All Cotton Comfort’s founder Dorothy Clark wanted was comfy cotton tights for her little daughter. But this unexpectedly tough quest led to the birth of a clothing range that has helped thousands of eczema sufferers. Interview by Nicola Baird
“I didn’t take many pictures of Hannah. I felt it wasn’t fair to her,” says Dorothy Clark over the phone from her Cotswolds home remembering those early days of coping with baby Hannah who developed painful, itchy eczema not long after she started solids. It’s lockdown #3 on a wet, cold winter afternoon in the UK so a good time to share life stories about love, scratching and Cotton Comfort.
In a bid to ease her baby’s discomfort, Dorothy, now 72, began sourcing eczema clothing in 1979. Forty years later she’s the MD of Cotton Comfort, a business known for its innovative designs that really help a hot, itchy child sleep better. In fact, some items like the Scratch Mitten T shirts are so trusted they even come in adult sizes.
What’s been special about the business is Dorothy’s ability to listen and offer trusted advice about what big and little people with eczema can wear comfortably. “Over the years I have spoken to 1,000s of customers. I’ve also been sent hundreds of letters and photos of children and people with eczema and psoriasis and cancer treatment scars from grateful customers. A favourite one is of a customer's 98-year-old mother wearing our striped long john pyjamas,” she says. Also on the website there’s that famous pic of little Hannah stitched into a pillow case before Dorothy got to work sourcing and designing eczema clothing.
Reflecting on her business journey– which includes being singled out as an Enterprising Woman for a Good Housekeeping article in 1981 - Dorothy wonders how she managed to juggle her young family, several hospitalisations for major back problems and just a home phone. At one point, in 1984 when women were being told they could have it all, she moved with Jessica and Hannah to live in Hong Kong with her 2nd husband, Lindsay, who was also a pilot, flying home most months to supervise the business.
“I think I would have taken time to find out how to run a business,” she says reflectively. “It led me rather than me leading it.” The demise of Cotton On which expanded too fast and then went into liquidation in 1997 was painful, emotionally and financially for Dorothy. But it was the people who’d been using her eczema clothing who convinced her to try again.
“In 1999 customers wrote begging me to continue to supply the clothing they depended upon. At the same time my major supplier in Sweden phoned to say he had made some eczema pyjamas for people who needed them. I decided to connect the two and allow the business to flourish at its own pace,” she explains. She set up Cotton Comfort in 2000 running it from a renovated barn in the Lake District. She also tightened up her business skills by patenting her eczema nightwear. But even with six staff Dorothy remembers “packing parcels until 2am,” a task which did not help her back problems. By 2011 she had made some organisational changes so that the stock was dispatched – and phones answered – by a fulfilment agency based in York; and since 2019 in Paignton, Devon.
Dorothy isn’t the only one passionate about the organic cotton items she sells, many eczema clothing customers trust the brand to make their life better. “I remember an emergency call from a guy in New York who was having a job interview and found the bedsheets in the hotel he’d been put in were making him itch so he couldn’t sleep. We had to courier over one of our mitten T-shirts, so he didn’t turn up to his interview with involuntary scratches as if the cat had been at him,” says Dorothy.
“Cotton Comfort was self-help for my family to start with and then when people shared their problems with me, I found I was good at problem solving. And once I had a factory that understood what I was doing, then I used their design departments to solve other people’s problems. At first, I had no knowledge of adult eczema in sensitive places. A lot of older people get varicose eczema which is why Cotton Comfort sells a huge number of adult cotton tights and long johns and introduced T shirts with mittens for adults 20 years ago,” says Dorothy.
Many famous people have been customers “including a key member of the Royal family who suffered badly with eczema in childhood and also celebrities and their children because eczema is surprisingly common.”
Dorothy reckons that she left school “too early”, then after two nanny jobs, a stint as a supervisor at M&S in Coventry and a season with British Midland Airways Dorothy met her first husband, Dominic, who was a pilot, and the pair had two daughters.
“When Hannah was covered in eczema in 1978 neither of us had ever come across anything like it before. You feel it’s something you’re doing or not doing. My mother had died when I was 12 and I had no family support. When I said to the doctor, ‘Hannah might be allergic to milk,’ he said, ‘No baby is allergic to milk’. They wouldn’t say that now we know that cow’s milk, soy products, eggs and gluten and more have all been linked to eczema! But he made me feel like I wasn’t looking after her properly.”
Dorothy remembers how: “One daughter felt abandoned because I spent all my time with the younger one; my husband felt abandoned, and I had a child who needed all my attention People kept telling me, ‘the eczema will go away, it’s nothing.’ But it didn’t go away and our marriage couldn’t survive the eczema.”
Although Dorothy is clear that she’s had a happy life, this was a serious low point: the couple divorced, but fortunately remained good friends. It’s why Dorothy says: “I count eczema as a disabling condition, it disables the whole family. Dealing with people with eczema you are in that situation you can’t escape from – it’s almost as if you get PTSD. For years afterwards if I heard nails scratching against something, I would shudder, remembering Hannah behind the curtain, or sofa, tearing at her skin.”
Hoping for a ‘cure’ took Dorothy across the country for appointments with homeopaths and allergy specialists.
In contrast she found that GPs were, “Not interested because nobody dies of eczema,” says Dorothy ruefully, but as, “not sleeping is like Chinese torture I kept trying to stop her scratching at night. I sewed her into a cotton pillowcase every night just to stop her tearing at her legs.” Distressingly rubbing her face meant “Hannah’s eyelids would fuse together. I’d have to bathe them open. And I’d have to soak her socks off her feet, they were welded on where she’d rubbed them.”
At this point Dorothy’s problem-solving skill set went into overdrive. “The crunch point was Hannah, desperate to wear a frock like her big sister Jessica, but couldn’t use the synthetic tights sold for children. Numerous phone calls later a chap in Leicester said ‘we’ve got the machine somewhere, if it’s usable I can make you some. You’ll have to have 3,000 to get the machine going.’ I said, ‘fine’. I remember I was cross. I still had no intention of starting a business, but I’d ordered 3,000 pairs of tights, 1000 each in white, navy and red! I thought if I can get things for Hannah, and have to get extra made, then I can help other people by selling off the rest.”
The first customers in 1979 came from the Eczema Society. After the tights came sleep suits and long sleeve T shirts with mittens attached, designs that have become Cotton Comfort best sellers.
For years Dorothy sold clothing at the big meetings run by the Eczema Society and at the Allergy Show. “I find that people with eczema children are jumpy. I think it’s because you are always wondering what is it? Is it your house, your carpet, your cat? It makes people lose sleep. You’re constantly thinking what could I do, what have I done? And that’s what makes it so intrusive on family life. You never know what to expect and that what makes it so difficult for people. My first marriage might have failed anyway but I know eczema was a factor, and that was tough.”
This year Dorothy celebrates her 36th wedding anniversary with Lindsay. Their son, Miles was born in 1987 and now he also has a baby - making Dorothy a grandma of five, most of whom have modelled for Cotton Comfort. “My children had to share me with the business; they all also helped me with it through the years,” says Dorothy with pride. Of course, that pride is as much for the way her family have stepped in, as it is for the way Cotton Comfort clothing has helped give anyone with eczema a far more comfortable life.
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