“The British knitwear industry was dead.”
But not, it seems in an industrial estate in Harringay, where Albion Knitting Company are spearheading a renaissance of luxury knitting in the UK.
Albion, established by Chris Murphy and Jamie O’Neill in 2014, is the first industrial scale flat knitting company founded in London since the Second World War.
They produce knitwear for premium, design led, luxury brands, offering an increasingly desirable ‘Made in Britain’ product.
But as the knitting industry knows all too well, this hasn’t always been so fashionable. The trade was virtually decimated in the 1990s when companies took to Asia for cheaper manufacturing.
Both Chris and Jamie were part of this wave, moving to China whilst working for now defunct Dawson International, once Britain’s leading luxury cashmere business.
Whereas then they were charged with taking British expertise to China in search of the world’s best cashmere and cheaper labour, they have now brought Chinese skills back to the UK to help set up their factory here.
Chris lived in China for 20 years and still owns Alphatex, the parent company of Albion based in Beijing, but decided to return to the UK when he saw a gap in the market.
“The knitwear industry was dead. Apart from John Smedley, there’s hardly any high-end knitwear in England, so I saw that as an opportunity. I thought if it’s this bad, it can only get better, and somebody needs to start that, why not me?”
Another factor behind his decision was the emergence of a more thoughtful fashion consumer – one that thinks much more about the integrity of a garment, where it was made, who by and under what conditions.
“One or two of my customers at Alphatex were saying to me ‘we love what you do here, we like working with you, but we can’t have so much “Made in China” product’. It’s important for these luxury brands’ image to have European origin knitwear. So I knew from my client side if I could establish a cost effective, superior quality factory in the UK, I knew there would be a market for it.”
However, it’s one step to decide to reshore manufacturing to the UK, but another altogether to decide to base that factory in London.
“When myself and Jamie started this project we thought about where to base ourselves and it would have been cheaper and more convenient to go somewhere around the Scottish borders or in Derbyshire, where there is still a small industry and we could have tapped into that ageing skill base. But we didn’t want to do that.”
Whilst the capital is a creative hub, home to many of the world’s most successful fashion designers, it’s not known for its knitwear manufacturing. So why London?
Chris explains: “We knit for premium, design led, luxury brands. Part of the reason we came to London was to be close to the centre of fashion and the luxury designers who are our customer base. Once we had decided on this business model, we could create a young team.”
The workforce is very young, with the average age being around 28 and many of the employees recent graduates of places like London College of Fashion, Central Saint Martins and Nottingham Trent.
“If you look at the knitwear industry in UK, that’s utterly unique. This (the young workforce) has many positives in that they are open to new techniques and new ways of doing things. As they’re all young people, learning together, this creates a positive atmosphere and I think they all feel excited to be in a fresh, young company.”
Whilst having a young team can certainly bring many advantages, the youth of his team presented Chris with a big problem in that they had to train these young people from scratch.
In a country where most manufacturing skills were outsourced many years ago now, where do you find the skilled personnel to teach these people?
The answer lied in China. Chris decided to bring his skilled workers from Alphatex to teach his London employees and he is keen to stress their importance:
“I moved part of my production back from China to the UK to set up Albion with Jamie, so Albion is really a reshoring of British textiles story, but the only way we were able to do this was through having the support of Alphatex. They have been absolutely crucial to starting this enterprise, without them it would not work.”
Almost all the employees at Albion, at least in the early stages, were trained by Chinese workers from Alphatex. Currently there are still 7 Chinese working in the factory, continuing to train new staff and helping with production.
It is understandable that Chris would speak highly of his Chinese workforce, but I wonder how the young English employees get along with them.
A young apprentice, Berry said: “Even though we can’t actually speak to each other because of the language barrier, we still have a good relationship and I get along really well with them. There’s a lot of show and tell, but they’re very understanding and supportive.”
You sense a fondness and respect for people who have given them the skills to create a career for themselves and secure a job.
It’s something I sense that Chris is very proud of and it is fascinating to hear how all these skills have been uplifted from China, brought to London and used to teach a whole new, younger generation.
Not only is it a good story, it’s also hugely important for the UK economy. With outsourcing in the 80s and 90s, we have almost lost a generation of skilled workers in the UK and no longer have the skill base to teach the younger generation.
I think that’s one of the things that is most to admire about Albion, the fact they are creating jobs for young people and bringing back a lost skill set. Companies such as this are vital in helping the textile manufacturing industry in London regrow.
Their work with young people is also emphasized by a successful apprenticeship scheme. They have two apprentices who they took on through Fashion Academy – based next door – who came into the business almost straight from school.
The apprentices are taught in almost all aspects of the factory from linking and wet finishing to packing. With a small team of around 30 in a factory that can make up to 5000 pieces per month, many of the workers have to handle more than one section of the business.
“Because we’re in one building and have a small team we can’t just have one person doing one job all the time, we have to multi skill and multi task,” Chris explains.
And this is clearly something young people thrive on. Sara, a textile engineering graduate from Iran said: “I love my job, there are no two days the same, each day has different challenges, you can never stop learning.”
Whilst it is the people, their energy and enthusiasm, which really sells the place, you get the sense that the factory itself has been designed with the same passion and spirit.
As soon as you walk into the factory floor, you have to climb a beautiful sculpted metal staircase, where every step incorporates an up-cycled needle bed from a redundant hand flat knitting machine, to reach the showroom and office.
The design of the factory is open plan, transparent and clear, which again seems to appeal to clientele that want a transparent manufacturing process and a product made with integrity.
Chris stresses: “What we’re doing here is high end, smaller volume. This is not a sweatshop turning out 5 dollar tee shirts. We are making very high quality knitwear for the likes of Alexander McQueen and Nicole Fahri.”
Being in London means they can work with these exciting, luxury designers offering them both sampling and production on their doorstep. Although Albion are trailblazers in this sense, in the future, this could prove to be a niche that many more manufacturers attempt to occupy.
In recent times we have lost sight of the fact that design and manufacture go hand in hand; as a designer, you can only be as good as the product your factory produces.
London has a worldwide reputation for its design, but has long neglected the importance of promoting quality manufacturing skills in the capital. If we are to bring textile manufacturing back to London, this mentality needs to change. I believe it is, slowly, and companies like Albion are vital in this.
Find out more about Albion here.