Where to start with a thing like jersey? Best, surely, to do what they do in a traditional Victorian jersey factory. Start at the bottom and work upwards. Through three floors, from the knitting in the basement, cutting and sewing in the middle, and, if you wish, packing and dispatch at the top.
Where jersey really begins, then, is down in the basement, and down in the basement today it is very cold. In winter, even when there isn’t a foot of snow outside, it takes the first half of the week to properly warm up. It is, all told, austere, with shadow and echo, and with row on row of RTR Bentleys — circular-knitting workhorse of choice in this part of the country — arranged sentry-like, ready to go at nine o’clock this Monday morning.
James Heal circular sample-cutters: nothing better for circular sample-cutting.
This Monday morning, though, they won’t be going anywhere. Today, see, is cleaning day — the principal preoccupation of which is de-fluffing. Fluff — lint, fuzz, dust, what have you — gets everywhere but everywhere in a jersey factory. Over time, like the snow outside today, coats everything. But, unlike the snow, doesn’t melt. Hangs around. Finds its way inside every machine and instrument — into every mm-wide hook and needle, and every half-mm gap between. Fluff is the scourge of a place like this. Left unchecked it will wreak havoc on your take-up motions and your wobble-quotients. But these machines — they didn’t get where they are today by giving up at the first sight of fluff. Eye-achingly complex as they are, they are built to last, and are kept going well into retirement age by the gaffer and his team, as well as by a cottage-industry of specialist spare-parts makers — one such business nearby denied true one-man-band status “because his 94 year-old mother sometimes helps out.”
Gaffer and team are happy among their mechanical flock. Washing, oiling, tinkering, with screwdriver and can of grease always in hand, fluent in every technical intricacy of every contraption. Here they wax rhapsodically about the ongoing plan to retro-fit every RTR with an old-school VDU and floppy-disk emulator, and speak in wistful terms of the nigh-folkloric Pegasus Fully Automatic E-Series Four-Threaded Back-Latcher. They have hobby enthusiasm. They push the state of the hosiery art not only within the strictures of business, but in creative ways which may or may not one day pay commercial dividends. One way or another though, it is all a means to an end — that being the finest jersey around. Single-twist and double-twist cotton, both short-fibre and long, knitted into plains and ribs, to make tops, middles, and bottoms. Some of it is more soft, or more thermal, or more long-lasting, than others, and all of it is never not being bettered. Around the clock, it runs back-lit from the machines and through the hands of the girls — no matter age and tenure, if you are female and work on the shopfloor here at the factory, you are a girl — who eyeball it, inch on inch, before sending it upstairs.
RTR Bentleys aren’t the only circular-knitting machines here; for some jersey structures, Mayer & Cie come in useful, too.
Simple-seeming though jersey is, the making of it, the very best of it, is anything but. There is more to learn about it, below ground at the jersey maker, to make the uninitiated bolt back up the stairs and out for the hills. But here they keep at it. Keep at it for a love of soft white knitted cotton and the machines that make it — the pleasures of which will probably never be appreciated by people up at ground-level. They keep at it for the joy of going where no jersey-maker has gone before. “With jersey,” says the gaffer at 9:45 on Monday morning, “the only limit is imagination.”