Industrial espionage: the theft of the grey tweed

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Tuesday, 28 Nov 2017


By Regina Lee Blaszczyk

In 1866, Leeds was the hub of the giant West Yorkshire cloth trade. Clothiers sold pieces of fabric, each fifty-one yards long, at the Coloured Cloth Hall, an assemblage of red brick buildings that once stood at what is now City Square in the heart of this bustling metropolis. In January 1866, the Leeds Borough Court was convening at the impressive Town Hall, which Queen Victoria (accompanied by Prince Albert) had opened in 1858, to hear an important case. The details involved the disappearance of several pieces of grey tweed cloth from the Coloured Cloth Hall, fabric that belonged to Abraham Moon of Guiseley. The cloth had been traced to the premises of two other businesses, a fabric finisher and a woollen merchant, in Leeds.


The incident at the Coloured Cloth Hall was not a simple matter of somebody stealing some fabric. To use the terms of our time, it was likely a matter of industrial espionage, the theft of intellectual property, or just plain hacking. The West Yorkshire cloth industry was one of the major economic engines of Victorian Britain, and there were hundreds of weavers in West Yorkshire competing to be successful. By this time, Abraham Moon had established a reputation for innovative designs. Like other weavers in Guiseley, he made a special type of waterproof tweed that was used to make up coats and jackets to protect consumers against the cold, damp weather in Britain, North America, and Continental Europe. Nobody in the Victorian era talked about brands or branding, but merchants, tailors, haberdashers, and clothing manufacturers all recognised the trade name Guiseley Waterproof Tweeds. The theft could well have been masterminded by a competitor who wanted, literally, to pick the cloth apart in an attempt to uncover the secrets of the distinctive waterproof tweeds manufactured by Abraham Moon.

This story illustrates the scope of the burgeoning wool fabric industry in nineteenth-century West Yorkshire and the extent to which design and product innovation played an element in it. Not only was a competitor driven to the extreme act of stealing samples in an attempt to copy those tasty tweeds, but the testimony provided by Abraham Moon and some of his employees also described how they protected their intellectual property by incorporating “signatures” into the selvedge of the cloth.

The theft of Abraham Moon’s waterproof tweeds was reported by newspapers in Leeds and across the country, and the courtroom was packed. This was important stuff.

Oh yes – the thief was found guilty and fined heavily. Within a few years, Abraham Moon went on to build a large mill to make more of those highly desirable waterproof tweeds that were coveted by middle-class consumers at home and abroad.

Read more about global markets in Blog Three.

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