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The Wheelwright family, which owns J&C Joel, has been involved in the textile trade for more than 150 years, starting life as a manufacturing ‘fuller’ in West Yorkshire, which remains the headquarters today.

J&C Joel, established in 1978 and now run by the sixth generation of Wheelwrights, is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of flame retardant fabrics and flooring for the entertainment and event industries – Providing theatre and stage drapes, cyclorama canvasses, backdrops, bespoke fabric shapes, as well as stage machinery and acoustic solutions.

The business – thought to have the longest tradition of textile manufacturing in the entertainment industry – has come a long way since those early days when George Wheelwright Ltd was founded in 1847 in Berry Mill, Stainland-Dean, Halifax by the current CEO’s Great, Great, Great Grandfather.

The Halifax area was very popular for mills in the mid-1800s due to the abundance of soft water. The Wheelwright business initially focussed on fulling – a process used to treat woven or knitted wool textiles that makes them smaller, thicker, more durable and largely waterproof, making it ideal for clothing for industries such as mining – before moving into the high-end fashion textile environment.

In 1900 the business moved to Firth House Mills in Scammonden but the mill was destroyed by fire later that year, before being rebuilt by the family.

The business evolved from its textile and fullling roots over the generations and by the 1950s George Wheelwright junior (the fourth generation involved in the family business) was producing cloth for high profile fashion businesses including Marks & Spencer. In 1963 John Wheelwright (the current CEO’s father) joined the business and began to look at new opportunities. With so many members of the family involved in the business John began to look at ways of diversifying and in the early 1970s, decided to run the rag trade as a separate division with his Uncle Joel and cousin Colin – and so J&C Joel was formed.

In 1976 the business started manufacturing Black Wool Serge – a commodity product that is used for theatrical drapes, stage masking and acoustic curtains – which became the fabric backbone of the business. In 1978 J&C Joel became a limited company and shortly afterwards John moved the business into industrial fabric for the entertainment industry. Around this time, working with theatrical electrical specialist Rank Strand and drapery expert Mick Tomlin, the company started supplying black wool serge to clubs and the West End. During the 1990’s the fabric became one of theatre’s most used fabrics, popular for its uniqueness of not sagging, being matt and flame retardant. It started to be used in big musical productions in the West End and demand for the fabric started to increase, making it today one of J&C Joel’s most sought after fabrics.

John then started to manufacture scenery canvas for backdrops and stage flats, as well as coloured casement fabric that is used to line ceilings and marquees and, along with other fabrics, this gave the business a full range of products suited to the entertainment industry.

The business moved to a 60,000 sq ft site at Barkisland Mill in 1985 where it ran a small number of product lines.