R A Irwin is a 63 year old family-owned and run textile manufacturing company. Now into its 3rd generation it manufactures creative, innovative and design-led fabrics for the window fashion and mattress ticking markets.
Uniquely vertically-integrated, the firm can make special yarns, warp, weave, laminate, print and stenter virtually all of its own fabrics. This gives it unbelievable control and leads to the firm’s unsurpassed quality, service and reputation for solving problems quickly. Add to these manufacturing capabilities, the in-house design team and direct-to-trade sales channels for an unmatched customer experience.
History of the Company
R A Irwin was founded in 1951 by Alex Irwin (Robert Alexander Irwin). The original business was a handkerchief sewing operation based in Magheralin, but the rise of paper tissues brought an end to the woven handkerchief business. By the end of the1960’s the company had turned its attention to warp knitting, utilizing its stitching facilities to convert warp knitted fabrics into sheets and bedspreads which it sold to the UK and Irish retail and mail order outlets. They were branded as Broomhill Fabrics. It became difficult to get the fabrics dyed locally so in 1968 a space was rented in a vacant mill in Portadown and a modern wide width dyeing and finishing facility was set up, using high pressure dying technology. This allowed a wider and better range of colours to be marketed giving the company a technical edge in the market. This was followed by the installation in 1971 of a wide width rotary screen printer, one of the first installations of its type in the world. 1980 saw the death of Alex Irwin and control of the business passing to his 2 sons – Ian and Gordon.
As the warp knitting industry fell into decline in the mid 1970’s the company moved into stitch bonding. These fabrics were being printed for the bed cover and curtain market and also, significantly, for the mattress manufacturing industry.
The next major event was a fire in 1985 which completely destroyed the Portadown factory. This event would have finished off many businesses, but the company had the vision to see how the mattress ticking industry was developing and how R A Irwin could provide the products their customers needed. So a large stitch bonding and printing plant was designed and installed in a custom built factory on the site specifically for that market.
The 1990’s saw R A Irwin grow rapidly. In 1992 a new factory was to set up to facilitate an innovative £3m non-woven line. This plant manufactured a high tenacity needle-punched fabric for the furniture and bedding trade. This became the “Raitex” division. The fabric was primarily used for spring pocketing in mattresses and linings for furniture. It also marked the first significant experiences for the company in export markets. Agents were appointed in France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Taiwan. For a while Raitex looked like it could become a runaway success; however the advent of cheaper spun-bond fabrics undercut the market for Raitex.
Towards the end of the 1990’s the company also invested in its first woven technology – Jacquard weaving looms. This was recognition that the arrival of air jet weaving technology and the digitisation of jacquard design systems was reducing the cost of making woven fabrics. This in turn was making such fabrics an attractive alternative to printed Stitchbond for mattress makers. Change was coming.
At this time, all 3 product lines (Stitchbond, Raitex and woven Jacquards) were primarily sold to mattress making companies. A small percentage of Raitex was sold to furniture and Stitchbond to shoe makers. So the next major strategic turn was very important for the company today – window blinds.
R A Irwin was approached by a group of window blind makers who used Stitchbond as a low-cost vertical blind. Trials were done and a usable product manufactured to sell to this new market, which was hungry for fresh supply lines.
Raitex was closed in 2004 and the proceeds from the sale of the plant were re-invested in more weaving looms, to bring the total number of machines up to 32. Then in 2007 the last metre of stitchbonded fabric was made and the remnants of the plant sold off. This was a significant blow, as these products had been the bedrock of the business for the past 20 years. To lose both prime product lines in such a short space of time would have been catastrophic for most firms, but the deep foundations and ambition were in place to move on.
Such deep cultural veins and a stoic ethos were revisited when a serious flood hit the Milltown factory in August 2008. The company’s culture of resilience and determination meant that it was only a minor setback and nothing worse.
In the firm’s recent history, one of the key strategic investments has been in digital printing technology. This technology complemented the in-house designers’ print backgrounds and flair. It also underpinned the company’s ability to respond quickly to trends and give our customers what they want and need.
The culture of innovation is alive and well at R A Irwin. The firm continues to develop new products, invest in design and manufacturing capability. With deep and strong foundations the company is well-placed to adapt, survive and thrive, especially so in the fast-changing world of home furnishings in the 21st Century.