A Coat for all Seasons
From humble beginning in the late 19th century to globally recognised British brand, J Barbour & Sons continues to make its iconic waxed jackets in South Shields
Article by Rupert Watkins Factory Photography by Andy Barnham
Few British lifestyle brands have the name recognition of Barbour. Whether a country sports aficionado, biking fan or simply needing the highest quality outerwear, you will have come across this family owned firm that continues to make its most classic waxed jackets in South Shields where the brand was founded by James Barbour in 1894.
Originally from Galloway, John Barbour came south seeing a chance to become commercially successful in late Victorian England equipping Tyneside fishermen and sailors from the worst of the North Sea weather. From the beginning, in the words of the firm’s current head of design Ian Bergin, “wax, quilt and tartan has been in the very DNA of the firm.” Looking through the firm’s archives, it is clear the robustness, attention to detail and quality has been a hallmark of the firm; a riding jacket from the early 20th century was triple fronted to protect against the rain, leg straps allowed the bottom half of the body to be protected and the back lining was deliberately cut high so horse’s sweat could not soak up it – 45 years later, the more or less same coat, still with leg straps, was on the backs of TT racers. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? By the 1950s and the firm’s biking jackets, that Barbour silhouette and feel is obvious and well-known stylistic detailing such as the angled top left map pocket had been introduced.
Barbour’s biking heritage has been a strong part of its identity for many years, indeed this segment was given its independence in 2013 with the launch of Barbour International. More biking and urban oriented, “it had reached a point where it had the character, history and impetus behind it to stand alone,” Ian remarks. All Barbour jackets have always evolved through use, for example the useful hand warmers in many models of jacket were introduced from French shooting coats.
As well as the country life and biking arenas, Barbour has seen military use. Originally unofficially purchased to start off with, torpedo room quilted suits were issued to the Submarine Service during the Second World War after an enterprising boat’s captain, Captain Philips had turned a fire hose on his navigation officer, Barklie Lakin, who happened to own a privately procured Barbour all-in-one driving suit. Impressed, they came to see the then company manager Duncan Barbour and the legendary Ursula jacket (after HMS Ursula) was born. This military usage continued for many decades, including the Falklands War with individual officers commissioning customised combat smocks from the firm’s Special Operations Executive – esque entitled “Department B.”
Over past decade, Ian has seen a clear move towards a more tailored style, “for most customers now the fit is as, if not more important, than sheer practicality.” Being taken round the workshop, even across the firm’s most traditional Beaufort and Bedale model jackets, the women’s variant especially has become more waisted over the past decade. That said, some female customers still want a baggier coat and apparently order smaller men’s sizes. More importantly in Ian’s mind, Barbour has evolved into, in his description, “a classless product.” Even with multiple Royal Warrants and its faintly lingering 1980s connotations with the country and Twickenham West Car park set, it has evolved and grown into a thoroughly inclusive brand that encompasses all ages, interests and income categories.
Despite Barbour’s now distinctive range of interior tartan linings, when the firm begun there was no uniformity – the archives show a wide variety of checks and tartans, “whatever the coat makers could find down the market,” as Ian puts it and it was not until the late 1990s when, in common with some other well-known British brands, counterfeiting became an issue that there arose a pressing need to officially protect the distinctive pattern. The current Vice Chairman Helen Barbour worked with tartan experts Kinloch Anderson to research and copyright one, “there’d always been a slight sense a Barbour tartan had been around for ever; though there was not a specific family one, through Kinloch Anderson we discovered the family had originated from Ayrshire in the 13th century. The Ayrshire District was therefore deemed the most correct and we re-designing our linings based off this pattern.”
