A Very English Warp and Weft
The in-house shop window to some of the UK’s most illustrious weavers, Standeven is seeing the continuing surge in popularity of English cloth – the world has woken up to the fact it can’t be beaten
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
English cloth remains sought after around the world. The country’s expertise in cloth weaving and finishing goes back centuries and many of the industry’s most esteemed names can trace their lineage back to the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Among them is Standeven Fabrics; its founder John W Standeven began his career in 1819 before founding his own company in 1885. Today, the firm is part of Luxury Fabrics Ltd sitting alongside other renowned cloth weavers such as John Foster, William Halstead, and Kynoch. No longer an active stand-alone weaver, Standeven was re-launched in 2014 as the in-group marketing agent dealing specifically with cut length cloth for tailors; as Marcia Jennings, the firm’s managing director puts it, “we are the shop front, the merchant to our mills to enable them to show off their range and expertise.”
Behind Luxury Fabrics Ltd in turn lie the family owned SIL Holdings and the group’s finishers, Roberts Dyers & Finishers, and combing specialists such as George Ackroyd and the Cashmere Combing Company. Joshua Ellis cashmere is also part of this larger group as a standalone limited firm – it also weaves Escorial cloth on behalf of the New Zealand luxury wool brand. Among Luxury Fabrics Ltd’s brands, John Foster has a history dating back to 1819 being well-known in Japan for its worsted suiting and William Halstead – still weaving in their original mill buildings – is esteemed as one of the world’s premier mohair weavers. Part of the larger SIL Holdings stable is Kynoch; based in the Scottish borders and with a history going back as far as 1788, the house design and produce a range of tweed, two-colour twist suitings and country flannel, any of which Standeven is able to offer giving a comprehensive and multi-faceted selection of small run cloths.
Standeven also acts as the sole distributor and partner for suiting made from Escorial wool. A rare wool, it comes from sheep with a blood line dating back to the 15th century when they were the property of the Spanish Royal family. Today, a very small number of farms in New Zealand and Australia breed and shear these remarkable animals. The wool is highly resilient; the fibre itself is like a curled spring, the cloud like wool is so fine it cannot be given a super number (the indicator of the wool’s fineness in combination with the overall thread count per inch) as the threads are elliptical rather than oval and the micron cannot be accurately measured.
The allure of cloth is tactile, it is in the feel, weight and sensation. Chatting with Matthew Simpson, the managing director of William Halstead, over the past 15 years the market for English cloth has continued to grow strongly, “people are seeing the intrinsic quality of our cloth.” British cloth tends to be constructed in a more robust manner than other European mills, there is an emphasis in two-fold yarns in the warp and weft that gives it its unique body. This body is what brings many of the continent’s luxury clothing brands to these shores. Allied to this body, English expertise in finishing, “can allow the same piece of cloth to be finished in two completely different manners,” Matthew comments.
Given Standeven’s focus on cut lengths for tailors, its market is somewhat more tightly focused than many of Luxury Fabrics Ltd and SIL Holdings weavers. Large orders are dealt with by the individual brand, be that for example John Foster, Kynoch or William Halstead, so it is unsurprising to hear Matthew remark that at bulk order level, “we are very export led.” There are increasing and very welcome signs that Chinese firms are beginning to appreciate the quality of English cloth as opposed to the Italian equivalent, this is closely connected with the increasing interest by the middle classes in China in “stealth wealth” brands and understated quality which Britain has historically excelled at. The main drivers of this success are, “the level of product, our history and the service we can give,” remarks Matthew. Standeven’s reach is to those western countries with a history of bespoke tailoring, though given their adoration of all things English and their love of precision, the new up and coming tailors in the Far East will doubtless prove to be an eager and highly demanding market in the future.
With this demanding clientele, it is critical for all parts of Luxury Fabrics Ltd and SIL Holdings to work seamlessly together; from the initial swatch that Standeven takes into a client through to a larger sample or repeat house order that needs to be rapidly fulfilled, there is the need for consistency and continuity in what is put before a client – and their customers in turn. This goes hand in hand with the requirement to know the client, nurture a long-term relationship with them and understand what cloths work and why which Standeven’s representatives spend much time and care in.
Supplying to tailors enables Standeven to keep a careful eye on cloth and style trends, William Field, the house’s London sales representative sees sharper, bolder colours becoming ever more acceptable and popular, “it’s a form of escapism but also shows that men are starting to become more confident and individual in their choices – especially when they are making the substantial investment into bespoke they want exactly what they deem best expresses their personality.” After many years of being cast aside as the preserve of 1980s stockbrokers, Will also sees pinstripe and chalkstripe making a quiet comeback; given these patterns can range from the very understated to cheerfully obnoxious, as ever more informed bespoke and made to measure customers seek just the right cloth, it is good to hear this classic English suiting is regaining fans.
At the other end of the cloth process, being taken round Stanley Mills, the Bradford weavers who make for the various Luxury Fabric Ltd’s brands, the advantages of having SIL Holdings behind them is clear, for example there has been a formalised apprenticeship scheme across the group for a decade. Six staff are currently going through the three-year programme on both the design and production sides of the group, as Marcia stresses, “there is the critical requirement to keep these skills alive at all stages of the cloth process and maintain our ability to supply whatever our clients ask of us.”
Standeven offers a shop window to peruse an incredible selection of cloth whichever part of the parent group you eventually opt for, be it a John Foster worsted or Kynoch tweed. With vertically integrated supply lines behind it as Marcia says, “it’s all about supplying the customer and the pride in seeing the ultimate garment look its very best.”