Made in Britain?

Once, Britain ruled the outdoor world. Sarah Stirling charts the fall – and tentative rise – of gear that’s Made in Britain.

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Back in the nineties, Rab revolutionised down jackets in Sheffield, Karrimor constructed rucksacks in Lancashire and Berghaus built Gore-Tex jackets in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Britain was heaving with outdoor gear factories, now long shut. So what happened? Is there any such thing as ‘British’ gear anymore? How much outdoor gear is actually still made here and will manufacturing ever return closer to home?

Imagine the scene: you’re taking in slack from a dynamic rope with your belay device, dressed in a softshell jacket. Your partner places his sticky-rubber rock boot, steps up and pauses to remove the cam from the rock. Consider your luck: once, none of these products were available. Falling while climbing wasn’t an option. Walking in the rain meant getting wet.

Britain’s outdoor-gear manufacturing industry was a key force behind the development of many modern essentials. And, from the sixties till the nineties, it was our Golden Age: Britain was a global superpower in outdoor-gear manufacture and innovation.

This strength was surprising for two reasons. Firstly, it boomed out of nowhere. Unlike the Alps and Scandinavia we didn’t have a heritage of ski and mountaineering manufacture stretching back to the 19th Century, and as far as I could find out, the only outdoor-gear company Britain had to its name until the 60s was a small cycling bag-and-rucksack manufacturing company called Karrimor, founded above a Lancashire bike shop in 1946. Secondly, all the industriousness was kicked off by a few hardcore British mountaineers, who decided to stay in more often and sew.

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Britain in the 50s and 60s was booming. Everyone had shiny motorcars, shorter working hours and more spare cash to spend on their hobbies. More outdoor gear was imported, and it was beginning to get more innovative, too. “We had Millet rucksacks and Pierre Allain’s rock boot from France, Erve down clothing and sleeping bags from Switzerland, Fairy Down sleeping bags from New Zealand, Austrian Dachstein mitts and Norwegian knitwear,” remembers Mike Parsons, whose parents founded Karrimor.

“We used to pay a lot for European pegs and krabs,” added Peter Hutchinson, “or made them ourselves.” What began as a way to save money developed into a business venture: in 1961, Peter founded Mountain Equipment. “When I started up, none of the UK gear specialists were around except Karrimor. I remember the Berghaus lads starting up later.”

The sixties was an era when life’s opportunities were distributed much more fairly than ever before, but still, you had to work for them. Hutchinson began making outdoor equipment to order, from the farm shack he lived in. He recalls Yvon Chouinard, founder of Black Diamond Equipment, flying over from America to check out the British competition: “When he saw this ramshackle outhouse with two dirty guys heating up pegs in the fireplace, I think he realised he didn’t have much to worry about.”

“When I started up, none of the UK gear specialists were around except Karrimor. I remember the Berghaus lads starting up later…”

Soon afterwards, Hutchinson was visited by outdoor retailer Bob Brigham (of the family business now known as Ellis Brigham), got his first trade order for a range of sleeping bags, and moved into new premises in Glossop.

By the 1980s, a variety of UK outdoor-gear companies had cropped up. Fast forward to 1990 and a red-bricked building, Rab Down Equipment, stands a mile outside Sheffield city centre. It’s surrounded by small, derelict factories; once part of Sheffield’s thriving steel and cutlery industries, now long closed. Rab on the other hand, was on the up.

His business, which he’d started from home in 1981, now employed around 20 people; this would more than double before the end. Mostly sewing machinists, plus cutters, down fillers and quality controllers. I spoke to Mark Wilson who worked at Rab for 25 years, longer than even Rab himself. “He was very hands-on and always asking our opinions,” Mark, a former cutter, told me. “Sometimes so many changes were made that a new jacket was designed.”

It was an era of intense innovation, competition and collaboration. Climbers like Don Whillans and Dougie Haston helped design the kit they needed for a new age in mountaineering. Whillans, for example, developed the Whillans Box tent (made by Karrimor), the first one-piece down suit (made by Peter Hutchinson) and the first sit harness (made by Troll).

Me, finding out what it's like to be a seamstress! Making my own bouldering mat at the Alpkit factory

Me, finding out what it’s like to be a seamstress! Making my own bouldering mat at the Alpkit factory

As well as sit harnesses, British company Troll invented sewn slings, and think they were the first to commercially produce chocks. In 1977, British climber Mark Vallance borrowed all the money he could, got the bank to give him a second mortgage, and worked with American climber Ray Jardine to produce the first Friends: Wild Country was born. Wild Country then produced another totally revolutionary concept: curved nuts.

Brits were behind innovations in walking gear, too. Berghaus and Karrimor’s rivalry pushed rucksack design to increasingly high standards. Berghaus famously worked with Gore-Tex (patented in 1973) to create better and better waterproof breathable fabrics, and benefited from Gore’s marketing campaigns in the Sunday papers. Rab similarly collaborated with Pertex.

