By Margaret Canning
Demand for its Platinum Jubilee tea towel has been “exceptional”, leading Ulster Weavers to double production capacity for the item.
But while it’s famous for heritage textile ranges, Ulster Weavers in Lisburn is now targeting a younger demographic with homeware items like merino wool throws, bean bags, pouffes and cushions.
Sustainability is of growing importance to the company, which was founded 142 years ago.
Gillian McLean, who’s been managing director since August 2020, is leading the diversification.
In a career which has included 11 years as marketing and communications director at Museums NI and six years at Westland Horticulture, Gillian says: “I’m used to that kind of operation, switching your messaging and your strategy to suit consumer audiences as well as your trade audiences.”
The targeting of millennials, which will inform the company’s strategy over the next five to 10 years, followed market research at the end of 2020.
“Our strategy going forward is very much aligned to the millennial generation which is larger than any other adult cohort. It’s about 25% of the world’s population.”
She said Ulster Weavers had previously focused on gifts but now wants to move into mainstream homeware. “That gives us an opportunity to really grow the business and use our expertise to increase our turnover and appeal to that millennial audience and the products they’re looking for.
“The new Home Comforts is directly aligned at that audience.”
The company wants to double turnover over the next three years although the amount of turnover for the present time is described as commercially sensitive and hasn’t been disclosed.
As well as manufacturing textiles under its own name, it also makes private label products for major retailers. Its products are stocked in 50 countries around the world.
And as part of its sustainability strategy, it’s planning to bring more and more manufacturing on-shore.
Some of its products are already manufactured in Lisburn although much is done with long-standing partners in China and India.
But its aim is for 75% of its new range to be produced in Lisburn.
“We want to expand and innovate in an environmentally response manner so we have committed to making approximately three-quarters of our new retail products here in NI.
“We have been working with our other suppliers to source recycled or recyclable matter,” she adds.
“All of our new kitchen textiles which we’ve just launched are a mix of recycled cotton and recycled polyester alongside our 100% Irish linen, and again, that is aligned with our sustainability strategy.”
She added: “Consumers are prepared to pay for high quality, durable products.
“They’re moving away from the trend for disposable products and that’s got to do with sustainability, which is key for millennials.”
The business has around 40 staff at the moment, but there is growth ahead. Around 13 staff have joined recently. “We have plans to employ another six people in this financial year.
“Over the next three years, as part of our strategy to double our turnover and meet our goal of manufacturing around 75% of our new retail products in NI, we expect to grow our total workforce here to around 70 people.”
And while it has its new strategy to target millennials, it will still continue its traditional ranges like Royal commemorative tea towels. “We have a Platinum Jubilee tea towel and demand for that has just been exceptional. We have actually doubled production capacity for that particular design.”