Studio Visions: We Visit The Micro-Mill Of London Cloth Company
I set out to visit Daniel Harris in his weaving mill in Epping and it feels like a proper day out. Daniel is the founder of London Cloth Company, London's first micro-mill, that he set up in 2011 in the district of Clapton, but recently moved to larger premises in the countryside. The London Cloth weaving mill specialises in high-quality woven cloth, produced on carefully restored shuttle looms dating from the 1880's onwards, and offers its bespoke services to fashion designers, companies and individuals wanting unique fabrics.
Daniel has agreed to meet me at Epping station early on a Saturday morning and has promised breakfast and coffee at the mill. We are both on folding bikes and when I arrive at the agreed destination, Daniel is already waiting and waving from afar.
The bike ride takes us through the picturesque town centre where we pick up eggs, bread and coffee on the way, before we head for the forest that guides us to the mill. It's a rather epic journey through gorgeous woodlands that Daniel takes on every day to travel from his Clapton home to his workplace in the country, and it makes for a magical entrance into Daniel's timeless world of weaving.
Daniel, I read that you started London Cloth Company after you rescued a rusting loom from an old barn in rural Wales. Could you tell me more about how it came to that and the story of you starting up your company?
I cannot emphasize how little I planned this. In the beginning of October 2010 I just said "Right, I want to get into weaving." At the time, I had a workshop full of sewing machines and a huge pattern cutting table. I'm a sewing machinist, so I was doing sewing for all sorts of people, lots of TV commercials, film and fashion. I thought "Wouldn't it be great if I could weave a little bit of fabric in the corner here, and then I could convert it into goods?"
How did you find your machinery?
When I did my research, I first looked at hand weaving, but hand weaving is so boring. It could take you all day to weave just a meter. So I decided that I needed to get some funding for a more modern but affordable loom.
I had absolutely zero knowledge of this whatsoever, so I first looked into 1950s looms and what I could get. I also did look at 1980s looms, but they are so big and complicated. Eventually I got a loom from the 1920s. It took me about a month of phone calls to find what I was looking for. Finally I found this guy who said "Oh yeah, phone this person, she's got one in a barn, and it’s been there for 30 years." And strange enough, it was near where I grew up. So I went to my parents' house in Wales and we drove to this barn. The barn was going to be demolished and they were happy to sell the loom. I sprayed the whole thing with oil, so that it would come apart easier, left it for two weeks, came back a month later, and put it in a van. I measured it all very carefully, so that I knew I could get in through the doors. Got it back to London. But what I hadn't accounted for was the length. There was a 90 degree turn, so I ended up taking the whole thing to bits on the street at 9 o'clock at night. Got it into the building, cleaned it piece by piece, painted it all, put it back together, and then started making fabric. But I quickly realized that you can't just have a loom. You need everything. There's so much stuff. There's stuff you can't really do it without, if you’re going to do it properly.
What else did you need to get?
If you're into shuttle weaving, you need a winder to wind the bobbins. If you start producing say 30 to 40 meters of fabric at a time, then you need an inspection table. And there is more and more. The other thing is, you can't buy the parts anywhere. So instead of buying a single part you just buy a whole loom. There is always a lot missing. In the end, I was building an entire loom, just from piles of bits.
How did you teach yourself the skills?
It was easy because I started with the small looms. They're mechanical, and therefore very manageable. The thing is, you can see everything, there's no confusion. If you work from the motor all the way through the loom, there are certain rules, which always apply. Kind of like the circle of life. It's actually the circle of timing: you always know that if this is in this position, then that should be roughly here, and it just goes on.
How long did it take you to start producing fabrics?
I picked up the loom in November 2010, and from November to the following October, I didn't tell anyone what I was doing. It took me all that time to start producing stuff that was sellable. I finally registered the company on the 5th of October, 2011.
All of this business has been self-funded. I continued with the sewing for about two years and ran the sewing and the weaving mill, in parallel. And I let people come to me, because I didn't have enough money to go out and find customers.
Who are your customers and how did you find your market?
Well, first of all, I've priced our fabrics in a way where it's still affordable for a single brand. But it means that we don't have a big margin. When I started out, a lot of people were like "Wow, you could be charging so much money for this, 100 pounds a meter." I could have done, but I don't think we’d be doing that much work. I think if we had gone that way, the business would have become more novelty artisanal and I'd never be able to employ anyone. I wouldn't have been able to offer anything that was that different. I would still be weaving fairly traditional looking fabrics, nothing particularly groundbreaking. And I don't think I would have enjoyed that.