Now, however, Rab’s factory is boarded up, like Sheffield’s steel works before it. Rab still down-fill their sleeping bags in-house, but nearly all their gear is made overseas. And they’re not alone: there’s a depressingly similar story behind most of our home-grown gear companies. They survived the Thatcher years, weren’t dampened by the Major years but, then, one after the other, most shut down in the 90s.

Like most other Western manufacturing declines, you can trace everything back to the ‘MADE IN CHINA’ labels on all our stuff. In the 1970s, leader Deng Xiaoping’s reforms opened China’s previously closed economy for business with the West, and set the country on the heady road to capitalism. Investors began buying into Britain’s gear companies and offshoring manufacture to China. Staff costs plummeted, and suddenly there was no factory, unions, health-and-safety, machinery or raw materials to worry about. You can see the appeal.

“Yvon Chouinard flew out to check out the British competition. When he saw this ramshackle outhouse with two dirty guys heating up pegs in the fireplace, I think he realised he didn’t have much to worry about…”

Once a few outdoor companies made the move, others felt forced to follow, or risk of being priced out of the market. By the time Rab sold his business in 2004, manufacturing in the UK had become a unique selling point, so the new owners, Equip, considered keeping Rab’s Sheffield factory open. By then, however, times had moved on. China now had more advanced machinery and bigger factories than the UK. Not only was offshoring cheaper, it could produce much larger volumes of product. So, inevitably, Equip moved production overseas and, focusing on design, sales and marketing, they grew the business.

As Western industries faded away, China developed into the ‘World’s Factory’. In Guangdong province alone, more than 30,000 textile companies now employ more than five million people. The industry creates so much smog, that when they close down production in Guangdong for national holidays they get a few sunny days in Hong Kong.

However, there are signs the low-cost, high-reward Chinese paradigm is ending. The country has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and Guangdong is now home to the most billionaires in mainland China.

“We all offshored everything when China was an emerging market,” Jim Evans, one of the founders of the small British outdoor brand, Alpkit, tells me. “Now costs are going up in China.”

Factories generally reduce manufacturing rates per product if offered two things: a bigger order, and longer to process it. So nowadays, to minimise costs, many gear companies have their whole product ranges finalised two years in advance, meaning they have more of it to sell.

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“People used to covet down jackets,” muses Jim. “They were Gucci. You repaired and wore them year after year. Now you hardly ever see old down jackets, do you? People buy a new one every few years.”

We discuss that what began as a push to erode other companies prices has resulted in whole industries being eroded in Britain. It’s also contributed to our disposable society; we have more stuff but place less value on it. And now, as manufacturing prices rise overseas, companies are losing the increased margins they gained by offshoring in the first place. It’s got complicated.

No wonder Alpkit is bringing some of their production back to the UK while they’re still small enough to do so. Alpkit was started in 2004, and made their name through offering value kit at a time when outdoor gear was becoming big business. Ten years on though, the brand are considering changing tack. I visited their airy new warehouse in Derbyshire: open-plan offices, a workshop and showroom, complete with comfy sofas and log-burner. A cheery band of young climbers are making bouldering mats, chalk bags and bike-frame bags. So, how is this step back to the 80s going?

“It’s probably six to ten times more expensive to employ a sewing machinist in the UK than in China,” explains Jim, “But now Alpkit is well-established, we’re more confident it can withstand slightly higher prices. Our aim is to evolve into one of the UK’s foremost brands, as companies like DMM have done, and we see ‘Made in Britain’ as an important element of that.”

“Of course, it’d be cheaper to have products made in the Far East, but imagine if we said to our staff, ‘Right we’ll sack you off and just keep a warehouse here!'” Chris from DMM has a good chuckle…

Once there was an enclave of British factories making innovative climbing equipment in North Wales: HB, Clog and DMM. But DMM, in Llanberis, is now the sole manufacturer of climbing hardware left in the UK. How do they make it work? I called Chris Rowlands, DMM’s Brand Manager, for a chat.

“Of course, it’d be cheaper to have products made in the Far East, but imagine if we said to our staff, ‘Right we’ll sack you off and just keep a warehouse here!’” Chris has a good chuckle.

“Anyway, then we’d just be another ‘Made in China’ brand fighting it out at the lower end. We’ve had to continually reinvest in the blood and guts of the factory – technical processes, machinery – but it’s worth it.”

There are obvious disadvantages to having all your stock made thousands of miles away on another continent. DMM know exactly what goes on in their factory and they’ve trained up a wealth of experience: some of their staff have worked there for 30 years.

“We’ve got more efficient and can still produce karabiners here in Wales at a competitive price,” says Chris. “Meanwhile those who sold out to the Far East have been hit with price rises. Yes, we have to pay proper wages and abide by proper health and safety regulations but we’ve come through much stronger.”

