Outerwear factory

They’re never satisfied at the outerwear factory in north-west London. Nothing ever quite up to scratch. In a factory, this is a useful instinct to have. In fact, in the trade today — always competitive and now contracting, even more so — it’s indispensable.

Here they take it further than most. This is down to the people who work there, and in particular, to the two men that run the place. The first of them runs the floor, and specialises above all in finding faults. He can find a fault — too much fusing in a collar or lacklustre finishing on a pocket-bag — in any garment. It might be a garment made in a far-off factory, in a nearby factory, in his own factory, or made by himself just the other day. It is a restless competitive quality — sometimes admirable, sometimes unbearable. Many are the noses it has put out of joint, but it is all because the first man refuses to be out-done, can’t stomach the idea of anyone getting one over on him or on his factory.

While the first man looks after the making — paces the floor, sticks his oar in where most would think it trivial but which to the first man very much is not — the second man sees the big picture. He makes sure there is work for the first man to do next month, keeps trade coming in, negotiates, brokers. On the factory floor there are objective right ways and wrong ways; here there aren’t. This side of factory work is all grey areas, all give and take; the side with the uncensored view of the industry underbelly, requiring a healthy dose of savvinness at all times.

You don’t stick in the trade in London without black-belt-grade savviness. Both men started out working in north-east

London, and have over the years moved out slowly to its perimeter. And so they find themselves in the middle of nowhere, somewhere off the North Circular. It is not scenic, but it isn’t half-bad: there is room for up to twenty machinists, and for much cloth storage, cutting tables, and pressing and fusing contraptions. It doesn’t typify the quaint ideal of wood-planked factories of yore, but the factory is nevertheless nothing but a charming place and a happy place. It’s also a family-run place — cousins, sisters, and spouses — and a place with a sense of common purpose and keenly regulated breaks of strong tea.

What sets the factory apart is quality of output. Under the instruction and forensic gaze of the first man, a seasoned team of cutters and seamsters set about

business. There is little to which they haven’t tried their hands many times before, and — back to the iterative can-always-do-better approach of the place — improved upon, again and again. Methods are never written down, never will be, but in the collective heads of the factory is a encyclopaedia-sized repository of them.

Adding to the in-safe-hands feeing at the factory is the breadth of expertise within its walls. There are not only cutters and machinists here, but also pattern-cutters. It’s a drop-in centre for some of London’s most skilled pattern-cutters: the long and longer in the tooth. They have a mutually beneficial relationship with the factory; opportunities flow both ways. It means everyone has some stake in everything coming off the line, and sees constant back-and-forth — discussion, argument, resolution — between cutter and maker.

The garment-making trade in the capital is tricky to navigate, with a lot of good, but also a substantial amount of not-so-good.

Knowing which is which comes only with time and experience: there’s never a sign above the door to inform one way or the other. Finding the good is often the outcome of little more than chance: a random encounter in a trimmings supplier, an errant comment in the studio of a pattern-cutter. Much easier, though, is realising you’ve hit upon a winner. Talking a good game anyone can do, but no amount of clever gab substitutes for that immaculately made, perfectly finished, and freshly pressed first sample.