Our minimum order here is only 30 meters and a meter costs around 40 pounds. So for just over a grand, you could get 30 meters of your own bespoke fabric. If you went to a massive mill, and said "Could you weave me 30 meters?”, they'd probably tell you no and it wouldn't be cheaper either. We fill in all the gaps.
Most of our bulk orders are between 100 and 500 meters, and really to keep the business going, you need that quantity. But then we are currently making a piece now, which is 30 meters long. It's for three guys who just wanted their own bespoke fabric. They will get ten meters each and each ten meter piece is different enough to be unique. We are also weaving pirate fabric…
I think it's for a TV program or a film. They've just given us this tiny bit of fabric, and said "Can you do this?" So we matched the pattern and we’ve done the dyeing, the weaving and the finishing. For something like this you couldn't go to a big mill, they won't help you.
We actually sold to ASOS once. Normally, I find that when you work with somebody like ASOS, it won't end well, because they often don't understand the product. It's a problem that we often encounter: A client wants a completely natural, undyed, formaldehyde-free, super organic product, which takes time to produce because of all the steps it involves. But they still want us to do it in six to eight weeks. It's like "We care about the animals, we don’t care about you." It simply doesn't work.
What was the most groundbreaking thing you’ve done?
We mustn't use the word groundbreaking, because nothing I do is groundbreaking at all. Weaving has existed for over 150 years, so nothing is that groundbreaking anymore. But there's a pub called Marksman on Hackney Road. If you go past it, go in. Go look at the ceiling, there's a hand painted woven ceiling in there, that me and designer Martino Gamper did. You couldn't do a thing like that on a modern loom: We put the loom on and just painted on the back of it. We wove the fabric wet. I mean, that was great!
Could you tell me about the raw materials that you use and how you source them?
We are producing 100% British Wool Tweed, Indigo and Union Cloth. We focus on these kind of fabrics is, because every time you change something, it's a disaster. It's too time-consuming and expensive. There are certain fabrics that we do, that nobody else does. Our Indigo, for example, of which we weave thousands of meters in a year.
The wool we work with can be sourced in different ways. We can actually go to the farm directly, buy the wool, have it spun, and go all the way through the supply chain, so that it is totally traceable. But because it's done in such small quantities, it does make it very expensive and difficult to wholesale.
So, what we were doing with one ecological farmer is, we are weaving his blankets for him, and he is selling them at markets. That works, because he doesn't need to increase the price for wholesale and the blankets are still affordable enough.
If you start to do this process with a brand, the problem is that you'd have to work a year in advance, because it's very time-consuming to get the supply chain right. And most brands simply don't have foresight. They come to you, and go "We need this in 12 weeks." So, it makes it very difficult. We try and keep certain amounts in stock, which is also very expensive.
Additionally, we can buy undyed wool from merchants and get it spun. Or we just pick yarn colours from a merchant's shade card and the yarn is directly delivered. That is the easiest, but you can't trace it quite so much.
Do you enjoy working with your looms? Has it ever crossed your mind to go modern?
The oldest loom we had was from 1872 and that's now gone to a museum. We've still got one from the 1880's, which we do use. So currently we work with looms from the 1880's, from 1904, 1956, 1966, 1954, 1974 and 1978. That's a complete timeline. The reason why we got the more modern ones from the 70's is because they were the first "Second Industrial Revolution Machines" to hit the market that were truly viable. The 70's machines are quiet modern, but they are still completely mechanical. There's no computer involved. I think if we'd gone straight into computer stuff, it may have been easier, but at the same time, maybe not. Those computerised looms are very expensive to repair whereas the old looms I can fix myself.
When was the heyday of weaving in Britain, and how's the state of it now
You'd be amazed. Everyone thinks weaving in this country is gone, but it's not. At the moment, weaving and textiles in this country is going through an epic revival. The textiles industry in this country is worth nine billion pounds. Between now and 2020, it will create another 20,000 jobs. It's going through a period of expansion. There are still mills in this country that run 24 hours a day. They're not like this obviously. They're state of the art. There's also lots of high-end woollen spinning in this country, but most of the wool does come from Australia.
Could you outline the decline?
Let's use the example of Harris Tweed. The year 1967 was the high watermark for Harris Tweed. Something like six to seven million yards were produced a year. But from there it went just downhill and you can probably apply that sort of date to every other woollen industry in this country. It went downhill in the late 60's and through the 80's, it just bombed, because it became so much cheaper to get it done abroad. Marks & Spencer's used to have their own factory development place, all that's gone. Everything got shifted overseas.