Moving onto the workshop floor, the scale of Barbour’s operation is clearly apparent. Waxed cotton arrives from firms such as British Millerain in Rochdale and Halley Stevenson in Dundee and is cut by eye. Mostly in six or eight ounce cotton, the firm has recently introduced a lightweight four ounce for some of its ranges. Any excess is donated to local schools for arts and crafts. The individual jacket travels around the production and is actually produced from the inside out, the jacket “grows” as it were. Many of the seamstresses are trained in multiple operations though they specialise in one; this cross – pollination of skills though gives useful redundancy and means there is a high level of knowledge and self-policing quality control. Though “Department B” is no more, there is a small bespoke team of five who can handle individual requests whilst monogramming is available in Barbour stores. Every jacket has its own code for quality control and tracking purposes which, when considered against the fact 140,000 jackets are made in South Shields’ workshop alone each year is highly impressive.
The Barbour renovations department is well-known for its ability to breath fresh live into the most moribund of wax jackets, as the firm likes to comment, “all Barbours come home eventually.” Jackets up to 35 and 40 years old appear amongst the 14,000 renovations and re-proofings the firm handles each year; in order to open the pores of the cotton, the re-waxing tables are actually heated to 75 degrees to enable the smooth and uniform application of the thornproof dressing. Everyone wants to hang on to and repair a much used jacket; even when The Queen was offered a new jacket by Dame Margaret, the current Chairman, she replied she’d much prefer the firm to give her old one a thorough going over and return it to top line condition. As well as re-conditioning, alterations can also be done by the team of senior seamstresses, when going round the factory one jacket had come home with a request for the sleeves to be lengthened by a somewhat bizarre full 20 centimetres. Aside from a raised eyebrow, the modification was in the process of being speedily and accurately completed.
Since the early 2000s, Barbour has diversified into a cross-product and multiple market oriented lifestyle brand, as Ian comments, “wax cotton just in itself can be very specific, that push to widen our range of offerings has given us a stable business platform.” It is certainly a potent mix of heritage and modern living; whilst the UK accounts for 50 per cent of the market, Barbour reports that its US market is growing and gratifying word of mouth is seeing ever increasing numbers come to the brand in the Far East and China.
With this growth, it has become tricky for Barbour to make all of its products in the UK. In Helen Barbour’s mind though this is not a negative thing, “the quality we offer is all important, we want to find the best factory for the best item. We go and test the factories we want to use – Europe based ideally – and monitor them frequently and rigorously; they effectively become a Barbour factory working to the standards and employee work environment we would expect of a British based workshop.” In an era of uncertainty, she sees the idea of “British made” and “made in England” as being so much more than just a geographical tick, “a British company – “made in Britain” – is so much more than just a phrase, it’s about the mentality of wanting the best, an attitude and focus on maintaining the highest of production standards and expecting the working environment to be faultless.” A British company in her eyes can project its ethos and, indeed, become a positive force in raising standards in other countries.
Barbour has the ambitious vision to become the best global British lifestyle brand by 2020. Looking back over the past couple of decades, Helen identifies a number of clear step changes in how the company has evolved toward being able to meet this punchy challenge, “firstly in the 1980s, introducing blue wax cotton and quilted jackets allowed us to take in a much wider, urban market. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the continued surge in Barbour International further drove differing custom to us whilst retaining that rugged heritage – Steve McQueen was a fan after all – and most recently our shirt collaboration with Scottish Outlander actor and our Global Brand Ambassador Sam Heughan feels like it will result in another definitive stride forward.”
The firm still remains the largest employer in South Tyneside. With Barbour a forward looking, inclusive brand the entire family can wear yet with its 300 strong archive clearly showing just how carefully the firm has evolved in response to customer’s needs and how every piece is intimately linked to its past (the latest Coastal collection being a clear nod to their heritage supplying Tyneside’s fishing fleet), there remains one primary port of call should you need a jacket to take on the worst of this (or any other) country’s weather and that is J Barbour & Sons.
Enquires: www.barbour.com/uk / Factory outlet store, Monks Way, Bede Trading Estate, Jarrow NE32 3HL
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