Cowhands in Gaol make Nylons!

The story of the Taylor Woods nylon factory in Enniskillen

‘Cowhands in Gaol make Nylons!’ Thus, in 1948, did Enniskillen make headlines in the Daily Mirror.

Apparently newsworthy was the idea that the town’s old County Gaol had become a temporary home for the production of nylon stockings while a government sponsored factory was being built nearby. There was also, perhaps, some scepticism at the prospect of  ’cowhands’, more used to farming than industrial production, being transformed into  pre-boarders, linkers or dyers.

Taylor Woods, the fledgling company behind the venture (or rather their Canadian parent company York Knitting Mills), had selected Coleraine as their preferred location, but the Ministry of Finance had insisted that if they wanted the factory on favourable terms (tailor-made premises, rent and rates free) it would have to be in Enniskillen. At the time Fermanagh was the ‘the most depressed area’ in Northern Ireland.

The firm was registered in 1946, nine locals going to Ontario to train and the first stockings being produced in April 1947. Production moved to the new factory at Derrychara in 1948, the official opening being performed by the Prime Minister, Lord Brookeborough, a Fermanaghman himself.

Taylor Woods was to become a significant part of Fermanagh history for the 20 years it flourished there, first in the hosiery plant at Derrychara (employing half and half male and female) and, from 1955, expanding into the lingerie and undergarment business (mostly female workers), also nylon-based, on a second site at Raceview.

At its peak the nylon factory provided jobs for 1,000 people, including 100 employees in the London sales office and brought to Enniskillen management personnel who would join, for a time, the town’s social elite.

Invented in 1935, nylon had quickly become the material of choice for stockings. Easy care and cheaper than silk, it fitted ‘like a second skin’.  American GIs gave Ulster girls a taste for ‘nylons’ . By the 1950s, 95% of women were wearing them and the word had all but replaced ‘stockings‘ as the generic term.

Two years into production, Taylor Woods stockings were on sale in Harrods. They even made front page headlines in the London evening papers in May 1949. Responding to a Taylor Woods press release announcing deliveries to their prestige West End customers, thousands of  nylon-starved women’ besieged the stores, only to find that allocations had sold out within minutes.

Asserting that Taylor Woods ‘Firsts’ were the best of all British stockings, managing director Mark Hughes wrote in the works magazine in 1953:

‘Each week approx 3,300 pairs of stockings leave our factory, most sent by parcel post … About 50 dozen pairs are sent by air, by passenger train to Belfast, then flown mostly to Scandinavia. Buyers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are also full of praise for the good condition in which they arrive ... Taylor Woods brand are the best known stocking in Denmark.’

In its first six years, the firm sold five million pairs. Of these, one out of 18 was exported, earning the country one million pounds in foreign currency. Thus, despite the general shortage of yarn, the firm earned a generous quota and, unlike others, maintained full production.

Made in Pontypool, the nylon yarn had to be twisted to give thicknesses or deniers. Taylor Woods was the first to introduce 54 and 66 gauge outside America and, in 1954, the first in Europe to turn out 75 gauge.

Taylor Woods ‘Lifelon’ stockings, launched in 1958, were the result of pioneering technology from Germany. Made from a lock-knit fabric, Lifelons became a household name, carrying not only a run-resist guarantee, but also the promise of a replacement pair should a fault develop.

Anticipating fashion trends, Taylor Woods worked with German inventor Max Nebel to produce a seamfree version, knitted in the round. The first seamfree Lifelons appeared in 1962, but in Germany the construction secret had been leaked. Despite moves to patent seamfree Lifelons, it was soon clear that many of Taylor Woods competitors had outpaced them.

The Raceview plant, meanwhile, flourished, producing exclusive lingerie, launched each season at a London showing. Experienced designer, French-born Madame Helene Walster, contributed greatly to the success of the lingerie enterprise, turning out innovative and beautiful collections each season.

Her ‘swallow back’ design offered glamour as well as superior fit and there were matching ranges in fashionable colours (the first lingerie to use ‘shocking pink’) with lace trimmings dyed to match.

Crucially, Walster also had the ability to translate her ideas into workable designs, sometimes inventing gadgets herself to overcome a production snag. This practical understanding, she feels, was crucial when, in later years, she worked from head office in Albemarle Street, the only female among the 27 strong management team.

The workforce could take pride in the prestigious image of their products, packaged with the distinctive swallow logo and evoking their homeland through colours with names such as Fermanagh Rose.

Even more significantly, their workplace offered pay and conditions that were the envy of many. There was a works pensions scheme and higher than shop assistant wages allowed many girls to pay for their own wedding receptions – and pick up a glamorous trousseau at the factory sale. Sister Nixon provided a fulltime medical service and spearheaded such innovative schemes as TB screening. On hand also was a professional manicurist, an essential anti-snag measure.

Former employees gladly reminisce about their days in Taylor Woods. Hard work it was (many cycled 20 miles or more to work) but this was offset by a great atmosphere. Nowhere was this more reflected than in the activities of the sports and social club which boasted a sailing club, football pitch and swimming pool.

The way of life that was Taylor Woods is tangibly evident in the works magazines. At first, Enniskillen news was reported in the Canadian parent magazine, The Spinning Wheel. Then, in 1950, an Enniskillen editorial team launched The Bird’’s Eye. With the development of the lingerie plant, the magazine was revamped in 1962 to reflect both factory sites and fittingly renamed The Link.

These magazines reflected all aspects of factory life – reports from the London office, factory news, greetings to new employees, in jokes from the factory floor, witty cartoons from the pen of Ronnie Fallis, advice for pigeon fanciers and slimmers, sports results, snaps taken at Bundoran or Butlins, film reviews and hit parade lyrics, reports from pantomimes and concerts and the annual Miss Taylor Woods Dance.

By the early 1960s, however, there were signs that the business was ailing. Management reassured workers they had acted to ‘rectify minor setbacks’ and the government had ‘expressed its confidence’ by planning to extend the hosiery plant. Nevertheless, there was an atmosphere of growing uncertainty with production at times exceeding orders and, inevitably, redundancies in some areas.

In 1965, some 80 families left the Eniskillen area en masse, as a group of skilled wokers from Taylor Wood, and took up employment with the expanding textile firm British Enkalon in Antrim.

Nevertheless, management remained up-beat as consultants were appointed to increase efficiency and reduce overheads. Thus, it came as a shock for most of the workforce when news of the firm's liquidation arrived in the post during the July holidays of 1966.

Theories about why Taylor Woods closed vary:  it was top heavy with executives; the products were too good (they simply didn’t wear out); management didn’t respond quickly enough to changing trends in hosiery. It was the Swinging Sixties after all. Mini skirts were in, suspenders were out. When Pretty Polly launched hold-ups in 1967 and tights in 1968 the once familiar Taylor Woods swallow logo was, sadly, nowhere to be seen.

By Marion Maxwell

Images reproduced by kind permission of Mrs Helene Spencer