The other reason why we were losing companies super rapidly throughout the 70's and 80's was because of technology. So imagine, it's 1974, you've got a mill with 200 of those looms, and then you think "We've got a bit of spare cash. We're going to invest in new looms." This new generation of looms, when they were brand new and set up properly, would run fully automatic twice as fast and could go on for days. And as soon as you've got one of those new looms, you could get rid of two of the old ones. So some of the mills were thinking "We're going to get rid of all the old machines. We've got 100 old looms, so we're going to get 50 new looms, and produce twice as much. But hang on, we just shelled out a lot of money, so we're going to weave four times as much."
But as soon as one mill is suddenly weaving four times as much, another mill that is still using old machinery just can't compete any longer. The bigger mill could just take on its work and do it quicker and cheaper. So it's not just that we sent everything abroad. The downsizing of the industry was also due to technology. We just didn't need as many mills.
And what lead to a revival?
Nowadays, it's coming back round because we're actually very good at wool in the UK. That sort of higher end wool. Also, China was very very cheap, but it's not that cheap anymore. And on top of that, you've got the cost of getting it here, which has gone up. Everyone's very pro "re-shoring". So it’s only a matter of time, isn't it? Cheap isn't always sustainable.
During the time when the industry was deteriorating, there were bigger companies that were able to hold on and some of them are now expanding. My favourite one, which I use all the time, is a company called Gledhill. John Peter and Bruce Gledhill are in their 60's and they still own their spinning mill. Sometimes I am phoning them up, and everything's in stock. But sometimes I am like "Hello Howard, I want a box of this and a box of this." And they go "Oh we've got it all, apart from that." "Ok, when's that going to be ready?" "Oh, July." "Howard, wtf?" "Oh we're so busy, we might have to put another carding engine in."
London Cloth Company is London's first micro mill. What does localism and small-scale economies mean to you?
Now this is not a very nice fabric (fabric on the left, see above), but it is quite incredible. It's very rough and not the best quality, but it is made with all the wool from the London City Farms. I got all the City Farms together and collected the fleece from all their sheep. If we were to sell this fabric, it would have to be vastly expensive, it was such a time-consuming project. I organised the complete process from start to finish. The only thing we couldn’t do at London Cloth Company was the spinning and the dying. I wanted to do this like a trial, and then do it every year so that there would always be a batch of fabric, that once a year came out of London.
What are the next steps you will take with London Cloth Company?
I think, I wouldn't want to grow it much bigger than this. This is very manageable for one person. I'm in here all the time and I can just about do everything. There are only two more machines that I need in order to make this completely cool and brilliant. One is a knotting machine, and the other one is a different type of winding machine. But I am currently in a period of consolidation. I am not allowed to spend any more money on more machinery.
Well, there are a couple of ways I could go from here. Either, I could just stay where I am, for the next three years because I have all the essential equipment that I need and it would be fine. Or I could try and get investment. I could say "Well, let's take this to another level. I would need 150,000 pounds every year for the next two years, and extra staff." I could employ someone to actually go out and do sales and marketing. But for now, this is a year of consolidation. No big spending, just refining.
What drives you? Do you have a future vision?
I am really interested in the educational aspect of what I am doing. That's what I bring to the community. Imagine, there is no Industrial Textiles Museum in London! And there really should be, because there was weaving in London. The Fashion and Textiles Museum doesn't even cover the topic and neither does the V+A. At the Science Museum you can learn about the Industrial Revolution but not in the same way. If you look around our place, we have built an entire timeline of weaving, covering every single aspect from 1850 to now. It wouldn't be hard for us to phone the world's leading manufacturer of looms, and say "We want to open a museum, we want you to give us a state of the art loom for a central London location." And they would.
What we could offer, is to show an entire historical timeline of weaving and still run the looms to make money. You see, it wouldn't have to be one of those museums which is just desperate for funding. Currently all museum are in trouble, because the UK government is just cutting and cutting costs. So we could actually build a completely self-sufficient museum in central London, which is in a way what we had started doing. But then the problem was that in London property is getting more and more expensive and we had to move out to Epping. We still have open days here in Epping, but we used to have loads of open days when we were based in Clapton. Even people just passing by would walk in to find out what we are doing. But in London we would never find an affordable space of this size, and in order to run a museum we would even need double this size.
Thank you so much for the interview, Daniel!
SLOW FASHION UK
These are two UK based slow fashion brands that London Cloth Company
is working with and they both have shops in London. Follow the links and take a look at their clothing online, the designs and quality are stunning!