Educated at Marshall’s School in Merthyr Tydfil until 1932, she was then sent to the Elmwood School, Croydon. She was evacuated back to Wales, and after attending the Aberdare Secretarial School, she left school at 16.
During the Second World War, she served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and then from 1945 to 1952 as a secretary for the National Federation of Womens Institutes in London. In London she met engineer Bernard Ashley at a youth club in Wallington. The couple married in 1949.
Laura showed a creative flair by designing napkins, table mats and tea-towels, while working as a secretary and raising her first two children. Bernard had them printed on a machine he had designed in their attic flat in Pimlico, London.
The couple had invested £10 in wood for the screen frame, dyes and a few yards of linen. Laura’s inspiration to start producing printed fabric actually came from a Women’s Institute display of traditional handicrafts at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
When Laura looked for small patches carrying Victorian designs to help her make patchworks, she found no such thing existed. Here was an opportunity, and she started to print Victorian style headscarves in 1953.
After selling her first products to the John Lewis Department Store, other shops started to take an interest. Eventually Bernard gave up his day job to manage the growing family business. The couple’s first factory was an old coaching house in Kent where they produced fabrics under the Ashley Mountney Company. But Laura Ashley hankered for her native Wales and the family moved to Powys.
They eventually settled in the Old Railway House in Carno, a building which was to become the powerhouse of a multi-national business. Many of the clothes were initially made by women in their homes. Bundles of clothes would be driven by van from kitchen table to fireside, where housewives would turn collars and cuffs for extra cash.
Before long, factories were set up in the heart of Mid Wales and by the mid 1970s, dresses from rural Wales were being sold across Europe.
The success was phenomenal, with the business opening stores in cities such as Paris and Geneva. By the 1980s, the Ashleys – who had by now expanded into home furnishing – had some 5,000 retail outlets throughout the world. In the same year, Laura Ashley realised a long-held ambition and opened a shop in the Welsh capital, Cardiff.
However, in 1985 tragedy struck. On her 60th birthday, Laura died after falling down the stairs at her daughter’s cottage in the Cotswolds. She was taken to hospital and placed on a life-support machine but died after nine days in a coma.
At the time of her death, the company was on the brink of further expansion, and with Bernard (now Sir Bernard) still at the helm, was floated on the stock market in 1986 valued at some 400$ million.