Like most modern cities, London’s economy relies primarily on the financial and service industries for its business. Factories that once churned out everything from aircraft engines to railway tracks today stand as converted offices and residential space. The symbol of this transformation is Battersea Power Station – a thrusting icon of London’s industrial landscape, currently transitioning into a slick retail park and luxury apartments. As this industrial-age giant succumbs to the technical age, it could seem that London’s manufacturing industry has drawn its last breath. However, tucked away in a corner of North London, a tiny island of industrial Britain is still pulsing and chugging away – a blur of spinning spools of thread and pounding machinery. The workshop is home to The London Cloth Company, an independent micro-mill using vintage looms to weave high quality fabrics that are snapped up by the fashion industry.
"Tucked away in a corner of North London,
a tiny island of industrial Britain is still
pulsing and chugging away"
Founded in 2011, the mill employs just three weavers, one of whom is founder Daniel Harris, who works tirelessly pressing peddles, fixing glitches and guiding threads. “The machines are semi-automatic and when they were new, one person was expected to run six of them,” explains Harris. “Today, I only run two at a time as that’s quite enough - there’s so many things you have to keep an eye on.” The looms date from between 1870 and 1970 and sourcing these neglected machines is a challenge for Harris, who travels the country hunting for vintage looms he’s heard about through word of mouth.
Harris’s job is also made challenging by his decision to exclusively use mechanical looms. In the 1970s, mills updated their machinery by throwing out original mechanisms and integrating electric ones. As a result, assembling a purely mechanical loom today requires contributions from several other machines: “For every loom we run, it probably took at least two to make that work,” says Harris. “One of our looms has a tiny feeler called a weft stop motion. It’s made of four parts and every single part comes from a different loom.” Given that the process of constructing and maintaining these old machines is so complicated, the inevitable question looms – why bother?
"For every loom we run, it probably took four
to make that work"
For Harris, the answer to this is quality: “They’re slow by modern standards and harder to use, but the older looms are very versatile and weave at a lower tension so you can achieve a better warp and weft coverage.” Harris’s mechanical looms also offer an extra level of detail to his customers: “If you look at a standard scarf, you’ll notice a tiny feathered edge running down the side of it. This is because the manufacturer has woven six scarves on one loom and cut them into strips. However our scarves are woven individually and have a beautiful clean edge. It’s a nicer finish and it’s not as common, which makes it special.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of what Harris does – his heroic persistence with temperamental machinery, his disregard for obstacles that would phase others (“I had absolutely no training in weaving, I had to teach myself everything”) and his determination to carve his own path. He became the only company in the country to weave indigo – a cotton warp with a wool weft that sells to brands including Ralph Lauren. However, Harris is no cottage industry eccentric. “I have quite a different approach to other homegrown brands,” he explains. “Some craftspeople only sell a very small amount of products for a lot of money, and while I respect that, I don’t believe that will build a company with any kind of longevity. For me, it’s about doing something high quality and doing it very well. This idea of ‘bringing it all back to Britain’ isn’t going to succeed unless you’re willing to work on a larger scale, because we’re part of a global market now.”
"For me it's about doing something high quality
and doing it well"
This ambition has meant that despite being a relatively small operation, The London Cloth Company fulfills orders for the most demanding names in the industry, from Daks, Tiger of Sweden and Hardy Amies to more unusual commissions, creating fabric for artist Martino Gamper and the costumes for an entire cast of an opera in Dresden. Always with one eye on the future, Harris plans to continue to expand his operation.“The next progression will be making the fabric and also the clothes. There’s only one other company in the whole world that operates a completely vertical process, and it would be amazing if we could do that too.” If Harris’s success so far is anything to go by, this could soon be a reality.
For more information on The London Cloth Company, visit: www.londoncloth.com