Business

Jeans manufacturing returns to small Welsh town

Hiut factory
Image caption The Hiut factory uses old sewing machines sourced from Poland

A little over a decade ago, a small town in west Wales was the largest surviving manufacturer of jeans in the UK.

The 400 factory workers at the Dewhirst factory in Cardigan turned out more than 35,000 pairs of ladies' denims a week for stores such as Marks and Spencer.

However, all that ended on 8 November 2002, when the sewing machines stopped and the factory gates closed for the final time.

Factory owner Dewhirst moved production to Morocco to take advantage of lower costs. Cardigan lost its largest employer and many assumed that the town would never again make a pair of jeans.

The closure of the factory doubled the area's unemployment rate overnight, and the decline of manufacturing industry in Wales as a whole left little chance that the skilled workers would get an opportunity to practise their craft again.

'Inundated'

Fast forward nine years and enter David and Clare Hieatt, who had sold their successful clothing brand Howies to footwear giant Timberland in 2006.

They had seen the Dewhirst workers in action in the past and believed that jeans making in the area could again have a future.

Mr Hieatt, a former advertising copywriter, says he thought to himself: "I'm a marketeer and this town can make jeans. If I put those two things together - their ability to make and my ability to sell - then maybe we can get my town making jeans again."

Having decided to set up a new denim brand, he appeared in the local newspaper two years ago and appealed for ex-workers who wanted to make jeans again to get in touch.

He was inundated with offers from former factory workers, most of whom were no longer sewing, but were keen to return.

Lost confidence

"We interviewed in a coffee shop. It was a humbling experience," he says.

Image caption The company's next challenge will be to recruit more skilled machinists

"These women had sewn for so many years but didn't know if they were good enough anymore."

Mr Hieatt initially recruited three machinists and Hiut Denim began trading in May 2011.

"You don't hear stories about manufacturing coming back home very much, and this is one of those," Mr Hieatt says.

"We fought the wrong battle last time - the battle of who could be cheapest - and lost.

"We have 150 years' worth of experience making jeans in this small team. We can't be the cheapest, but we can be the best."

He calls his machinists grand masters in recognition of the time served learning their skills.

One of them, Tracy Jones, worked at the former Dewhirst factory for 12 years. After her redundancy, she managed to continue sewing, though in a factory making equestrian garments. She was thrilled when she was given the opportunity to use her jeans making skills again, although in a more specialised way, when Hiut Denim opened. "This time feels different," she says.

"I feel what I'm doing is a craft, rather than a job. There's even a space to sign my name after I've finished sewing," she says. "I've never done anything like that before."

Top of the range

Hiut's products, currently two different styles ranging from £130 to £230, are aimed firmly at the top end of the industry.

The company began making just 30 pairs of jeans a week and the initial demand caught them by surprise: "We took six months of orders in the first month and were totally unprepared for the level of interest," Mr Hieatt says.

"We didn't do any marketing, other than mentioning the product on social media and in a few newspaper articles. We had to shut the website down until we could catch up."

Hiut was able to increase its staff from an initial five to eight - all former employees of the old factory - and expand production to 100 pairs a week.

The UK jeans market, which was worth £1.9bn last year, is expected to grow by 20% by 2017, according to market research company Euromonitor International.

Much of that growth is expected to come from the two ends of the market: the economy end, which includes retailers such as supermarkets and Primark, and higher priced labels such as Diesel and G-Star.

The factory where Hiut Denim makes their jeans now is based in a small unit, on an industrial estate in Cardigan, not too far from the former Dewhirst premises.

It feels more like a trendy workshop than a location for the mass production of clothing; the walls are clad in reclaimed pine.

The workers sew on a variety of Soviet-style machines, sourced from a former Wrangler factory in Poland.

And the soundtrack to their day comes from a stack of old LPs, propped against a vinyl record player, though Mr Hieatt whispers that he thinks the Grand Masters have a "terrible taste in music".

Although Hiut is small at the moment, Mr Hieatt wants to expand the brand to eventually rival industry leaders such as Levi's, which he points out "started small as well".

The main challenge now is finding the next generation of factory workers who are able to invest the time needed to learn how to make jeans.

"A pair of jeans is a really complex item," he says. "It can take years and years to get good at one bit of it - to get good at all 75 is a long bit of learning."

'We've probably got a five-year window to find apprentices that want to come into this business and learn how to cut, sew and fit. Our biggest test, if we're to survive, is to find young talent. And they are out there."

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