A history of Pasold - the Ladybird Company
Ladybird and Woolworths are now brands of Shop Direct Group. All trademarks are acknowledged.
Almost three hundred years ago a Bohemian weaver called Johannes George Pasold established a knitting and weaving business in Fleissen, Czechoslovakia. Thanks to the creativity, marketing flair and technical innovation of successive generations of the family, Ladybird became established as a major international brand and the most loved range of children's clothing in the United Kingdom.
Legend has it that Johannes saw a ladybird in a dream, which inspired him to establish the business. What is certain is that from the earliest days the Pasold company was always at the forefront of garment technology, using the latest machinery and maufacturing techniques to knit cloth that was silky smooth, pleasing to the eye, resilient and fun to wear.
In the eighteenth century, (long before the Industrial Revolution,) Pasolds were using not only looms but also knitting machines.
Machines were acquired from far and wide. Family members and co-workers had to go to great lengths to transport such heavy items to the factory and then to get them inside the building. They had to remove windows from the upper floors and install special hoists to drag the machinery into place.
Delivery of a new machine brought the whole town to a stop, as a crowd of on-lookers built up to see the spectacle of such elaborate 'contraptions' being hauled upwards into the sky. This created a special interest in the Pasold company, and the range of garments that it made, and helped ensure a good local market for the goods.
Successive generations of the family built knowledge about machinery and manufacturing techiques, making the Pasolds engineers as well as weavers. When the machines they wanted were not commercially available, they adapted existing models to make a process of their own. The factory was highly integrated, and included strict quality controls at each stage of production. The innovations set the factory apart from its competitors and were adopted years before the approach was adopted elsewhere.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Pasold garments were famous across Europe. At the time they had chosen the brand-name 'White Bear' and a logo very similar to the one used in Britain for Fox's Glacier Mints. The Ladybird name was initially only used in Great Britain.
The firm's home base of Fleissen was located in the Sudetenland towards Czechoslovakia's border with Germany. Company bosses travelled to Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London to sell their wares. With amazing insight they noted the volatility of political life in Germany and wondered where it was all leading. They decided to diversify, choosing England for a new factory, well away from the growing unrest at home.
The Pasolds chose a green field site at Langley in Buckinghamshire (now Berkshire) and secured the necessary permissions to build a small factory. As construction work continued, they hired a local workforce and commissioned new machinery following the pattern established in Czechoslovakia.
One of the new plant's first orders came from Woolworth's, totalling 28,000 pairs of knickers in a single season. It helped Pasold to get established in the UK. The family never forgot.
In 1938 the family's fears about the state of affairs in Europe proved well-founded. Adolf Hitler's troops 'liberated' the Sudetenland. The invaders over-ran the picturesque quarter of Czechoslovakia, and applied their own ways of life and methods of business. Manufacturing, imports and exports were strictly regulated.
Observing from Britain, the Pasolds were more concerned at the way the Nazis undermined the guarantees of religious freedom that had helped to build Fleissen after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The open-minded tolerance had been a key deciding factor when the family chose to make Fleissen their headquarters. Control of the business was hastily transferred to Langley.
A second factory in the UK had been established and become profitable quickly It used state-of-the-art equipment and the latest working practices. The family had sent a cousin to Canada to build a copy in North America.
Both factories had full order books. In Langley the machines worked around the clock to knit fashion garments and underwear. Fleissen, which was operated by local management under German supervision, had been assigned work making military uniforms and overalls for the Third Reich.
The British factory aimed to reduce its dependence on chain stores. Most of the output from Langley was sold to F.W. Woolworth, British Home Stores, M&S or Lewis's. Each sold under its own name. Pasold sent out to salesmen to sign up a thousand independent shops to sell Ladybird goods, aiming to realize the 300-year old dream of Johannes George Pasold.
The human-like ('anthropomorphised') Ladybird characters, which started to appear in advertising from 1950, captured everyone's imagination. Many of the campaigns featured the spirit of the age, which included mad scientists, computers, space stations and even the newly invented zebra crossing.
By the mid 1960s Ladybird had become established as one of the most successful brands in Britain, with the Langley factory producing millions of garments every year and exporting them all over the world.
