In My View by Eric Musgrave: Innovating and making in the UK
British clothing and footwear manufacturers are rightly praised for their commitment to keeping old traditions alive, but I do not think enough credit is given for the innovation and contemporary creativity UK-based makers display.
A couple of recent visits left me musing that forward-thinking British makers deserve more exposure – and sales.
In Sheffield, Goral & Sons has a busy footwear factory employing almost 40 people. In a city best known for steel making and cutlery, it’s a surprise to find a facility turning out high-quality boots and shoes.
Even more surprising is that the company does not produce the familiar Goodyear-welted shoes that still make Northampton a world-renowned centre for the noble art of the cordwainer. Goral’s specialty is producing trainers – and sustainable ones at that.
Somehow in the past 60 or so years the world has become obsessed with a throwaway culture. It was not always like this. For centuries, things that wore out, like shoes, were often repaired. Goral has had the timely idea of reviving the concept of a repairable footwear.
The firm makes its shoes using a construction called a Blake stitch, which allows a damaged or worn sole to be easily unpicked and replaced without any damage to the upper. It is a long-established construction but Dominik Goral felt it was time for a revival.
Dominik is a fourth-generation shoe man. His father Bogdan runs the business, which has its roots in Poland in 1936 when Dominik’s great-grandfather opened a factory. In 2005, having had production in the UK for a number of years, the family closed down the Polish factory and committed themselves fully to Sheffield.
Like many British factories, Goral is best-known as a contract manufacturer, making entire shoes or parts of a shoe for well-known footwear brands (including some based in Northamptonshire), small designers and retailers. For most of its existence, it made formal “city” or business shoes.
While they are kept busy and have an excellent reputation, the understandable desire to earn more money and to have more control over their own destiny prompted Dominik in 2015 to create a tight collection of own-brand products – the Goral trainers.
Mindful of the great manufacturing traditions of Sheffield, the main models are named Mellor and Boulsden. Sheffield-born David Mellor (1930-2009) was one of the best-known British designers working with metal, especially cutlery, while Thomas Boulsover (1705-1788) was a Sheffield cutler who is best remembered as the inventor of Sheffield Plate, a layered combination of silver and copper.
The Goral approach is not to make to a price, but rather to use high-grade components and top-quality skins like Horween Leather from the USA and Janus calf leather from the Charles F Stead tannery in Leeds.
Rather than making a lot of shoes and hoping to sell them, Goral makes each pair only when an order is received, minimising waste. It also promotes its repair service as Rebuild +.
It is a sign of the modern structure of retailing that Goral is avoiding the wholesale model in favour of a direct-to-consumer approach. You can see the Mellor and Boulsden styles, which cost around £265-£290 on www.goral-shoes.co.uk along with a very neat suede espadrille that is collaboration with a British menswear brand, Hemingsworth.
Some 175 miles north-west of Sheffield is Annan in Dumfries & Galloway. Here Stuart Maxwell runs Esk Valley Knitwear, a contract manufacturer with many similarities to Goral.
In 1970 Stuart’s father Ian started a knitwear business in a shed in the celebrated Scottish textile town of Langholm, which sits on the River Esk, hence the company name. After a diversion to Carlisle, the business settled in Annan in south-west Scotland and now employs 20 people.
Like Goral, Esk Valley is a well-regarded contract manufacturer, supplying knitwear to some of the best-known British “heritage designer” brands and an impressive roster of names in Europe and further afield.
In recent years, Stuart has tried to get a brand off the ground. Esk was the label in the garments of one such venture a few years ago. But the time and expense of building a brand, of finding a route or routes to market always had to play second fiddle to the main job of keeping the clients’ orders fulfilled.
During the lockdown, however, Stuart conceived a clever idea which involves selling only through the website www.skippersmill.com.
Named after one of his father’s early factories, Skippers Mill is another excellent example of what’s good about modern British design and advanced manufacturing knowhow.
The concept comprises just one style of sweater – The Modern Shetland – knitted in 100% Shetland-style lambswool. It is available in 31 superb colours – one for each day of even the longest months.
The Modern Shetland, as it is described, costs just £89, a brilliant price for a high-quality Made-in-Scotland product.
Each sweater is made-to-order as a whole garment on sophisticated seamless knitting machines made by Shima Seiki of Japan, the market leader in the technology. The process is fast, energy-efficient and creates no waste, while also ensuring a great fit.
The factory runs on 100% renewable energy, so Skippers Mill is truly sustainability in action.
The sweaters come in six sizes from XS to XXL and in Brushed and Unbrushed qualities.
For the technically-minded, the sweaters are medium weight, knitted in 5-gauge, meaning that there are five knitting needles to the inch on the machine. For context, a heavy chunky sweater is likely to be a 3-gauge, while a very fine summer cotton knit could be a 30-gauge.
As a 5-gauge knit, Skippers Mill is a very versatile garment that will be suitable for wearing for most of the year in the UK. Designed with a refined saddle shape across the shoulders, The New Shetland is aimed primarily at men, but it is very suitable for women wanting a cosy sweater.
The soft, warm and light 100% lambswool is supplied by Knoll Yarns in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, which creates, colours and stocks all its supplies in the UK.
From receipt of a customer’s order, a finished sweater will be despatched in 7-10 days. There’s no stock sitting on the shelves tying up capital and no unnecessary energy use. It is very much an idea for the time.
I applaud the efforts of Dominik and Stuart and their teams. It is with a twinge of sadness, however, that I acknowledge they have done the right thing by going for the direct-to-consumer route rather than following a traditional wholesaling model.
Can wholesaling a new brand still work? I always enjoy reading your reactions to these columns.
Image of Eric: Copyright, Laura Lewis