Because manufacturing prices in China have risen, many Western companies have now sought out cheaper labour in countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In 2012, Adidas faced investigations over claims that Cambodian workers were paid as little as £10 a week. A study called ‘Tailored Wages’ published earlier this year reported that many clothing workers earn even less: around £5 a day, in an industry worth billions.

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New guidelines are regularly introduced as part of an ongoing learning curve through unfamiliar Far Eastern cultures, but it’s not always easy to patch problems in distant factories using Western red tape. Last October, 100 companies signed a pact to improve the safety of garment factories in Bangladesh, six months after a building collapse killed 1,100 people.

Around the same time, outdoor-gear companies hit UK papers over claims that geese were live-plucked to fill down jackets. The videos of shrieking birds having feathers mercilessly ripped from them went viral. It emerged that down production involves so many small farms it was near-impossible to trace where it came from. Public outcry led to many companies painstakingly tracing and reforming down supply.

There’s growing public concern about where and how things are made. Not just the conditions of faraway factory workers and down geese, but other aspects such as the environmental impact of transport and pollution problems. And, as more people try to buy products made closer to home, Britain’s gear manufacturing industry seems to be tentatively reseeding itself. Small cottage industries are springing up again in garages and on kitchen tables, growing organically when profits allow.

“There seemed to be a hunger in the climbing community to buy gear made in the UK,” explains Gareth Candlin, who started Momentum Bouldering in 2012, making bouldering pads on an old Singer sewing machine from home. Nowadays, small companies can set up an online shop, Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo accounts and have a powerful marketing tool in their hands, Gareth explains. “One person can effectively be head of marketing, sales and manufacturing. Twenty years ago that wasn’t possible.” But it’s not as easy as it might appear. Momentum Bouldering folded recently, partly because “it takes money to build a reputation”.

Design your own 'Made in Britain' sleeping bag on the PHD website

Design your own ‘Made in Britain’ sleeping bag on the PHD website

Aide Jebb has a few years on Gareth: he founded Blox Climbing in 2009, making climbing clothing and chalk bags in Barnsley. He tells me that, even with the advantages of the web, it’s still very difficult for a start-up to compete with established brands: you can’t offshore small production runs and it’s comparatively very expensive to manufacture in the UK. “You don’t need a lot of money, but you do need a lot of time if you’re going to do everything yourself, and you need to get it right. Don’t expect to become a millionaire, do it because you enjoy it,” says Aide.

Will more brands move manufacture closer to home in the future? Despite the many concerns with overseas manufacturing, it seems unlikely. A report produced by the government last October, optimistically called “Future of manufacturing: a new era of opportunity and challenge for the UK”, revealed pessimistic figures. Nearly 9m people were employed in British manufacturing in 1966; by 2011 fewer than 3m were. Manufacturing processes have moved on apace overseas, making our old factories look like museums.

The government study suggested there could be much more manufacture here if Britain found a niche where it could compete with Asian factories, and suggested high-quality products, specifically-tailored to customer demand, made to order, at speed.

One man is already ahead of the game here. He’s experienced the rise, fall and tentative regrowth of the industry, and learnt a few things along the way. With relief that he’s out of it, Peter Hutchinson recalls the later years of running Mountain Equipment in the 90s: “I found myself with 90 employees, many whose names I didn’t even know. Instead of talking to climbers, I had designers calling me about next years’ colours.”

“This man, who has clothed mountaineers from Dougie Haston to Andy Cave, and celebrities from Madonna and Tom Cruise for film sets, seemed just as keen to make sure every customer had the right outdoor gear for them.”

Peter sold Mountain Equipment shortly afterwards, and set up a small factory in an old mill not far from his original farm shack, called Peter Hutchinson Designs (PHD) in 1997. Since then he’s employed local craft-workers, many of who were made redundant during the offshoring revolution, and sources over 95% of his materials from Europe. How does he make such a sustainable small business work?

The benefits of UK manufacturing were made clear to me recently when a friend ordered a sleeping bag from PHD, and was surprised to receive an email back from Peter himself. “He asked what I wanted the sleeping bag for, and said he wasn’t sure I’d chosen the right one. We ended up speaking for ages on the phone and he came up with various modifications to suit exactly what I wanted.”

Rather than just taking his money, this man, who has clothed mountaineers from Dougie Haston to Andy Cave, and celebrities from Madonna and Tom Cruise for film sets, seemed just as keen to make sure every customer had the right outdoor gear for them. What a service, and one that many people don’t even realise exists, since you don’t see much advertising from the handful of relatively small gear brands who still manufacture in Britain.

It’s a complex situation, but the answer lies in our hands. Next time you need some new outdoor kit, will you scour Amazon for the cheapest deal on a brand made in Bangladesh or will you check first to see if you could get something British-made? Would you be willing to pay slightly more for gear that’s made in Britain, reducing the environmental impact and encouraging the regrowth of a once-great British industry?