Sunday, 18 March 2012


James Dyson (in Mini, above), David Bailey, Zandra Rhodes, Richard Rogers, Barbara Hulanicki and Ron Arad on their favourite British design objects (Observer)

Photo by Richard Saker for The Observer

Monday, 12 March 2012


The Alfred Dunhill factory in Walthamstow, East London, employs several master craftspeople. Rick Read is one of them. Above the main factory floor, in a quiet, well lit room, Rick creates bespoke items of great beauty.

Rick, who hails from south of the River Thames, has worked for Alfred Dunhill for ten years. He started his career in 1966, since when he has created products for the likes of Tanner Krolle and Chanel. Rick served his apprenticeship at Marshall and Company. He explains that company's demise, "they did desk sets and the like. Since desk sets have fallen by the wayside, so have they. More's the pity."

With companies such as Marshalls going out of business and the likes of Tanner Krolle being brought out (by Alfred Dunhill), many of the employees at Alfred Dunhill have worked for a variety of household names. It strikes me as being a very similar story to that which I heard at Globe-Trotter.

We talk to Rick about some of the items he has made over the years. He tells us of his pride at seeing Tanner Krolle briefcases still being used by business people on the tube. The items he makes are made to last.

The reason that the items which Rick and his colleagues make last so long is the attention to detail and understanding of materials. Rick talks us through the prototyping process, where items are mocked up in a cheap material called 'salpa'. "It’s very cheap, you can make the job up, get the proportions right, send it back to the designer, they can draw on it, cut it, do whatever. We’ll probably do another in salpa to check it’s right. Then we’d do one in old leather before the final one in proper leather."

The proper ones are very impressive. Flawless leather goods that are the result of Alfred Dunhill's exacting standards in materials, the craftsman's skill and understanding the customer's needs. Rick tells us about a recently made alligator skin wallet: "It came out so well… It’s like anything you do, if you make the smallest mistake, you’re doing some decorating indoors say, your eye goes to it (the mistake) straight away. This wallet… it was pukka! Spot on. So good he (the customer) wants another one."

While leather goods continue to attract healthy sales, other items no longer have the relevance that they used to. "There were 300 craftsmen making pipes at one point here. You used to go to the football years ago and everyone would be wearing a cap and smoking a pipe!" The pipe business does still exist, under the name White Spot.

Conversation moves on to apprenticeships and education. "All the guys downstairs are all long serving, it’s very hard to get anyone new to do crafts," Rick tells us, "I think the reason is that it costs a lot of money to train someone up and there’s nothing to tie them to that company. They could finish their apprenticeship and go ‘I think I’ll try this on my own’. They could take their skills away. It’s up to the company to make it worthwhile staying."

Rick tells us that he is to retire in a couple of years. They are already looking for his replacement - it is a long process to find the right person. "People want the big bucks. If you go on to an apprenticeship you need to be prepared to be on a low income," Rick says. The person in question would need to 'gel straight away' in the small workshop that Rick shares with Tomasz Nosarzewski (who has taken up a kind of residency over the last year or so at Bourdon House, Dunhill's Mayfair HQ in order to bring the craft closer to the consumer). "They don't need great skills," Rick continues, "it's just a particular fit."

I suggest that it could be tough to find that elusive person, what with the required skills not being taught in schools as they used to be. Rick nods. "The school I went to – there was a drawing office, there was a metal workshop, a wood workshop, a forge… all of these things pushed you in that direction if you weren’t academic. But to do this you have to know drawing, you have to know measurements… you need to know quite a bit before you can actually put those skills in to the hands and do the job."

We talk about the difference between making and designing. "There was a college in Hackney, Cordwainers. But it has moved more towards design… everyone wants to be a designer you know? Design to me... ideas just keep coming around and around. The amount of times I hear someone say ‘oh, we’ve got a great idea, look at this’ and I think ‘oh yeah’ (Rick rolls his eyes) … ‘I think that’s in the cupboard at the bottom!’ These things, they come around, get tweaked up." He has a point.


All photos by Robin Mellor

Sunday, 11 March 2012


In a week dominated by Nissan's good news, this is a decent overview of the current situation in UK manufacturing (FT)

Monday, 5 March 2012


In Walthamstow, East London, nestling among a warren of roads that feature a mix of terraced houses and new build flats are a set of industrial warehouses. They are the kind that you can see on the outskirts of most British towns and cities.

