When Stuart Morris was commissioned to create a tea towel in 1980 he had no inkling that this would lead to him spending the next four decades building a successful specialist textile design and print business where creativity and innovation rule

From an early age, Stuart Morris was driven by a desire to paint and create. He has produced all kinds of colourful and vivid work, from paintings to prints, often large-scale, which have featured in exhibitions in London and Scotland and overseas. However, he also has a head for business and, for the past 39 years, has built up one of the UK’s leading specialists in designing and printing textiles. Called simply Stuart Morris, it supplies a diverse variety of products for schools, retail and other companies, as well as leading designers and illustrators, from its base in Hadleigh, near Ipswich, in south Suffolk. And the catalyst for this success? A tea towel.

Father’s footsteps

After studying art and design, including a masters degree at Leicester, Stuart became a lecturer in the subject first in Leeds and then in Colchester, Essex, while also working as a freelance textile designer – following in the footsteps of his father who helped to develop the historic fabric and wall coverings collection of Blendworth. He set up his first print studio in a former apple store in an old maltings in the Suffolk village of Stratford St Mary where he worked on creating hand-printed textiles and canvases. 

Everything changed, however, when he was asked to design and print a tea towel of a church in the nearby village of Langham, just over the border in Essex. Its success led to other commissions, including a tea towel for Colchester Castle and another for a reader offer in the regional daily paper, the East Anglian Daily Times. The readers loved it and this in turn led to more tea towels for newspaper groups from Norfolk to Kent to Hampshire over the following years.

Stuart Morris began his business by producing tea towels

Stuart Morris set up his business in 1980 and has steered its growth over the past 39 years

Innovation and creativity

The company’s current base in Hadleigh is split between two adjoining factories on an industrial estate, plus a studio in Rose Chapel, a converted 19th-century Methodist chapel, where Stuart continues to produce his own work. It is not just him working there anymore: the workforce has grown to 16 permanent staff, which rises to 22 at busy times. Some of the team have been with him for many years, including illustrator and chief designer Diz Andrews who joined 22 years ago. This was around the time that the company took on the first of its two Hadleigh factories, called Riverside Print Studio. The second, the bigger Hilltop Print Studio, was added 10 years ago to allow the company to provide high-volume screen printing.

The first unit is home to screen printing, screen making, sewing, digital printing and an art department with three designers. “We have a real emphasis on the innovation and creativity of our design department,” Stuart comments. “Our ethos is to combine painting and illustration with the technical support of computer-aided design. With our experienced artists and illustrators, we are not just offering a printed product. We are able to design it for them.”

Since starting up in 1980, the company has expanded way beyond just tea towels although Stuart says “the emphasis is on high-quality crafted textile products finished in the UK”. Its printed products include aprons made from heavyweight cotton drill and shopping bags in cotton calico, canvas and jute as well as silk scarves and ties and other clothing that can be customised through printing or embroidery. These are complemented by printed promotional mugs, ceramic or earthenware, which are produced elsewhere.

A core part of its customer base is retail, with Stuart Morris producing personalised printed textile products for shops and online retailers as well as working with many designers on bringing their visions to life on fabric, from bags and tea towels to oven gloves and cushion covers. The portfolio also includes customised stationery such as greeting cards, solid glass paperweights and full-colour notepads.

The screen printing department includes three auto carousels

From small orders to large

Working with artists and illustrators such as Chloë Gardner, Richard Bawdon, Sarah Young and Laura Stoddart, the company is supplying orders from double figures to thousands of pieces. To serve the retail market, the company can now provide products bagged up, with bespoke header cards, care labels, belly bands, swing tags and barcodes. It is also about to embark on a new online venture, Watercolour Britain, selling printed products featuring the work of Diz Andrews.

More generally, the company has identified home interiors as an opportunity, Stuart adds. “I want to push more on that side, particularly with my own designs.” Another core market has always been the heritage retail sector, supplying merchandise such as bags, aprons, sweat shirts, T-shirts, scarves, ties and, of course, tea towels to the likes of English Heritage, the National Trust and Historic Scotland.

The product portfolio has also proven to be perfect for school and church fundraising in both the UK and overseas, with Stuart Morris being one of the first to offer the school self-portrait tea towel. Products can be printed with any design including children’s own drawings, with minimum orders as small as 25. Another revenue stream is personalised tea towels for weddings, again for orders of 25 and upwards.

The company now employs four seamstresses to cope with demand

Digital future

To meet the challenges of any brief, the factories are set up with state-of-the-art equipment including three automatic carousels and two large capacity gas dryers. Investments have included a direct-to-garment digital printer, suitable for a variety of textile products including T-shirts, bags, aprons and tea towels, and two roll-to-roll digital printers (a third is arriving soon), after Stuart Morris expanded into digital printing four years ago.

“The move to digital printing has been absolutely key,” Stuart says. “It has opened up a whole new market. We are now able to reproduce the most detailed and elaborate full-colour designs with no screen-making or set-up costs.” Able to achieve brilliant colour intensity and full washfastness, digtal printing has proven particularly ideal for matching the creativity of designers and illustrators, Stuart says. “They can come along with full-colour designs and there are no setting-up costs and no screen-making. You can go straight from the file, produce a proof and print. This area has grown and is expanding all the time.”

Due to the popularity of digital printing, the company has expanded its sewing capacity and now employs four seamstresses. “For a larger order, even for the most detailed designs, we would still screen print as it’s much faster production, but anything under 400 units full-colour, we consider for digital printing. Because of being able to print in full-colour, people are being far more adventurous.”

From cotton and canvas to Linen Union cotton-linen blend, Stuart Morris uses materials and water-based printing that are eco-friendly, part of its commitment to being ethical and sustainable. “We want to be known as a company that really cares, that provides people with a good service, fast turn-around and a competitive price,” Stuart adds. “We will stay all hours to get their orders out on time.”

After continued expansion, he remains “pretty positive” for the future although he admits to being “disappointed” at the turmoil created after the Brexit referendum. “It has affected costs already as the value of the pound means that cloth coming from overseas has gone up in price.” Whatever happens, demand for printed textiles shows no sign of diminishing. “There’s a pretty reasonable market out there,” Stuart says. “We will continue concentrating on quality of products, quality of service and keeping prices as competitive as possible.”