Interview: A Cloth Merchant - Robert Charnock

Interview: A Cloth Merchant - Robert Charnock

Robert Charnock - Dugdale Chairman

I was born into textiles. I was exposed to cloth from a very young age because my mother had a mending company. My father would go and pick up pieces from the various mills and then drop them down to the house. My mum would perch and mend them. So that’s how I started, as a very young child.


It was quite clear early on, even as a child, with my big numb hands I wasn’t going to be very good at mending. But you get used to pulling it down, looking for the damages, circling them, learning the different kinds of yarn which had been used for production and being able to pick out the right threads for my mum to then do the mending. 

I enjoyed that. 

Then as I got a bit older, before I started my false dawn in another career, I used to be the one picking up and dropping off the cloth to the mills. We’re talking the early 1980’s and you could see the mills dwindling in number, they were reducing in number terribly. So there was less and less work. 

There was enough to keep my mother busy but I went off in my late teens and took a lot of casual jobs. I landed in the leisure industry, working for Mecca, not the Bingo! I was working in the nightclub industry. Mecca got me to do my qualifications, gave me a nightclub to run, but I just didn’t enjoy it. It was awful.

Robert Charnock - Dugdale Chairman

The whole time that I’d been working with Mecca, I’d been helping my mum and dad out with bits and pieces. So when my mum, being the force that she was, realised I was hating the nightclub industry, she said to my dad - “don’t you think Robert would be the perfect salesman”. And my dad said - “oh I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t think so…” but my mum won him over.

And that’s how it came about.

Robert Charnock - Dugdale Chairman

My dad had gone to Dugdale just after I was born, in 1967. He had been based in London and my mother said - "you can’t be down there, we’ve got a new baby”. So he took a job with Dugdale but it was quite a flexible role. He had his own manufacturing business - he was buying yarn and commission weaving it, supplying to lots of the local mills including Dugdale.

That was how he ended up taking over Dugdale, at one point he was pretty much supplying all their cloth. 

When Betty, the last of the Dugdale family, wanted out, she said to my dad - well you might as well buy the business. 

Robert Charnock - Dugdale Chairman

My father, being a manufacturer, and this is something I see time and time again, manufacturers cannot understand merchanting. If you’re making a piece of cloth, you put all your time and love into making that piece of cloth, you want to sell it. But if you’re a merchant, you might sit on that cloth for a long time. So my father never really got the merchanting bug. He was a wonderful manufacturer, brought up by all the right people. Being a huddersfield boy, he was surrounded by the greats. 

In the mid 80’s, I was helping out in the warehouse, my father said, “you really need to come on board full time. We will put you on commission, having to sell will be a great motivator for you.” 

I didn’t need a lot, I didn’t live an extravagant lifestyle, I had moved back home when I started working with my dad. 

Robert Charnock - Dugdale Chairman

And I did alright, because I knew about cloth. I had to learn about trimmings, because we had a trimming department. But I was hungry, I was keen. I really enjoyed it. We had this business, and although they were difficult times in textiles; and our part of textiles was really quite difficult, it was alright.

In the late 80’s all the yarn came from the UK. Whereas now there are no spinners for worsted yarn, those long silky threads which make the beautiful lightweight suitings. Actually, it's wrong of me to say that, there is one spinner left in the UK but we can’t make it work for us at this time. So we take our wool, ship it out Italy, spin it in Italy and then weave it back here in UK. 

It’s a little better for woollen and tweed yarns, which are shorter and rougher so they suit British wools better.

All our cloth is still woven in Huddersfield. 

Robert Charnock - Dugdale Chairman

Back in 2005/6 I spent a lot of time in Lisburn. I went to the Lisburn Linen Museum and met a lovely old lady there. We were already doing a little bit of linen but we tended to buy it from other mills, whereas this lady introduced us to a few of the old timers. And by working with the different spinners in Ireland and the various different weavers, we adopted the same process as with some of our wools, where we buy yarn and will find the best weaver for that material. 

So our, pretty vast, collection of linens are made with the same integrity as our wools. 

My grandfather always used to say “if you’re making cloth lad, you’ve got to make it where you can wear it.”

When I was a youngish lad, I told him I’d put some money down on a Zegna suit. - this was in the day when you could pay it off on consignment.  