Clad in brown corrugated iron, with little clue as to what occurs inside, the premises of Alfred Dunhill are as modest as those that you might expect a double-glazing warehouse to occupy.

For this visit I am accompanied by Robin Mellor, a photographer who has a great eye for capturing the beauty of craft and the people behind it. It turns out to be the perfect visit for us both, as the craftsmen and women of Alfred Dunhill are an outgoing group who are at ease both in conversation and in front of the camera (several of them had been in a studio the day before to have their portraits taken for ‘a book’. Clearly, there is great interest in them and what they do at present.)

Steve, the factory manager welcomes us to the factory and shows us around the raw materials store. We learn how the ordering system works. With the bespoke nature of much of Alfred Dunhill’s leather goods, some stock items can take up to six months to come in.

“We’re using products which are raw, natural materials. We use the skin of a cow, a by-product of the meat industry,” Steve explains. “We use vegetable tanned skins. We get ours tanned in Belgium now. The cattle there are slaughtered at around 18 months. They use cattle from around Scandinavia as they believe them to be better quality – there’s no fences so you get less marking from barbed wire.”

We move to the scanning table where Steve shows us how a skin is measured. With just 5% of the skin being up to scratch for Alfred Dunhill’s products, it is a meticulous process.

Alfred Dunhill’s standards are exacting. Other companies will use a lot more of the leather that they buy in, but here, if it doesn’t match the lofty requirements it is not used.

“You’re familiar with the saying ‘dressed to the nines’?” Steve asks us, “That was brought about by the fact that if you wanted a really good suit it’d take nine yards of material to make it. But you could make a suit out of two yards. That’s the difference here too.”

We’re left wondering what happens to the waste leather. It gets scrapped. We’re told that the pieces are so small they would not be of use to anyone.

Next we hear about the initial stages of making a product. Two samples are made of each item that is produced. One goes to Alfred Dunhill HQ, the other stays in the factory for reference. “Because of the amount of different products we make, and that we make very small quantities of them, we might make some now and some again in six months time, in that time you’ll have forgotten what it looks like,” Steve explains.

Looking up at the shelves, there are lots of solid looking wooden boxes. Steve tells me that they are used to cover when building attaché cases. “There is a minimum order of ten of those wooden boxes. We might only want one. It’s a bit of crazy situation but that’s how we’ve ended up with a load of them.”

“It’s the same with leather. We get an order come in and we need a hundred square foot. The tannery won’t sell us a hundred square foot, it’s a minimum of three hundred square foot. We end up with a load of different colours on the shelf. That could be left here for ages.” Clearly, these are the lengths that a luxury brand has to go to.

Before moving out of the raw materials store Steve tells us about the difference in English and Belgian leathers. Bridle leather was the original leather that Alfred Dunhill would use in producing its items. Over time, a whiteness (called ‘bloom’) appears on the hide. “When they tan bridle leather they use lots of fats and oils so that they make it waterproof. What happens is that the white keeps coming to the surface. If you keep brushing it it comes back to its original colour again,” Steve tells us.

“A lot of customers felt it didn’t look very nice where the bloom was coming up. So we changed the leather slightly. This leather was tanned in England, we started using the leather from Belgium which doesn’t bloom. That’s what we use most now. Some of our customers still want leather that blooms. So we developed both – a customer would come round and say ‘can I have a leather that doesn’t bloom?’ so we developed that. Invariably someone else will ask for leather that does bloom. So we do the two.”


All photos by Robin Mellor

Sunday, 4 March 2012


Mark Adams of Vitsoe on why 'Recycling is a Defeat' - a fascinating speech (Vitsoe)

'Make little and make often: ideas for the future of manufacturing in the UK' from Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (Designswarm)

"The UK has failed to capitalise on its rich manufacturing heritage," says German manufacturer (Independent)

Hiut Denim (in Wales) has started production and they have a factory cam. There is also lots of other interesting material on the site to explore (Hiut Denim)

An interview with Ally Capellino (Norse Store)

The Lost London Flickr page highlights some buildings that have since been demolished, including the Forman salmon factory in Hackney Wick (Boat Magazine)