A textile stalwart who left the mills of Huddersfield to run his own business in a remote part of Scotland has received the MBE.
Robert Ryan, 79, who grew up in Denby Dale and at one time worked for the town’s biggest cloth manufacturer, was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to weaving and the economy on the Isle of Mull.
And he has acknowledged the part played by the “fantastic” people he worked with in Huddersfield for his success.
The youngest of seven children, Robert began his career in textiles at the age of 15 – serving his time as a power loom tuner and textile technician and attending Huddersfield Technical College in the evenings.
At weekends, he earned extra money by selling ice cream from a van.
In 1958, he did his National Service with the Irish Guards, serving in Cyprus and at Windsor before joining Milnsbridge-based John Crowther, at the time the biggest textile company in Huddersfield.
At the age of 26, Robert was headhunted by Sydney Shaw and Co Ltd as general manager, where he worked for 10 years, before leaving in 1972 to join Welsh firm Glytaff Fabrics, a company involved in weaving, finishing and garment manufacture, where he was weaving director.
Later, he was asked back to Sydney Shaw, where he persuaded the company to change from weaving acrylic to pure new wool – a move that proved more profitable and ethical.
But in 1982, dissatisfied with the emerging practice of firms to outsource manuacturing overseas, he and his wife Kathie moved to Islay in Scotland – before setting up his own weaving business on the Isle of Mull.
With no money or collateral, Bob won the support of his bank manager and the regional development agency to set up and run the Isle of Mull Weavers successfully for 15 years at Torosay Castle.
At the age of 65, Robert decided to retire and in 1999 put the business up for sale. The machinery, some of it dating from the 1920s and 1950s, was taken by the owners of Ardalanish Farm on Mull who planned to use the wool from their flock of Herbridean sheep to make distinctive tweeds – which now sell around the world.
Robert said: “I sold the machinery to them for a song, dismantled it and transported it along cinder tracks the 32 miles to their farm before rebuilding it in a converted cowshed. I told them I would help out as long as they needed me – and 15 years later I’m still there.” Robert makes the 64-mile round trip to the farm from his home two or three times a week.
He also volunteers his time training young people in weaving – some of whom have gone on to hold senior positions or run their own businesses.
The success of Ardalanish Isle of Mull Weavers – the first certified organic tweed weaving mill in the UK – even attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, who met Robert when he made a private visit to the farm in 2000.
Robert recalls his days in Huddersfield with fondness. “Without the expertise of the people who trained me I would not be where I am now,” he said. “They had a lifetime of knowledge and experience. I was at John Crowether’s when they had 500 looms. The sad thing is that knowledge is disappearing – but there will always be a Huddersfield link with textiles no matter what happens to the industry.”
As much as he loves Huddersfeld, Robert and Kathie are staying put on the island they now calls home.
“I wouldn’t leave here now no matter what,” he says. “The scenery is always changing.”