The Best of Protection
The globally recognised inventor and premier supplier of waxed cotton, British Millerain supplies many of the world’s best known brands
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
You might not have heard of British Millerain. However, I am pretty confident you will have come across Barbour or Belstaff – just two of the brands this remarkable firm in Rochdale supplies. A sixth generation family business, it has been in the business of producing waxed cottons and canvas since 1880.
Originally producing heavy duty cotton for sails, British Millerain soon expanded into supplying its treated canvas to the Army for tents and early on in its existence took out a number of patents over various finishes it had developed to prevent rot. Though the firm did not originally deal in clothes, from its earliest days supplying fishing fleets, the fishermen had cut down worn sails and turned the robust and weatherproof cloth into jackets and very quickly other weaving mills began to see the usefulness of the unique finish this small firm offered.
By the end of the 19th century, British Millerain were the acknowledged experts in waxed cotton. “We are globally recognised as the inventors of waxed cotton,” says James Keeble, the current Managing Director, “and today we are the world’s premier supplier of this heritage textile. British Millerain has been supplying Barbour for over a century so these two, to this day family owned, firms retain a close long term relationship. Over the 20th and 21st centuries, the clothing and lifestyle oriented production the firm manufactures for many global brands has grown to currently sit at 80 per cent of its output.
Being shown round the factory floor by James, the scale of operation in Rochdale is clear to see; from the huge rolls of cotton to the stenter machines which add specialist coatings to the materials and the waxing machine for the cotton, British Millerain is dyeing and finishing fabric on an industrial scale for clients around the world. As well as owning a unique cotton waxing machine that has been carefully customised, James also points out so much is down to the knowledge and experience of the firm’s employees, “many have been here for years and are the people who have refined and experimented with the settings and various treatment dips to the point where the result is truly bespoke to us.”
Looking at the cotton waxing machine, James explains the cloth can go through differing combinations of wax when dipped. Combined with the nipping process that can leave more or less proofing on the cloth can mean a smoother or waxier final product. British Millerain adds various different finishes using the stenter machine – some are industrial and military canvases which are dipped in customised chemical mixes to give rot, fire and water resistance. Other fabrics for the fashion and apparel arena are coated or laminated. In each case, the final stage is the passing of the fabric through the various ovens at a carefully controlled speed and temperature to fix the finish.
Despite the large percentage of its work being lifestyle related, British Millerain still does a variety of industrial and technical fabrics as well as occasional work for the British Army, “we find military work very tender driven,” James remarks, “as a firm you often have it for four to five years then its put back out to tender.” Many of the high tech and high performance fabrics developed for these realms are put through their paces in the firm’s lab. Here, everything from tensile strength to fire retardancy and hydrostatic water pressure (how waterproof it is) is tested. Even abrasion resistancy can be measured for demanding biking apparel manufacturers. With the current strength of the made in Britain ethos, James is seeing many brands come back to UK manufacturers for that transparent quality and the comprehensive testing that comes with it, “at one point, brands defaulted to Asia – especially for treated man made fabrics – but people want to know the origins of their clothing and the story behind it,” he comments, “this is our history, our strength and made in Britain is an invaluable marketing tool for us.”
Over the past 20 years James has seen a huge rise in the popularity of waxed cotton, especially as British Millerain has developed washable and dry wax options for the lifestyle marketplace. The firm has a thriving overseas market with 70 per cent of production being made for export, though alongside the US, the UK makes up the two biggest individual markets. When asked why the step change in popularity of waxed cotton has come about, James points to three areas; it’s environmentally friendly qualities, the increasing number of designers using it and the number of young brands that have come into being in recent years.
Even when treated wax cotton is bio-degradable, it does not contain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) – in the process of being banned by the EU – or other nasties, and is a completely contained system with no water or chemical wastage. Interestingly as a side note, when going round the factory floor, James explains that cotton has certain small fire resistant qualities. When it burns it chars and this charring provides a small barrier of protection to the wearer, “natural materials have been around for thousands of years and have evolved to have these marvellous qualities,” he smiles, “brands are seeing the inherent excellence of natural fibre.”
Wax cotton has also moved away in recent decades from a specific link to country and biking wear to wider fashion with designers ever keener to use bright colours and being drawn to the rugged aesthetic – even the fact it can be treated and cared for is a selling point, a wax cotton garment in time gathers a life of its own. If you look after it, it will look after you. James also gratifying remarks that British Millerain has seen their custom evolve from a smaller number of larger clients to a much wider spread of firm size, some of whom may only be after 20 – 30 metres of material. The firm keeps a large stock of its top 10 materials in a wide range of colours (between two and ten km worth for the very popular) and allows a smaller brand to order as small a sample as three metres. “Seeing these new firm is great,” James enthuses, “and as we are able to provide for them we can establish a relationship with them early on. You never know in eight or nine years where that small brand might be…”
From traditional to multi-layered finishes and their latest generation, blended dry finish Tekwax® range there is a comprehensive selection available to the modern international client. Wax cotton’s popularity amongst fans of this most British of outer layers is also clear in the rise of the firm’s social media, “it is massive and growing, we have a loyal following on Instagram as well as being across Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. It has got to the nice point we will be looking to hire a social media assistant to drive this,” James comments.
Melding the best of British heritage with world leading research and development, “we constantly invest in product development and continuous improvement,” reports James, British Millerain continues as another beacon of UK manufacturing and craft excellence.
Riddle’s road trip was generously supported by Jaguar Land Rover with the kind loan of a Jaguar XF R-Sport Saloon (RRP from £35,735) #riddleroadtrip