In the sixteenth century, then long staple wool from, local sheep farmed in the east midlands, had been spun into thread and sent for weaving into fabric in the townships of west Yorkshire. there was no weaving tradition in the east midlands region and this may be why hand knitting became a well-established industry in Leicester, Nottingham and the surrounding towns and villages. with the invention of the stocking knitting frame in 1589, the process of manufacturing knitted hosiery was greatly improved, and through the "cottage industry" it became possible to increase output and sell to a wider public. one such business was that of Henry and Ann wood. they and their sons began their enterprise in 1755 in Leicester, over two hundred and fifty two years ago. that business survives to this day as Wolsey. Wolsey's heritage and status within the textile industry has been built on design and quality attributes that remain integral to the business today.
On the 15th June 1768, at the age of 61 Henry Wood died. As the Leicester Journal reported he “had acquired a very considerable fortune with great industry & equal reputation.” Henry was survived by a young family of seven children, & his wife aged 41. He bequeathed all his stock in Trade Debts & all other Goods, Chattels & Personal Estate directly to his widow as the sole executrix. He directed specifically that Ann was to convert the estate into money & place the proceeds out “upon good Public or Private Securities” for the benefit of herself & the children. However contrary to her husband’s directions Ann decided to continue trading becoming the sole proprietor & manager of the company for 10 years after Henry’s death although she was subsequently aided by her sons for a further 40 years. During this period she was recorded in the Freemen’s Register & took over the apprenticeship of Thomas Leach, who was later to become an influential figure in the late 18th Century hosiery trade. It is significant that the knowledge, skill & qualities rarely acquired or applied by women of this era.
In 1825, Robert Walker, the son of George Walker, arrived in Leicester. He was an ambitious and talented young man who spent his time travelling and broadening his hosiery skills. He had valuable experience of the Scottish hosiery trade and in 1840 Ann Wood & Sons had the foresight to employ him. His enthusiastic blending of two traditional knitwear industries greatly benefited the progress of the company and in 1842 he was appointed a partner. His most dramatic innovation was to break with the established cottage industry, and house machines and work people in a factory.
Robert Walker, in keeping with his Scottish heritage, adopted the Scottish Thistle as the company's trademark & by 1859 he addressed the huge demand for the company's products by locating all his knitting machines in a steam powered factory. By 1883 the company had become the largest hosiery manufacturer in the Leicester region, and its products gained the highest award for hosiery at the Chicago Great World Fair. Company policy ensured that new technology was embraced in order to extend the product range, and signify cantly furthered its position as market leader through its ability to manufacture 'Unshrinkable Woollens'.
To herald this achievement an entirely new name was adopted under which the products were launched and sold. On 12th October 1897 the company registered the "WOLSEY" trademark. The "WOLSEY" name was inspired by the powerful ecclesiastic and statesman Cardinal Wolsey, who was buried in Leicester. Upon his death the Cardinal was found to be wearing a woollen undergarment made by the Augustine Canons of the Abbey where knitting was a practised occupation. The company issued a statement in support of its new trade mark. "This trademark has a fuller meaning than the usual. It does not stand simply as a protection to its manufacture, it carries an assurance to the purchaser of its superiority. Indeed a product made by Wolsey has no equal for durability and general excellence." The first Wolsey advertisement appeared in the "Drapers Record" in July 1898.
Significant publicity was gained when the company could advertise, with complete truth, that Wolsey underwear was selected by both Captain Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and their teams in 1911 for their race to reach the South Pole. In 1919 Wolsey underwear was also supplied, in accordance with Sir Ernest Shackleton's specifications, for his Murmansk expedition. This was testament to the quality and reliability of the company's garments.
In 1910 a new factory covering 2.5 acres was built at Abbey Meadows in Leicester, which became the Company's new headquarters. During the years of the Great War 1914-1918, 75% of production from the company's seven factories was given over to the Government. This equated to supplying over 18 million pieces of underwear, jerseys and scarves to the British and Allied troops. In January 1919 the company took the innovative and courageous step of ceasing to trade through wholesale merchants and began to supply direct to the retailer through their own sales team. A public company was formed in 1920 adopting the title of Wolsey Ltd. The choice of title reflected the strength of the Wolsey brand name in the knitwear market. In 1927 the Wolsey board of directors welcomed the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) on his first visit to the company. He was presented with a cashmere scarf and a hunting pullover.
The 1920s was an era of flamboyance. Outdoor activities such as golf, tennis and swimming became extremely popular. Wolsey became a market leader in the promotion and production of golf wear, tennis sweaters and bathing-suits and was selected by numerous sporting organisations and individuals as their choice of garment. Golf in particular was experiencing a spectacular boom in popularity. Wolsey devoted a special production line for the manufacture of golf hose and socks. They became a market leader in the design and manufacture of golf clothes and other sportswear, which was successfully marketed under the name of "Sportsman". This was later extended into and outdoor leisure range
In 1935 Wolsey was appointed to hold a Royal Warrant as Hosiery Manufacturers to his Majesty King George V. This honour has been held through the reigns of consecutive monarchs and remains with the company to the present day. Wolsey has been privileged to supply products to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II since 1953, and the company was further honoured when in 1959 a Royal Warrant was also granted to Wolsey by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.
Leslie Miller, was appointed as a chairman, his leadership saw the company successfully evolve its merchandising and product range over the next two decades.
Wolsey became part of the Coutaulds Textiles Group. The company grew in the European market with the launch of subsidiary companies in Sweden, Germany, Austria and Switzerland Montreal and Canada.
In the 1970s Wolsey ranges were selected for numerous sporting organisations and teams, aswell as individual sportsmen and women. Tony Jacklin the winner of the Open golf championship and the US Open being the most famous. Wolsey continues to be a popular choice of golfwear particularly in Asia, Australia and Canada.
The "Fox" motif was introduced to golfwear. Today, the "Fox" is the recognised international brand logo of Wolsey collections around the world.
The brand focused on its menswear collection to respond to high demand overseas and in the UK. The following years saw a growth in the brand’s golf wear range across the Far East, particular in China.
Wolsey became the first company in the UK to receive the British Standard 5750 for quality systems in sock manufacture.
Wolsey established its first franchise in Taiwan then Australia. Wolsey still maintained distribution across the world to South America, Singapore, Malta, Europe and the Middle East.
After 94 years at Abbey Meadows Wolsey moved its headquarters to New Star Road, Leicester.
Wolsey was acquired by the Hargreaves family.
In April 2012, Wolsey opened it’s first ever flagship store on brewer street, london, located in soho – the heart of central London’s shopping district
This year see’s the relaunch of Golf-wear, a technical aesthetic, contemporary branding & the dawn of a new era.