Wiry, wild-haired and encased in a giant wax jacket, Daniel Harris is digging through a box of samples, brandishing a pair of fabric scissors the size of a machete. His audience, wearing a faintly bemused smile, is the representative of a major Japanese buyer, and a potential client, in what passes for Harris’ office—the only square of empty space at the dead center of the London Cloth Company’s East London workshop.
If Harris is on the verge of a sale, it is far from obvious. The customer, Harris explains later, has long been an important power broker between the capitals of Europe and Asia, a fixture in Milan. Now she sits amid the airborne dust, an island of measured calm in the midst of the unrestrained lunacy of Harris’ shed. He buzzes back and forth, finding samples, visibly restraining himself from another long digression as he answers her questions on the capacity of his tiny factory, and shows off his jacket, the product of another venture some years before. It includes a concealed pouch for an Oyster Card—the smartcards used on London transport—and a pocket containing a two-pound bus fare.
Confronted with the ingenuity of its design, the buyer’s skepticism starts to soften.
“You are your own best asset,” she says, sounding almost convinced, as she leaves down the narrow alley—cluttered with tools, wood offcuts and overhanging plants—that separates the concrete shed from the street.
Using antique machinery, for no other reason than his own restless enthusiasm, Harris has brought textile manufacturing back to London, turning out bolts of tweed from this East End factory. Whether he a neo-industrial revolutionary with a real business plan, or just another quixotic nostalgist, Harris himself seems unsure of.
At the end of each breathless rush of excitement about his scavenging for parts, tinkering with his looms or the industrial history of the town, he snaps back into commercial mode to insist that this is nothing like a hobby. While there is little of the ruthless industrialist in his outward appearance, that he has made it this far suggests Harris is more canny of a businessman than he likes to let on.
* * *
Harris bounds around the workshop like a captain struggling to bring his steamship back under control. Colossal cast iron machinery is lined up along the walls—to the left, something that looks like a giant threshing wheel. With the thick smell of machine oil and dust suspended in beams of greasy light from high, small windows, it feels like the engine room of a steamship. A stuffed fox surveys the chaos from a high shelf on one wall, a squirrel from another. Like his workshop, Harris’s conversation is a succession of tangents that eventually bounce their way back to the point. Free from the enforced severity of a business meeting, he launches off at strange angles.
“Let’s try a praline,” he says, grabbing a box from the top of one of the machines. They were left by a visitor from Virginia, he explains, attempting the accent. “They’re very … American. It’s just sugar.”
A sewing machinist by training, Harris owns another workshop down the road in Dalston which makes custom outfits, sometimes in short runs for clothing retailers or London Fashion Week but often for film and advertising shoots. “We do crazy stuff like Shetland Pony outfits for Stella Artois adverts. I mean, crazy shit. Really crazy shit,” he says.
“Are you familiar with the teenage boys’ deodorant Lynx [Axe in the US]? Their adverts are always the same, man puts on stuff, birds come along. This one, he’s in the jungle, he gets caught in a trap. All of these Amazonians come along, they’re about to eat him then he puts the stuff on. They gave me a brief. It was basically: ‘Can you make an Amazonian stripper’s outfit?’ And we did.”
In Harris’ mind, it seems, moving on to crafted tweed was a natural progression.
“A couple of years ago, I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to make your own bit of fabric and make a jacket out of it?’”
He bought a small, antique loom and set it up in the factory. “It took over the corner, then it took over about two hundred square foot, then 250, then three hundred,” he says. “Then I had to get this place, because it squeezed all the sewing into a tiny space.”
That original loom is in pieces in the corner, but two like it have been salvaged from parts and set up back to back. Another in the final stages of reconstruction is shoved up against one corner.
“I would have more, but I can’t fit them through the fucking door,” he says. “Probably next year we’ll open a second premises just outside of London.”
They are beautiful and ancient machines, works of art as much as pieces of engineering, with scrolling on their moving parts and brass plates half coated in oil and grime. The cloth, too, has a timeless quality about it. Tweed, so long the mark of the upper class outdoorsman, has persisted through its combination of delicate design in rough-wearing wool. Although traditional craftspeople still hand weave it in Scotland and Ireland, their operations have become industrial in scale, churning out vast lengths of the world-famous Harris Tweed daily for sale to tourists picking through Edinburgh’s souvenir shops.
