The woman behind the name

By Innovation Halifax

8 March 2024
3 min read

Guest blog by Alison Creedon

Have you ever wondered about the woman behind the name?

Elsie Whiteley was a Halifax-born fashion designer, textile entrepreneur and employer of over 300 machinists, cutters, pressers, office workers and sales staff. Her vintage designs still feature on fashion websites and sell for around £80. Elsie’s story is a testament to the achievements – and sacrifices – of women from her generation who refused to conform with societal expectations of femininity.

Elsie was born in 1903 to Adelaide, a housekeeper and Walter Whiteley, a butcher. She was the eldest of seven children. They grew up in a terraced house in Mixenden and at the age of 12, Elsie left school to train as a machinist at a local mill. Home life wasn’t easy. As Elsie put it, ‘there was always a baby at home.’ It’s likely that this domestic unruliness prompted her resistance to the conventions of early marriage and motherhood.

By the age of 26, Elsie had started her own home dressmaking business and later opened two shops. The first was on Athol Mount in Ovenden followed by another at King Cross. Her drive, determination and passion for design propelled her to open her own factories and launch the Elsie Whiteley brand. She specialised in blouses and sold them to retail outlets including John Lewis, Selfridges and Fenwicks. She also had her own showroom in London’s Regent Street.

As well as being an astute businesswoman, Elsie was an absolute perfectionist. Former machinists remember the stringent checks on the quality of their stitching and the ‘sore fingers’ from unpicking the seams ‘that didn’t meet Miss Whiteley’s standards.’ But they also recall her pealing laughter resonating up the stairs of the mill and her empathy with machinists with new babies and toddlers. Elsie supported these women to work from home as she realised that childcare costs were beyond the means of most her workers. And even after more than 50 years, Elsie’s spirit continues to infuse the quality of the clothes they are still cutting, stitching and repairing today.

Much to the amazement of her friends who assumed she would stay single, Elsie married Arnold Allan, a Halifax engineer, in the 1930s. They had two sons, Graham and Stuart.  As soon as they were old enough, the boys were helping in the factory by picking up scattered pins, fixing machines and covering buttons. Eventually, Arnold also transferred his engineering skills to the Elsie Whiteley empire. And, by the early 1960s, Graham and Stuart were both working full-time for their mother.

Elsie was persistent, resolute and highly motivated. She was pro-women but not in the least bit interested in the frivolities of gossip, chit-chat or domesticity. She rarely took holidays but did occasionally spend Saturday afternoons shopping in Halifax with her niece, Anne and sister-in-law, Joan. They would have afternoon tea at Collinson’s Café on Crown Street where Elsie was once deeply affronted by the stains on the silver milk jug. She dipped her handkerchief into the hot water pot and removed the offending marks herself.

Elsie was still working when she died at the age of 69 in 1972. Her sons continued the business until 1994 when it could no longer compete with cheaper production and labour from overseas. Their former mill on Hopwood Lane was renovated in 2006 and reinvented as the Elsie Whiteley Innovation Centre.

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– Our guest blogger for International Women’s Day is Alison Creedon. Alison is currently researching the life, work and times of Elsie Whiteley, Alison is planning a book which contextualises her within women’s history and social changes in the 20th century.

The Woman Behind the Name

EWIC blog

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Innovation Halifax