And he said: You what lad?? I said - yeah it's Zegna, it’s absolutely stunning. I picked up this thing and he said “fucking hell, what kind of suit is that?” I replied - “I just love it. I love the cloth, I love the way it drapes. I love everything about it”. And he said - “fuck off lad, they can’t make cloth in Italy. They make cloth for people to watch, we make cloth for people to wear.” He was so put out that I would spend my money on this thing which he thought wouldn’t last.

Every time we make a new cloth it goes to a bespoke tailor. If a bespoke tailor can sponge it, press it, cut it, stitch it and it will stand up to all that, then it will do for anyone in the world. Every cloth that we make, I would start out with the sole intent that a bespoke tailor has to be able to work with it, by hand. So you don’t see any collection that hasn’t been made with that in mind. 

I’ve got a pretty great collection of suits that have been made by friends over the years. Although now that I’m a bit older, I don’t have to wear suits as often as I did. I do wear tailored garments more casually these days, always made from Dugdale cloth obviously: Equinox for chinos, New Fine Worsted for pleated trousers.

Last year I did a review, and each of our legacy cloths, English and Town, Royal Classic Vantage, New Fine Worsted, Needle Ready, Tropicalair, each collection needs to have an element of casual formality. We’ve got to put things in there which you could wear casually. Checks are huge right now, even stripes are coming back in their own way.

Robert Charnock - Dugdale Chairman

At this moment in time, I think this is an era, which reminds me of the 60’s/70’s, those eras where anything goes. It is really heartening to see young tailors, like Kipper & Chalk, doing innovative things with traditional cloths. After covid people wouldn’t shut up about how no one will wear a navy or grey suit again, well we can’t save stock of navy and grey. It’s just that people are having them made a different way. They are having everything taken out of it, so it’s almost most like a cardigan. Super lightweight, deconstructed, patch pockets. When I started out you had navy, you had grey, you had a pinstripe you had a herringbone. That’s all you had. It was like a uniform. A very elegant uniform it was too. 

And those are all still there but they’re not worn as a uniform. They are worn so that you can go out for dinner at night. That’s the very interesting thing. There’s a lot less formality in offices now. Which is exciting for us. 

It’s so exciting how varied a man’s wardrobe is these days. 

I’ve got a really good group of people who I’m working on design with, who are a little bit older than me, so we share common ground. And we’ve gone through our archive to get a flavour or what things we like when things were a little more frivolous in the 60’s and we’re going to introduce that in a way that is a bit more gentlemanly and tasteful, something that people look at and you could wear it formally with a shirt and tie, but it would be much more colourful. Or you could just wear it with a shirt. You could wear it casually but you could also dress it up. 

My next suit will be from the new New Fine Worsted Peerless, which has colourways and patterns inspired by the 50s,60s and 70s. So you have in there, some naughty country type looks, plain colours, checks, stripes, some fruity little ginghams, some beautiful rich greens and tans and it’s just great. I would be having a smack at a lovely faun with a wavy self stripe. It really is elegant.

Robert Charnock - Dugdale Chairman

I bought Dugdale in 2000. Not long after I bought it I found a bit of parchment which had been framed. It was a thank you from the staff of Dugdale for the first 20 years of business. It was gilt edged and it was presented to Henry and Frederick Dugdale who were the founders. It was just to thank them for everything that they’d done. 

Now I thought, oh come on really?! But Henry, who was the last founder to pass away, he bequeathed most of his fortune to a charitable trust, the Henry Percy Dugdale trust and its articles stated that it was for the benefit of textile workers of Huddersfield who had fallen on hard times. Now obviously as time has gone on, it has changed a fair bit. I’m not on the board anymore - it is now a totally indpendent body, doesn’t have much to do with us anymore. But talking to one or two old people who knew of Henry and Frederick, they were very well thought of in the town, because they were pastoral. They cared desperately. Their father was a curate so they didn’t have a fancy lifestyle. They were humble people who just absolutely adored what they did. 

Soon after I bought the business my dad said to me “I’ve never seen anybody strive to take a business back to where it was. Everything you’re doing now is very much what the Dugdale family did”. There was a benevolence, a pastoral nature, to the way the Dugdales worked. 

They made a lot of money but they cared deeply. A good example of this is seen in the basement of the old building: a legacy of WW1, when they stopped trading for 2 years. Troops were billeted there before being sent off to the Western front, so the Dugdales installed a full bar, a snooker table, games rooms, for the young troops to unwind. After the war they kept it for the staff. 


We talk about the “Dark Satanic Mills”, but there was some very pioneering thinking. 

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