Dan Harris of the London Cloth Company keeps the weaving history and lore of this country alive in his small workshop
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Hidden away on an obscure industrial estate near North Weald airfield in Essex lies a den of cloth weaving history. Founded in 2011 by Dan Harris, this small Nissen hut housing the London Cloth Company not only keeps the art of weaving alive, but, due to Dan’s passion, it is also a veritable parade of the looms this country has used since the early 19th century. “I’ve found many looms – or bits of them – all over the place” he recalls, “even one under a council swimming pool!” His oldest loom – and also his first procurement – dates from the 1820s.
Whilst he had always had an interest in weaving, Dan actually trained and has a degree in sewing. After taking on a large number of freelance sewing contracts, around 2009 he began to look at the possibility of making his own cloth; it was in many ways a natural extension of what he was already doing. Fuelled by his natural inquisitiveness and learning as he went, Dan sourced his looms from across the UK, from North West Scotland to south Wales and Ireland. One he had his eye on had to be craned out through the roof of its old home. Given their age and condition, he has had to buy a number of looms to cannibalise, “to build the three main looms in the workshop, I had to buy seven” he ruefully remarks. This is certainly a passion that has its challenges: as Dan disarmingly puts it, there are three phrases in constant use at the London Cloth Company, “Really…,” “What the fuck….,” and the plaintive, “Well… it worked when we bought it……!”
Much of this country’s success at weaving lies in a number of critical early 19th century inventions. Dan points to one in the 1830s which radically altered the scale of the cloth industry, the weft fork that allowed one weaver to suddenly begin to run multiple looms. Cloth making then moved from a cottage level industry to being commercially viable and beyond that, profitable.
Today, Dan runs three looms day in day out, two of which are double flexible rapier looms able to produce up to 60 metres of cloth per day. One of his looms, from 1966, remains in excellent condition but, given the constant irritations of old machinery, when everything is working he tends to push through on orders, “if it’s running just don’t stop” he smiles, “my “happy sound” is the sound of working looms.” Dan weaves his cloth at quite low tension, called undersetting. On completion, it needs to be sent away to be washed and finished; the cloth will shrink down in the finishing process. This means the colours on virgin cloth are frequently quite dull and the finish much coarser. This has actually proven very useful for many of the London Cloth Company’s clients. Dan does a lot of work with film and television studios wanting authentic cloth for period dramas. Two companies, in Huddersfield and Galashiels, finish the cloth, one specialising in woollens and one for suitings.
Dan’s unique fabric is a naturally rope dyed indigo suiting, in both herringbone and twill. He finds his core customer is after men’s coatings but he is able to do any bespoke order. He has worked with a number of high profile clients including Ralph Lauren (his second ever customer), Daks and Hardy Amies. Smaller brands include Ally Capellino and the Dutch brand Denham. Whilst gratifying, working with large brands does have its downside. Frequently large clothing conglomerates will have a number of offices and stakeholders involved in the process as well as multiple factories needing the resulting order. One of the things Dan stresses, like so many in the bespoke industry, is that, “many customers are just overawed by the possibilities of having their own unique cloth.” As well as clothing, Dan weaves a number of cloths for interiors – including some quirky designs such as a copy of the original 1960s Mini seating – and has a small footprint in Japan. He has a stream of private buyers. “It was never my aim to go down a very high priced cloth route” he says, “I wanted the cloth to be excellent quality, traditionally made but affordable – hence the bulk of the suiting the London Cloth Company makes are in the £40 – 55 price bracket.”
Challenges still abound. Cash flow as with any small company remains a constant concern – Dan admits to placing craft over business. The entire process of creating a cloth varies greatly; it can be anything between four and 12 weeks. The actual weaving is complete within three to four days but the design process, ordering yarn and finishing mean the process is never as fluid as it could be. Of concern to him remains the lack of interest shown in manufacturing; he points to some of the cloth factories where he has his cloth finished, “frequently the only other employment option in the town is Tesco’s – yet there appears in this age to be almost a “stigma” against going into a manufacturing trade and people opt for the supermarket” he says sadly. Rather than the pure artisan, it is this craft workforce where the most grievous gaps are in this country.
Throughout, he dislikes the term artisan. Dan rightly argues his is an “industrial craft”, small but nonetheless manufacturing in bulk rather than purely individual creations. There is also the strong sense when at the London Cloth Company that it is attempting to retain historic knowledge, a store of weaving lore that goes back to, and played its part in, this country’s industrial revolution. As part of this, Dan runs frequent tours of the workshop, which have actually proven incredibly popular. The workshop is in many ways a one room museum, dedicated to weaving. Indeed on the visit for this article, a party of American student teachers was also being shown round. Along with the second employee of the company, Beth Cauldrick, who’s been with the company since 2013, Dan remains determined to nurture this marvellous part of Britain’s craft heritage. He is looking to push his online sales, considering scarves and blankets in particular. Those after excellent cloth for a coat or jacket, or those simply curious about a fascinating part of the UK’s industrial and craft history, should head for this weaving Aladdin’s Cave in Essex.