There’s nothing that makes a stronger statement of intent than the physical presence of a new business activity that had all but disappeared from the UK, particularly London. Enter stage left, The Albion Knitting Company – a progressive knitwear manufacturing company who just seemed to appear in Haringey – the epicentre of London’s fashion manufacturing scene for those in the know. Whatever ship they sailed in on, it’s a revival to warm the hearts of traditionalists, keen to see the UK knitting manufacturing industry claw back some of the pre-1980s trade it enjoyed before Asian manufacturing swallowed it up. As their website states,
“The Albion Knitting Company Ltd is the first flat-bed knitter aimed towards high quality production in London, UK since the 1940’s.”
Of course there can be no actual return to previous times. It’s new business, cultivated from new trading conditions and market opportunities in a fast moving, trend-led fashion industry. Thankfully, underpinning Albion Knit’s (AK) arrival is some old-school wisdom governing its UK presence and what appears to be a canny business decision.
Their story curiously enough has its roots in China, (with a passing nod to the great Alexander McQueen, currently being lauded at one of the key fashion events of the decade at the V&A and a previous client). China is where the two main stalwarts of the business met, Chris Murphy, who is also founding partner of the Alphatex Knitting factory in Beijing (employing over 500 people) for 13-years and still their MD in fact, and Jamie O’Neil, director. Alongside the ubiquitous Stoll machines, some of the key knitwear machinery is also Chinese. The provenance of the equipment might suggest to the uninformed, a low-cost, lower capacity/ quality issue, stemming from associations with cheaply made Chinese products. The reality is far simpler and one of the capital investment considerations AK have used to their advantage: cheaper can actually be better and smarter.
Jamie explained that in most cases, many knitwear machines will do exactly the same jobs – the same machines being used for fast fashion in Leicester for example, could be used for higher end garment production, if this were the requirement. Without disparaging other existing hi-end knitwear manufacturers, the distinction is, it almost always isn’t high end in the UK. And this is the market Albion Knit is aiming for. “The quality of the machine is not the differentiator, it’s about the people skills.”
Trading history and accumulated experience will de-risk the launch of new ventures for a company, including leveraging new business in new markets from existing clients, or the reputational value the client list brings for prospect clients. With Albion Knit, the critical decision-making to set up in the UK, becomes more obvious – knit-one, purl two clever knitting dudes. The cost savings of not paying duty in the UK (to use higher quality European yarn) when manufacturing in China, and the corresponding lack of shipping costs, stitched to the value-added cache of making in London, is why. Interestingly, the importance Jamie adds specifically to the UK-manufactured USP is significant, “in the right hands, if you know what you are doing, marketing-wise this can add five-fold to the value of the garments made.” Things begin to add up. And it’s all about the right hands.
This UK value proposition works by taking all those years of doing it in China, servicing hi-end brands and giving them a new UK proposition (which is also a value-added usp for the brand). They are offering a quality service, competitively priced for the UK, European and global clients being in London promotes strategically. Their timing seems to be spot on to tap into a ‘Make it British’ zeitgeist evidenced by the renaissance in the UK textile manufacturing base and the privileged global influence UK designs and designers have. As Jamie commented, “often, we are no more than a few miles from many of these designers and brands, another huge advantage being in London.”
It’s not all plain sailing. The ‘right hands’ are thin on the ground to scale up as fast as they would like. The outcome of a diminished manufacturing base, is not simply a hiatus of skilled knitting technicians, there are very few people currently being trained to the standard required, alongside the challenging job of ‘selling knitwear’ as an apprenticeship program to a younger generation. Needs must, and AK’s solution for the time being, is to blend in multi-visa permit Chinese employees with fledgling home grown talent. Hitting the ground running with skilled Chinese staff that knows the machines is far better than leaving them idle (the machines that is).
Albion Knit has unavoidably encountered the endemic fashion industry skills shortage problem. Once again, the cold, hard facts of investment in training come home to roost. Fortunately, home for Albion Knit, by luck or design puts them literally next door to the newly opened Fashion Enter’s Fashion Technology Academy – Fashion Technology Academy, supported by Haringey Council, DWP and ASOS.com. The opportunity to customise training to their specific needs is literally on their doorstep.
There is however no quick training fix with AK’s hi-end garments, made from quality yarn using natural fibres. Plus the fact that they use a lot of hand-made techniques, like point-to-point linking, to ensure their garments are literally ‘better made’ to last longer and hang better. And then there’s the small matter of a senior operational person (Jamie) freeing up his critical path time to manage and train. “It can take two months in the linking department to assess if the training has paid off and if I have someone who I can see is going to cut it.” That is assuming they have figured out themselves that they are in the right place, with the right attitude as well as aptitude, to see it through. With almost zero capacity for hedging; the onus is on selection and getting it right at the outset. For those that might be interested in applying, AK are currently looking for some EKT’s – Electronic Knitting Technicians responsible for the knitting process that turns yarn into knitted panels, prior to linking. A factory layout that has gone some way to utilising the minimal design options to great effect (factories are all about keeping floor space and channels bare for health and safety) with a cool spiral staircase mirroring the knitweave finish. Let’s hope the Fashion Technology Academy can help to deliver and train apprentices for AK and beyond with discussions currently in place.
Manufacturing operations are dependent on the constant throughput of sustainable orders with AK’s planning horizons 3-6 months ahead and June/July orders coming on stream currently for Spring/Summer 16 collections. While it is still very early days, it seems that with more bedding down of the operation, not only will they have figured out ways to streamline and improve certain processes (in theory, possible with each client repeat order – known processes minimise and pre-empt likely hiccups), they will gear up and grow their business according to the depth of client base they seem likely to finesse. They just know too many of the right brands to not win more business over time, for the right reasons. They already work with a number of brands owned by the Richelieu Group including American men’s apparel company Peter Millar producing “a pick-stitched line using European yarns as a higher value product, with the made in England label, which goes down very well.” The vagaries of yarn supply and availability goes with the territory which Jamie acknowledges, along with the sanguine acceptance of minimum yarn orders, most of which for them is spun in Italy or the UK.
Their economies of scale are not designed to cater for the one-off sample, with them producing for example, 120-200 pieces per style. AK are really for brands that already has an established business and appropriate order size. It would be great to think that like Hainsworth, a UK pedigree wool manufacturer in the north of England, working with designers to innovate new techniques and styling into their fabrics, brands will have a go-to option in The Albion Knitting Company in London ready to respond in kind.
By Paul Markevicius