again only this time in bold colours. I think the trick is to create a look that remains timeless and isn’t victim of the phrase ‘here today, gone tomorrow. We base our business on trust. Although value for money is important to us and our customers, money is not our motivation. We simply love what we do.‘Above all, my aim is to maintain the standards and traditions of the past combined with trends, designs and fashions of the future. Standing still is not our style. It’s not an option.’
By Heather Dixon