How Fox Brothers, Wellington is making a cut in the modern world
PUBLISHED: 11:50 30 October 2018 | UPDATED: 11:50 30 October 2018
Cloth manufacturer Fox Brothers has been part of Wellington's history for more than 240 years. Chrissy Harris discovers how this proudly traditional firm is making the cut in the modern world
On the factory floor at Fox Brothers and Co Ltd, the working day is in full swing.
High-tech looms chug and whirr, turning metre after metre of top quality yarn into the firm’s world famous ‘West of England’ flannel, sold to leading fashion designers and the fine tailoring houses in London’s Savile Row.
The machinery is incredible to watch but so too are the people sat and stood in amongst it all.
Nicky Harwood is at the winding machine, making sure each and every thread around the cones is wound to the correct length before it’s turned into warp, the name given to the yarns arranged lengthways on a loom.
At the drawing-in frame, Alison Harvey is getting ready to thread the warp through a fine comb, called a reed.
In a side room, Shirley Webber and Sally Light are meticulously assessing each and every centimetre of cloth that comes through their doors, thread and needle in hand, ready to darn any faults before the rolls are sent to the finishers in Yorkshire.
The technology here might have changed over the centuries but the craftsmanship hasn’t.
“The cloth is just so beautiful,” says Rosemarie Boon, a designer at Fox Brothers for nearly 25 years. She has seen the firm’s fortunes rise and fall like a loom shaft but remains passionate about a product that has kept World War One soldiers warm and dressed the likes of Hollywood legends Cary Grant and Fred Astaire.
“Fox Brothers has a massive following all over the world. People love the fact that it’s British, it’s authentic and it’s made so well,” she adds.
The firm has been making cloth in the same way, in the same town, since 1772, when a young Thomas Fox became a partner in his grandfather’s cloth making company in South Street, Wellington.
The mill was later moved to Tonedale and employed around 5,000 people at the height of its output.
But Fox Brothers has struggled in more recent years to find its place in a world that has come to like cheap man-made fibres and disposable fashion.
Help came in 2009, when businesswoman and BBC Two Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden and long-term friend and fashion industry expert Douglas Cordeaux invested in the firm. Together with a strong team of dedicated staff, the pair have managed to strike a clever balance between taking the company forwards while staying true to its past.
Fox Flannel still uses traditional techniques, patterns and designs but now broadcasts its fine wool and worsted cloth to more than 39,400 Instagram followers. “It’s a really great time to be here,” says designer Jo Neades, who has just finished filming today’s ‘live loom’ video for the firm’s social media pages.
“Menswear is in a really exciting place at the moment and our womenswear is about to take off,” she adds.
“It’s not design over substance anymore. People want something that’s unique to them.”
Jo arrived at Fox Brothers five years ago and says she has noticed a rise in demand for high-quality menswear with the buying experience that comes with it.
“I’ve known bridegrooms pay more for the suit than the bride pays for the dress,” she says, explaining that the bespoke, made-to-measure process appeals to an increasing number of customers, many of whom travel to Wellington to be measured and pick out their cloth from hundreds of samples stored here.
“I love being a part of that,” she says, pointing to the display of very British-looking flannel checks, stripes and herringbone swatches pinned up on the wall.
Both Jo and Rosemarie come up with their takes on the classic Fox Brothers designs on computer before seeing their creations appear from the looms as rolls of cloth.
“Then you see somebody turn that into a jacket or a coat and that’s amazing,” says Jo. “And then you see somebody wearing it and that’s even better.”
Jo and Rosemarie are part of a tightly woven team of a highly skilled workforce who have come to Fox Brothers from all over the country and all walks of life because they really want to be here.
“I’m from Scotland and I’ve moved right down to the south of England,” says Jo. “I never wanted to do London – that’s not where things are made.
“This is where it happens.”
When we meet, it’s all about to happen on the other side of town. Staff are preparing to relocate from the industrial unit at Tonedale Mill to a new Fox Brothers premises in Wellington. The building on the edge of the town is three times the size of the current unit and better ‘suited’ to Fox Brothers’ growing customer base.
“It will be great to be somewhere bigger,” says Rosemarie, who moved to this industrial unit in the 1990s from the company’s original home over the road in the old mill building (where retail outlet The Merchant Fox is based).
“It’s a busy time for us all but we’re looking forward to it,” she adds, showing me around her and Jo’s brilliantly chaotic office, where cloth is piled high on old wooden shelving units and Barbara Lyjak is busy ironing samples which will be sent to Italy, Japan and all over the world.
This is very much a global company but with a Somerset feel. And a luxuriously soft one at that.
The Merchant Fox:
The Merchant Fox is the retail arm of Fox Brothers & Co and was launched in November 2011.
Located in the old Counting House of Fox Brothers’ mill, the shop houses the brand’s luxury products, as well as the firm’s historic archive.
There are shelves and shelves of beautiful dust-covered books, packed with samples from the company’s past work. One binder dates back to 1773.
The shop itself has real wow-factor, full of period features and traditional fixtures and fittings.
People travel far and wide to shop here and there are regular visits from Japanese customers. During a recent sale eager shoppers, who had travelled from all over the country, were queuing outside the door from 8.30am.
• The company employed about 5,000 people at the height of its output, in Wellington and at its subsidiary factories at Cullompton, Culmstock, Uffculme, Wiveliscombe, Weston-super-Mare and the William Bliss mill at Chipping Norton acquired in 1900.
• During the First World War, Fox Brothers supplied more than 8,000 miles of cloth to the British and Allied Governments, including 852 miles of cloth to the Ministry of Defence to make ‘puttees’, a long strip of cloth wound around the lower leg for protection and support.
• The historic Fox archive, housed in the former Counting House of the old mill, is said to be “one of the most significant textile (company) archives in the British Isles”.
• Fox Brothers is exploring the use of British wool.
• A research centre is planned in Wellington for the West of England Wool Centre, which will explore the multiple uses of British wool.