Henry Hurt, who has died aged 87, was, for more than half a century, managing director of his Nottingham-based family luxury knitted lace business GH Hurt & Son, famous for manufacturing the shawls in which royal babies are first presented to the public.
Born on August 15 1935, Henry Hurt was the third generation of his family to run the business, which had been established in 1912 by his grandfather, George Henry Hurt, in an 18th-century former seed warehouse, with five employees, knitting mainly shawls on hand-frame knitting machines.
Henry Hurt joined the firm aged 18 in 1953 as one of the last hand-frame knitting apprentices. His father Leslie, known to the workforce as “George’s lad”, had led the company through the Depression and Second World War, and Henry (known as “the lad’s lad”) recalled his father telling him to dismantle a hand-frame into its component parts and then to re-assemble it. Henry went on to work on the hand-frame, being paid for what he knitted, and helped with packaging and invoicing.
His apprenticeship was supposed to last seven years, but six months into his training he was called up for two years of National Service with the Sherwood Foresters. Then, in 1956, when his father died of cancer, the 21-year-old Henry, with barely a year’s apprenticeship under his belt, found himself in the managing directors’ chair, where he remained until recently, latterly in conjunction with his daughter Gillian Taylor.
The firm’s connection with royal babies had begun shortly after the birth of Prince Charles in 1948 – “My dad told me that we supplied two dozen of our B1 shawls to Harrods and the Queen bought them all” – and the royal connection continued under Henry’s stewardship. In 1982, Prince William emerged from hospital wrapped in a GH Hurt hand-finished blanket.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge followed the tradition for the births of their children – Prince George in a super-fine merino wool shawl, Princess Charlotte in an elegant soft wool shawl with an art deco border pattern, and Prince Louis in a new style derived from a lace pattern that Hurt had found in the archives.
Royal patronage did no harm to sales and Phillip Schofield, Jamie Oliver, Kate Winslet, Anneka Rice and Annabel Croft were among the proud parents who chose to display their newborns in GH Hurt shawls. “We buy Hello! to find out who’s had a baby, to see if our shawls are on it,” Henry confessed.
As well as babies’ shawls, GH Hurt makes women’s scarves, dresses, jackets and gloves, which have found their way into major fashion magazines, catwalks – and films. Its mohair shawls featured in Gone with the Wind and helped Julie Christie withstand the Moscow winter in Dr Zhivago.
Although GH Hurt continued to use 200- to 300-year-old hand-knitting frames until the mid-1980s, Henry Hurt realised that the days of knitters sitting in hand-frames were numbered, and in 1966 he succeeded in adapting a powered knitting machine to produce shawls that retained the hand-knitted lace appearance.
By the early 1970s he had acquired and adapted several second-hand machines, laying the foundations for the firm’s continued success and expansion into markets including the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Later he built a “knit shop” to house the machines, alongside the original factory.
Frame-work knitting was once the staple industry of the Nottingham area, and, largely thanks to Henry Hurt, GH Hurt, where hand-frame knitting continues alongside modern machine knitting, is one of the last to survive into the 21st century.
Hurt, a lifelong Nottingham Forest fan, was appointed MBE in 2009.
In 1960 he married Patricia Walker, who died in 2017. He is survived by their daughter and son.
Henry Hurt, born August 15 1935, died August 2 2023