To the Pasolds' surprise, despite repeated offers, the chain stores still prefered to sell the goods under their own brand names, meaning that Ladybird products appeared under the Winfield brand name at Woolworths, Keynote at Littlewoods, St Michael and St Margaret at Marks and Spencer and Prova at British Home Stores.
To redress the balance, managers developed a national network of independent stockists. As well as merchandise, they supplied marketing materials to held smaller shops to compete with the chain stores.
The package included shopfittings to enhance displays, point of sale, including the bug characters, and a support fund under which Pasold paid most of the cost for independents to place standard press advertising.
The clothing at these smaller specialists was keenly priced and was of much better quality. It outperformed other independents, but was much dearer than the chain stores' ranges. The price difference meant ordinary families tended to buy the formal clothes for 'Sunday-best' rather than everyday wear. The casuals were generally reserved for children of the well-to-do.
The Pasolds always regretted that the higher margins required by independent stores kept some of their best products out of the price-bracket of the poorer families and wished that the network could establish the same economies of scale achieved by Woolworth's.
A revolution decimated British manufacturing industry in the 1960s. Cheap imported goods started to hit the UK, forcing local manufacturers to rethink. Most reviewed their costs and sought efficiency savings to compete. Some opted to merge with rivals as a way of reducing overheads.
Pasold was repeatedly approached by competitors as a potential 'white knight' to protect them from takeover by less desirable rivals. In the short term the new acquisitions drove big sales growth, but it also made Pasold more complicated and, by perverse logic, more vulnerable to takeover itself.
The same pressure was affecting the High Street. Some independents folded, while others were scooped up by chain stores. Pasold's sought exclusive terms with a desirable chain. Much of 1962 was devoted to negotiations to take over the Children's Clothing Department in John Lewis Department Stores. In 1963 there were similar discussions with Pingouin of France. Both schemes failed when the retailers chose rival partners.
In 1964 the Pasolds explored the possibility of merging with Coats, Paton and Baldwin, the world's largest sewing thread manufacturer, which had its headquarters in Glasgow. This looked like the ideal partnership as Coats controlled many of the raw materials that could help Ladybird to launch a new range of own-brand threads and wool. At the time Coats operated a loss-making chain of 300 Scotch Wool Shops, which it was hoped would provide a route to market. The companies merged in 1965.
Despite the best of intentions on the part of both organisations, Ladybird's uniqueness was gradually lost, driven in part by the clash of cultures between the family business house style of Ladybird and the international heavyweight management style of Coats personnel. Little by little manufacturing was moved away from the Langley factory, which did not receive the investment necessary to keep up in a rapidly changing market.
In 1984 Woolworths approached Coats Viyella to explore the possibility of securing exclusive rights to the Ladybird brand in the UK. The British store chain had recently changed hands and was keen to rebuild its reputation for quality and to expand its range of children's clothing.
Coats Viyella was prepared to entertain the idea so long as the store chain agreed to accept guidance and controls over product design and quality. Agreement was reached that Coats Viyella would help Woolworths re-engineer its business processes and would retrain the chain's buyers, in exchange for a fixed fee on every garment that carried the Ladybird logo.
The companies launched a small trial while work continued to design and source complete new ranges of fashions. The sample stores sold their try-outs virtually as soon as they went on sale, proving the potential and confirming the tie-up. A national roll-out was planned for the Spring of 1986, which is covered in a separate exhibit, here in the Woolworths Museum.
To complete the story, after establishing enviable market shared for Children's Clothing in the period after their demerger from Kingfisher, including the leading position in the under-five age group, the store-based Woolworths chain hit the rocks during the Credit Crunch of 2008, falling into Administration. While the Administrator, Deloitte LLP, was unable to save the High Street stores, both the Woolworths brand and Ladybird were rescued by Shop Direct in January 2009 and have since been relaunched on-line. Shop Direct continues the proud tradition, first dreamt over by Johannes George Pasold over 300 years ago, in offering a contemporary, well-made range of children's clothing at highly competitive prices via their Woolworths.co.uk website.
The Woolworths Museum would like to thank Professor David Jenkins, Professor Pat Hudson and Dr Kaori O'Connor of the Pasold Research Foundation for their encouragement in preparing this feature.
Ladybird and Woolworths are now brands of Shop Direct Group. All trademarks are acknowledged.
The Ladybird and Fashion Gallery