We’ve long been aware of the quality of Sunspel’s made in England tees. Just getting your hands on one immediately reveals a lustrous finish and soft handle that puts them head and shoulders above the competition.
We’d also heard about the long staple cotton yarns used in construction, the fastidious attention to detail and the unrivalled craftsmanship. But these terms are abstract concepts, hard to gauge and difficult to fully grasp without a detailed knowledge of clothing production.
So when we were invited to Sunspel’s factory and design studio in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, we immediately booked our train tickets and revelled in the chance in the learn more about the creation of our favourite t-shirts.
It’s easy to lose sight of our manufacturing heritage down here in Brighton. Our main industries seem to be tourism and digital marketing, the result of which is more coffee shops and vegan brunch spots than seem necessary. So a trip up to Long Eaton was a great reminder that a world beyond cortados and chia seeds exists, a place where businesses and factories still produce tangible products.
We were met at Nottingham station by Universal Works’ founder David Keyte who kindly dropped us at the Sunspel headquarters on his way to another local factory where he was getting knitwear samples produced. Down a road of terraced houses, 200 metres from the banks of the River Erewash was the saw tooth roof of the Sunspel factory, still standing in the same place it has been for over 100 years.
We were met by John Mart, production/sourcing manager, a man who knows everything there is to know about the creation of finely crafted English t-shirts. A veteran of Sunspel for 18 years, he was the perfect person to show us around, explaining the multitude of processes, vast history and product development at Sunspel. After listening to his wise words for even a few minutes, his and Sunspel’s unwavering dedication to quality quickly became apparent.
For instance, Sunspel used to source all of their long staple cotton from Egypt, a country widely regarded as producing some of the finest cotton in the world. But around five years ago, at the height of the political crisis in the country, the Sunspel factory began noticing a reduction in quality. Slight white flecking was appearing, affecting the uptake of dye. The factory ran tests and discovered that the result of this flecking was down to immature cotton being picked before it was ready. Unable to tolerate this dip in quality, they scoured the globe before finally being satisfied with the quality of cotton from California.
Making a t-shirt is a very long, very involved procedure. As well as negotiating complicated geo-political issues when sourcing, what you do with the raw materials once you’ve acquired them impacts on the finished product.
Only long staple cotton, those with individual strands typically around two inches, is used. Everything else is rejected to be used by other clothing manufacturers with less discerning taste. This yarn, smooth and lustrous, is then twisted with another to create a strong, dense weave that takes on dye exceptionally well. Once dyed, the finished cloth is then shipped to the Long Eaton factory ready to be turned into the iconic tees that are beloved by everyone from Bond to Batman.
After an initial inspection (the first of many, many quality control checks), it is handed to a pattern cutter for marking and cutting. Using an extra sharp saw that wouldn’t look out of place in a joiner’s workshop, she cuts each panel, creating the building blocks that will eventually become the finished product.
This stage is crucial as any errors here will throw off production further down the line. These cloth panels are then distributed to several seamstresses, all with a highly specialised set of skills and tools who go to work overlocking, marking and stitching. One particularly fiddly part is the creation and attaching of the collar. First a seamstress cuts cotton into a precise width that is rolled onto a spindle. This roll of two-inch-wide cotton is then taken from one machine and placed onto another that feeds it through a device that folds it neatly before a needle stitches it around the unfinished collar of the front and back t-shirt panels.
The process is quick, intricate and miraculous. An innocuous strip of fabric is turned, as if my magic, into a perfectly formed, beautifully stitched collar. A t-shirt is beginning to form.
After a quick fire rally of stitching, hemming, trimming, steaming and ironing, all that is left is to fold each tee and slip it into its packaging. All along the way quality control checks have been taking place. Fabric is weighed, off cuts are checked for extraneous wastage, time sheets are checked and forms filled out. The finished tees, batched up into boxes, pass through a metal detector to check for any broken sewing needles before a single tee is plucked at random from every dozen or so boxes to be sent to quality control for inspection. A last check in a long line of compliance procedures.
Watching anything get made this intricately is always a pleasure. The cumulative experience and skill of the women who operate the factory floor is remarkable and this translates into a product that really is something very special.
The fact that this type of production has been in rapid decline is even more reason to cherish it. We seem to be proud of our manufacturing past here in Britain, yet we have idly watched it disappear. Rising costs, cheaper international alternatives and an economy more focused on providing the world with financial services than physical products have all been to blame.
But when something is made as good here as anywhere else on the planet, we should all sit up and take notice.
Many thanks to John and Michael for taking the time to show us around the factory floor. Photography: James Hole