While it is a long way from the cloth’s traditional home, everything about the London Cloth Company is old world, turning out that quintessentially British wool tweed and, apparently, playing into a nostalgia industry that has been growing and growing in the UK, and particularly in London, for years. It is the same industry that has driven the explosion of vintage shops and theme parties, from the roaring twenties to the Blitz. In fashion, it has seen the old hunting, shooting and fishing gear of the gentry—and particularly tweed—flow into the mainstream. The London Cloth Company, tiny as it is, exports to Sweden, Japan and Germany. It has provided material for the steampunk-themed über-boutique Child of the Jago in Shoreditch and for the global machine that is Ralph Lauren. Its small-scale looms make a minimum of thirty meters of cloth, which is just enough for its private clients looking for custom tweed.
“You could get your tailor to make you up a jacket, an overcoat, some cushions or some trousers,” Harris says. “You can get through thirty meters quite easily.”
* * *
There is not a great deal about the London Cloth Company’s head office that ties it to the hipster set. The building itself, surrounded by undergrowth next to an evangelical prayer center, has more in common with the lock-ups and allotments to the east than the clean lines and bright lights of digital agencies and design studios to the west in the fashionable Shoreditch neighborhood.
Regardless, this is manufacturing, here in London, the capital of valueless wealth, where service industries have developed to service other service industries and nothing really gets made anymore. And this is Hackney, a neighborhood in London’s East End where the loss of industry since the 1960s left a vacuum that is yet to be filled. Today it is the borderland between the West Indian and African communities north of Dalston and the Bangladeshi communities that settled around Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. The streets of Banglatown have names bequeathed them by the Huguenots who fled here in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The brickwork on the old factories is dyed with the names of the European Jews who settled in the interim. Each successive generation of migrants took over the capital’s textile industry.
That manufacturing base is almost entirely gone now—the last cloth mill closed in 1910—though the area’s recent resurgence as the hipster heart of London means that it still reeks of old cloth from the vintage clothes sold from Blitz-themed shops and market stalls.
But for all its aspiring hipsters, this is still one of London’s poorer areas. Hackney is, by some measures, the second most deprived part of England, with neighboring Tower Hamlets and Newham not far ahead of it. When the city was shocked by a sudden convulsion of violence in the summer of 2011, streets in Hackney and Tower Hamlets were blockaded with burning trashcans and vehicles, shops smashed and looted.
The gate to the London Cloth Company and the factory door stay firmly locked. In backyard lock-ups and under the arches of the railway that cuts across East London is another traditional East End enterprise: scrap metal merchants, hundreds of them—not all legitimate. Their owners, Harris says, keep a predatory eye on his workshop, which is why a crowbar hangs on a nail by the door.
“I do find that the best way to get rid of them is some dirty language and a crowbar. They are terrible. Even on days when we’ve got a lorry out front and we’re unloading stuff, they will pull up and ask if it’s scrap and they can take it. If you go inside, when you go back there’s people on the tailgate looking in. They are swindlers.”
He looks at the crowbar and deadpans “You can probably tell from my accent I’m a good honest Cockney.”
Harris is anything but. He exudes an infectious old world gin-and-cake enthusiasm in a woven tie and loose green pullover, a private school clip to his voice. The sheer intensity of his energy means that the divergent streams of this quixotic venture seem, counter intuitively, to be pulling together—the unsentimental attachment to industry alongside the nostalgia; the classic design for old-school tailors alongside the bang-on trend products for hipster chic; the eccentric craftsman alongside the committed businessman.
Harris’ factory is small, compared to the huge production lines of looms in Scotland, and his reliance on original machinery more than a century old seems to place it firmly into London’s growing craft scene, which itself is fed by this new nostalgia. Despite the overheated excitement about the new technology incubators housed in the concrete blocks of “Silicon Roundabout,” the muffled boom in manufacturing is rooted in handmade and handcrafted, manifest in craft butchers, craft beers and craft gins. Entrepreneurs in the capital have rebuilt old copper stills, excavated old recipes and made wartime slogans—Keep Calm and Carry On—into ever-present brands.
It is an association that Harris rejects.
“What’s really strange is that everyone says this is a craft thing. This is actually anti-craft. The industrial revolution was about stamping out craft.”
While the doctrine of hipsterdom does insist on the rejection of hipsterdom, standing here surrounded by Harris’ collected arcana from the industrial revolution, it’s clear this is a slightly different kind of craft. The Jacquard mechanical loom, invented in the early nineteenth century, is the foundation of modern textile manufacturing—and also the inspiration for Charles Babbage’s difference engine, the progenitor of the computer.
