“This yarn goes up, this yarn goes down, weft goes through, alternate it, repeat. That’s basically weaving. It’s always been like this.”
There’s something about Daniel Harris’ unfazed character. In 2010, with no prior experience of weaving he bought an old loom from a barn in Wales. In the process of taking the small loom apart and putting it back together again, he taught himself how to weave.
Within a year, he had rescued four more, larger looms from disused woolen mills and brought the machines back into working life. He simply transferred the principles he had learnt on the small loom to understand how the larger ones worked.
By the following October he had become the founder of the first micro mill in London.
Put like this, it all sounds so logical, but going from not knowing how to weave to a mill owner, in the space of a year, is an extraordinary leap.
However, you don’t have to spend long with Daniel to realise his enthusiasm and pragmatism – not to mention a strong dose of courage – enables to him to achieve things others may find daunting.
As he shows me round his Essex workshop, he talks with pace and passion about how each loom works and the types of cloth he is working on. His comprehensive knowledge of all the intricacies of the loom’s working is impressive and humbling.
The mechanical looms are semi-automatic, which means they still require substantial hands-on attention. Daniel wakes one of the looms up and presses a few buttons to get it to jolt into life.
“Can you smell smoke?” Daniel asks as he presses one of the buttons. I had to admit there was a whiff in the air.
As Daniel reverses the loom, a large puff of smoke comes out of the motor. I ask nervously if this is bad news. Unfazed, Daniel explains how he will simply replace it with another part – a process that I prefer not to contemplate.
This was really a stark reminder that as romantic as a micro-mill sounds, there is a lot of work and money that goes into maintaining it and Daniel is constantly having to make repairs.
However, “you can’t really buy the parts anywhere, so you just have to buy a whole loom”, Daniel admits.
This explains the bits. Having had to buy so many different looms to fix mechanical problems, there are now piles of abandoned metal bits in the corner of the workshop.
I figure this can’t be particularly cost effective. And I realise that in order to make this business work, Daniel must be turning over a decent amount of fabric.
Although the process of threading the loom can take a day more or more, once they are prepared, they can weave around 40m a day.
For me, this kind of productivity highlights the fact that the London Cloth Company is not just a novelty craft business, it’s a working mill.
As a sewing machinist, Daniel has self-funded the London Cloth Company through his sewing, running and the mill and his sewing studio at the same time.
In today’s society where we are all driven towards London, big business and profit margins, it’s refreshing and inspiring to see someone with the courage and knowledge to live their own life on their own terms.
“The small life” as Daniel calls it.
There’s a lot to be said for the small life, and although quite clearly this is not a path Daniel has chosen for the money, his commute alone – on a beautiful emerald Rayleigh – from Epping station and into the countryside makes it seem worthwhile.
And after all, this is an industry Daniel really cares about. Not only does he have a personal interest in revitalising Britain’s manufacturing industry, he is also passionate about British fibre.
Daniel shows me a pile of cones in beautiful indigo and natural cream shades.
“This is wool that’s all come from London.” He went round all the London City Farms and collected the fleece from their sheep, then sent it all off to be spun and dyed, and is now weaving the wool into a special cloth.
It’s not the highest quality wool you’ve ever felt, with all the different sheep breed’s fleeces being spun together, but it does say a lot about Daniel’s enthusiasm for British textiles.
There is no profit in the project, in fact, I imagine there’s a considerable loss. However Daniel’s motives are geared towards proving that it is possible to create textiles here in London. It reminded me of the Grow a Garment project, which we undertook a couple of years ago. Both these projects are about connecting people to their local environment, making them reflect on the value of cloth and where it comes from.
He is also passionate about offering bespoke cloth to smaller designers. Because Daniel’s looms are more versatile than their modern counterparts, being capable of weaving anything from boucle to suiting, and small margins that mean that his cloth is affordable, he is able to work closely with smaller brands on unique fabrics.
Daniel’s future ambitions are to make his studio more open to public and he seems very interested in the educational aspect of the business. He would like more of the local community to see his work and run tours.
“We used to do lots of open days when we were based in Clapton and people passing by would just come in” he explains.
Whilst Daniel maintains the Clapton workspace, most of the looms are now based in the Essex workshop, due to the lack of affordable space to expand into in London. Being out in the countryside means he no longer has the footfall of London.
However, Daniel wants to attract more people to the workshop, “put barriers up, have the looms running and show people round. Almost like a living museum.”
Daniel makes the perfect museum guide; his enthusiasm infectious and knowledge endless. Whilst showing me how the Dobcross loom works, Daniel kindly shows me the precise spot to stand, to make sure I don’t get killed as “that’s the most important thing”. Now I understand the need for barriers.
The looms take a while to warm up, but the sound of the machines pulsing is thrilling and watching the yarn transform into patterned cloth is something quite magical.
It seems apt that from all the clatter of this huge machinery, emerges something as beautiful as Daniel’s fabric. And, in a similar way, I feel encouraged that amongst the tumult of the fashion industry, appears someone as passionate about British manufacturing as Daniel.