in Depth: An Evening with Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company
“Weavers don’t retire, they die.”
This was one of the many nuggets that Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company imparted to us when we hosted him at one of our series of ‘An Evening With….’ talks. Daniel’s passion for the British Weaving Industry in which he has become fully immersed is huge - as is his personality!
Daniel entertained us with the London Cloth Company story - how it all started in 2011 with the mission to rescue a 19th Century rusting loom in Wales and where they are now, with 8 working looms ranging in age and sophistication. He described much dismantling and reassembling of machinery over the years, the difficulties of expanding a mill within a city that didn't historically engage in weaving (think tiny alleyways), the tribulations of growing a small business (using ping pong tables as cutting tables) and the many trials and mishaps encountered through sheer naïvety.
But creativity sprouted from these struggles. As crafters and makers we know that development comes from just having a go and, however uncertain he was on the territory of setting up a business, Daniel confidently exuded a total mastery of the subject of weaving and it’s history.
Daniel regaled us with intriguing trivia like where the word “shoddy” comes from. Did you know it has roots in ripped up garments being recycled into something else? Or that “mungo” is the fluff that comes from under the loom and is added into spinning. Or the fact that tartan is woven on its side so that when sewn up as kilts the selvedge is at the bottom. Or that we have single-width looms purely because that was a general arm-width until flying shuttle looms came along….
Daniel was very candid about the cost of producing his cloth (a transparency we’d like to see more in the fashion and textile industry). He explained the true cost of raw materials and the complex processes the fibres have to go through to become yarn, and then finished cloth.
“It looked like garbage” was Daniel’s term of endearment for the first cloth they produced. Standards have improved obviously but he modestly says that what they now produce is incredibly standard. Yet London Cloth Co. fabric has been seen gracing Nike trainers, Ally Capellino bags and Boy George’s hat. Commissions from the likes of Tiger of Sweden and Denham offers them fantastic exposure and creates what Daniel refers to as ‘weaving tokens’ - the funds that allow them to pay for the “silly stuff”. By this he means experimentation - collaborating for example with a Hackney pub to create a hand painted wet weave that covered their ceiling, or cling filming cloth and dipping into an indigo vat producing an ikat style finish.
In keeping with this trial and error development of cloth they have also brought traditional rope dyeing techniques to the UK, establishing themselves as the only mill using this method. Rope dyeing is primarily used in denim manufacture as it means that the indigo doesn’t fully penetrate the fibres resulting in yarn that fades over time - giving denim cloth a beautiful patina as you wear it. LCC then take the extra individual step of weaving indigo-dyed cotton yarn with Shetland wool, making their unique Union Cloth.
What is most striking and unusual is that all of the wool used in London Cloth Company’s fabric comes from British sheep, and all of the production happens in Britain too. For example, they take wool from sheep on Sayers Farm in Sussex, have it spun in Halifax up in Yorkshire, weave it down here in London and then have it finished in Scotland. Another example shows alpaca fibre coming from Epping in Essex, and spun into yarn down in Dorset. Or the most magical one (at least to us Londoners) is a little bit of wool from sheep at each London City farm offering up pure traceability. Daniel points out that sourcing can be a little unreliable but it shows the possibilities of wholly British production - if only there was the demand for it. Shockingly, livestock farmers are breeding sheep with wonderful wool but their fleeces are burnt instead of utilised because none wants them!
Daniel gets excited as he talks about the origins of his cloth - Portland is the gingery coloured fleece, Black Welsh is the hardy coarse charcoal grey and Manx produce dark brown. Smaller-scale farms are cropping up that are breeding unusual and native sheep, making a point of sustainability and animal welfare - a perfect example of this is Izzy Lane who rescued a flock of sheep to save them from slaughter or Lesley Prior down in Devon with her 300-strong flock of Bowmont - the UK’s answer to Merino - who supplies Finisterre.
What the London Cloth Company do and do well, is to take standard natural undyed wool yarn and weave it into ordinary patterns. But the interesting part is the whole story. When you take into account the fact that Daniel was untrained in weaving or mechanical engineering when he began this endeavour, the finished product is pretty astounding. From replica 1920’s German stripes to heritage tweeds to the highly surprising indigo denims, London Cloth Company really do offer up something unique - and for the first time, you can come into a shop (our shop!) to buy it by the metre for your own project. Make a blanket, make a giant comfy cushion, make a coat, make a dog bed… whether simple or complicated, you’ve got a story already there in your fabric; a story that harks back to the first sheep bred for wool, and one that embraces the skills passed on through human ancestry.
Ray Stitch is proud to be the only stockists of London Cloth Co. fabric - you can browse our range online or in-store at 66 Essex Road.
Our late night program of events starts up again in September. We have invited designers, innovators and creators from all over the country to come and talk informally about their practice to you! Join us for a drink and an evening of insight, inspiration and discussion - the perfect way to start your weekend. Check out future listings here.