“Weaving has never changed, the principle of weaving had never changed. All that happened was that we got better and faster,” Harris says. “Nostalgia? With this machine there does come a certain degree of nostalgia, but if you were to look at the modern equivalent, it is the same. It’s just Daft Punk: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger….”
This is mass production, albeit on an antique scale. And while using old machines plays into a sense of British authenticity and lends his company some historical novelty—a word he hates, by the way—it is not what defines the company.
“It’s the difference between careless mass production and considered mass production,” Harris says.
For a moment, he is almost convincing as a serious industrialist. And then the digressions begin. He points out the scratched graffiti on the machinery, left there by its previous operators.
“When the Jacquard [loom] was invented, you used to have this thing called a draw boy. Sounds good, doesn’t it? There would be one person working the loom and there would be a kid on a gantry up above pulling the individual ends up.”
Then, almost imperceptibly, Harris shifts back into the voice of an entrepreneur coolly assessing his return on investment. A new loom, and the complexity of operating the machinery, would have been prohibitively expensive.
“I have no experience of weaving,” Harris admits. “You can’t just pick up a modern machine and make it work, it’s too complicated. These are incredibly simple, and now I’m onto this”–“this” being a giant piece of machinery marked “Huddersfield” that Harris salvaged, a rescue attempt that meant hiring a crane and winching it through the roof of its former home, near Halifax in the north of England. It was dismantled and then shipped—several tons of cast iron—in crates to London. Harris rebuilt it himself, holding the heavy mechanism upright with a small crane while fitting the horizontal bars manually.
“In the 1970s some dick had converted it to a push-button start,” he laments. “There was just stuff missing, so I found one in Halifax and went and stole all of the stuff.”
While he says that he wants to bring in modern machinery, surely, after scavenging, salvaging and rebuilding these, modernity would be boring?
“Everyone says that you love doing this. I’m really over it. I’m really quite over it,” he says, sounding as though he is trying to convince himself.
“Obviously there’s a certain amount of collecting of the stuff and rescuing it,” he adds after a pause. “Rescuing it is a big deal. A lot of this stuff if we didn’t would go to scrap. Scrap is now so valuable.”
And then he is off again, full of childish enthusiasm as he climbs inside the machine, demonstrating the precision mechanism and the complex sequence of cogs and levers that he spent weeks rebuilding. Next he describes in a wide-eyed narrative rush his joy of salvaging in Sowerby Bridge—a town in West Yorkshire in the north of England that once produced the steam engines that powered the textile mills.
“Imagine you’re in Sowerby Bridge and there’s a library and you go out the back and down the hill into what used to be the fire station. There’s a big open door and cobbles for the old wooden fire engines,” he says. “And under the library there’s this huge cavern, one room which floor-to-ceiling must be twenty foot, and then it’s two thousand square foot, empty, and just these huge cast iron columns. And then in there there’s just hundreds of [loom parts]. It must have been a store for something. There was one of these in bits, another of these in bits. I took about one and a half tonnes of it.”
Amongst that scrap was an American machine, made by Crompton and Knowles at the company’s Massachusetts loom works in the early twentieth century.
“Originally patented in 1887. It’s a fantastic example and incredibly rare. I think it’s the only one in the UK…Now we’re putting it back together,” he says, before trailing off with a wistful look. “There aren’t many people in the country who are into this sort of stuff, and most of them are in their sixties.”
* * *
Tweed in some form is always in demand and Harris lives for sewing it—“My favorite thing in the world is putting in double jet pockets.”
A very short line of menswear is a possibility, as is moving into shirting. The expansion plans are many, varied and slightly vague. Harris insists that each is not a digression, but part of a natural progression: from Amazonian bras to tweed cloth, to blazers, scarves and shirts. Eight years of experience in sewing means he has a sheaf of tailors’ patterns hanging up in the corner.
With the looms off and the factory quiet enough for reflection, the scale of the challenge seems huge. Harris seems to shrink in these moments of stillness, when his internal perpetual motion machine stalls. This scruffy workshop seems a strange launch pad for so many ambitions. But then his dynamo begins whirring again and he is off, handling the cogs and flywheels of the machinery.
Whatever he decides, demand is there, he insists. At the very least he has a staff already in place.
“I’ve got an assistant called Janet, who is the head of the winding department,” he says, “and my girlfriend does the website. And we’ve got a cat.”
* * *
Peter Guest is an award-winning foreign correspondent and writer, currently based in London. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and Wired Magazine, among others.
With a passion for story-telling and eccentric people, it was an easy choice for Swedish photographer Sara Elin Nilsson to move to London after a few laps around the globe. Find her work at www.saraelin.com.