Using swift, sure strokes, Amanda’s strong fingers, one tipped with a thimble, push a needle through tough gaberdine fabric.
After more than 20 years in Burberry’s factory in Castleford, Yorkshire, she can stitch a collar in eight minutes – and so neatly the eventual owner of the trenchcoat she is making will never notice her work. At most, the wearer may be vaguely aware that their coat snugly hugs their neck in a way a standard high-street raincoat never could.
On the bright, white walls of the starkly lit room, Cara Delevigne and Eddie Redmayne pose in black and white posters that typify the glamorous image of the British brand.
But it is the women toiling on the sewing machines, in jeans, loud T-shirts and gold jewellery who are the real force behind the brand’s famous coat. They stitch 5,000 of the brand’s heritage trenchcoats a week, each garment selling for more than £1,100.
The process has been so protected that this is the first time a British journalist has been allowed in to the coat factory in Castleford or Burberry’s textile mill in Cross Hills, a village near Keighley. Even now, no cameras are allowed and the company wants to scrutinise any quotes from staff.
It’s no real surprise that Burberry has not been keen to shine a light on its humble UK factories. Between 2007 and 2009, more than 500 British jobs were lost as the designer label cut costs by closing production facilities in Treorchy, Wales, and Rotherham, and trimmed jobs in its Yorkshire factories.
But now, under the leadership of Yorkshireman Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative officer, who also became chief executive in 2014, the company is investing at least £50m in a new factory that could bring 200 more manufacturing jobs to the UK.
Labelled Project Artisan, the new facility on the South Bank in Leeds will be the biggest newbuild clothing factory in the UK for at least 50 years – a statement about the brand’s heritage and values.
The focus on British manufacturing is part of Bailey’s fightback plan, expected to be detailed next week when the company reveals its annual financial results. Bailey is under pressure because Burberry’s sales have slowed as luxury-loving Chinese buyers have been put off travelling to Europe by the terrorist attacks in Paris and kept out of Hong Kong, once a shoppers’ paradise, by changes to visa rules.
Bailey says: “I’m a great believer in British manufacturing and the crafts and skills we have here. We have 800 incredible craftsmen and women in our two factories in Yorkshire and their tradition is something we should all be proud of, continue to build on, and promote on a world stage.
“In a world that’s changing so dramatically, where everything is getting faster and faster, timeless skills, detailed and quality workmanship becomes more and more important and I am proud we can play a role in promoting that.”
Bailey is riding a wave of increasing interest in making textiles and clothing in the UK. Last year the sector saw the first increase in employment for more than 35 years, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Plans for Burberry’s new factory, designed by Stirling prize-winning architects Stanton Williams, are still on the drawing board but it is expected to open in late 2018 or 2019. It will combine weaving and coat manufacturing under one roof.
Persuading the ladies, and select group of gents, who work in Castleford and Keighley, to travel to nearby Leeds will be an important part of the move. The longest serving employees have worked at Burberry for more than 40 years and many will have to switch from a quick walk to work to a long bus journey.
Each member of the team is valuable as it takes a year of practice before sewers can take on the trickiest jobs such as stitching a collar. Trainees start with simple items such as wool capes – items that can be unstitched if a mistake is made.
In Castleford the women whizz through detailed work such as cutting and stitching belt loops with absolute precision.
The workers are all earning the independently verified living wage of £8.25 an hour and get bonuses of up to 40p an hour on top if they meet production and quality targets.
It takes four hours of intensive work to put together a trenchcoat – nearly twice as long as it takes to make a suit. But that’s just the time spent stitching.
Each trenchcoat comprises 80 pieces put together with about 120 processes. The coat’s collar alone is made up of eight pieces and its complex design includes traditional “D-rings”, initially designed to hold hand grenades. Then there is the “pork chop”, as it is known in the factory, which can be buttoned across the throat to keep out the chill.
The way the sewing is organised can make a dramatic difference. A decade ago it would take Burberry up to 15 weeks to process one garment, but detailed adjustments to working practiceshave knocked that down to six-and-a-half hours on a trial “lean” production line.
Workers are also taking on new projects. After several years of making only the brand’s range of heritage trenchcoats, Castleford is now starting to make duffel coats and potentially other styles from Burberry’s fashion ranges. They are also doing special work such as adding monogrammed embroidery and refurbishing vintage coats.
Production involves the latest technology, such as a cutting machine that can adjust its path to ensure that the famous Burberry check is not skewed. But there are also homemade gadgets worthy of Heath Robinson, such as a miniature piston to turn belts and epaulettes right side out after sewing.
Some of the machinery at the Cross Hills textile mill looks as though it has been around long enough to have been operated by Thomas Burberry when he set up the company in 1856.
The squat building, which dates from the 1880s, houses 45 looms which can each pump out up to eight metres an hour of the tightly woven gaberdine, with just a handful of workers checking the cloth quality. A dizzying array of cotton spools from sparkling pink, gold, deep blood-red and pale pink is inched into tasteful tones by the clanking looms.
Each piece of gaberdine, except black, is woven from two colours. The classic honey beige is a mix of pale cream and a surprising green gold that gives the fabric its glow. On a sunny morning in May, enough Burberry check to clothe the entire Beckham brood for a decade is spooling on to vast rollers.
The mill works 24 hours a day with 75 people over three shifts producing 1.8m metres of fabric a year – all inspected by hand, with tiny glitches either remedied or marked to be cut around.
While the basics of weaving have barely altered in decades, processes are increasingly being mechanised. It once took several days to thread up the complex workings of a loom – passing more than 10,000 thread ends through three parts of the machine using metal hooks and slivers of ivory made from piano keys. Now it takes just a few hours using a machine.
Moving this heavy machinery while keeping production flowing will be as much of a challenge as holding on to the staff. But managers say Burberry desperately needs to make a move in order to expand its operations and update facilities – with better lighting, air conditioning and the latest energy saving technology.
Burberry’s designer clothing is not being made in a designer location. The floor in Castleford is a hotchpotch of patched wood and concrete.
“Look at this floor, it’s like a ski slope,” says one member of the Castleford team as he shows me around. “We’ve invested lots of money in this building but we really need more space and a modern factory.”
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