making things “locally”

As my business has grown over the past few years I have learned a lot about making things locally. Working with Scottish, Irish, and English producers, I’ve made my own books, and yarn, and knitwear. I’ve collaborated with many different types of manufacturers, from printers and spinners to dyers and wool producers. Being able to make things close to home is amazing, and important, and I’ve learned an enormous amount about why this is so.

I now know so much more about traditional skills and practices, and the significance of their embedding in local communities. Through designing and making different products myself, I’ve grown to understand and value creative labour and crafts(wo)manship in a completely different way than I did when such matters were, to me, purely academic. I’ve a much better knowledge of the always complicated economics of manufacturing (making stuff is really difficult, and, if you want to do it properly, expensive) and I’ve a renewed sense of respect for anyone who makes their living designing, making, and selling anything that they believe in. I’ve met many wonderful people, and my business relationships have often spawned friendships that are really important to me. As I’ve made more things, I’ve a more nuanced sense of what can be done, and the impediments to doing it. And, as time has gone on, I’ve also begun to act in an advisory capacity for other local creative enterprises. I’m finding such consultative roles really interesting and rewarding, not least because through that work I’m able to give something back to the manufacturing and business communities which have sustained my company’s own growth. All of these experiences have led me to increasingly reflect on the real meaning and value of making things “locally” or “nationally.”

I genuinely believe that making things “locally” is good, first because having personal knowledge of each link in a supply chain is probably the best way of achieving transparency in it. I think we should all know more about what’s involved in the making the things that we acquire, and — to make an old-fashioned cultural-materialist point — if commodities wear masks which disguise the means of their production, then I am all about taking those masks away. I also feel that, at its best, making things locally can act as a a straightforward way of assuring quality (in raw materials, processes, and finished goods); of valuing and celebrating the skills and jobs that have sustained communities for generations; and of taking forward important issues of sustainability and accountability in areas which range from environmental impact to fair pay.

An idea of the local is important to me, as a manufacturer, for all these reasons; an idea of the national perhaps far less so.

Indeed, there is much about the idea of the national, particularly in the current climate of doing business, that often gives me pause. How do we, as consumers, interpret the union jack when it is emblazoned upon a British product, created by an iconic British brand, whose products are actually produced half a world away from its rainy-weather and posh-boots country stereotype? (To give Hunter’s wellies their due, as a company they are laudably transparent about their supply chain and matters of corporate responsibility)

Equally how much value can there be said to be in a gold union jack emblazoned shepherd’s crook and the claim of “100% British wool” when the product with which it is associated actually contains 20% nylon? (Speaking personally, I find the new British wool licensing scheme perhaps more confusing than reassuring)

What does a British flag suggest and what might it disguise? And if “made in Britain” is meant to convey superior quality or value, what exactly is it that might make something made in Britain essentially better than another something grown in France, spun in Italy, or produced to admirably high ethical standards in Pondicherry or Peru?

We read “made in Britain” as a sign of trust and reassurance, but why should those words suggest that a manufacturer is more trustworthy, more ethical, more reliable, or operates to higher standards than one located elsewhere in the world? Often this is not the case, as I know from experience. Believe me, in the business of British yarn and textiles today there are many manufacturers whose understanding of issues of quality control and accountability range from lamentably basic to completely non-existent. Because of the poor processing and poor quality control of such suppliers, I’ve had stock completely ruined and, on top of significant (five figure) financial losses to my business, have found myself having to deal with the unapologetic behaviour of men who refuse to be held accountable for the damage they have caused. Such experiences have taught me that the ability to do things well, with care, honesty, and mutual respect, is a characteristic of much higher value in a supplier than where they happen to be located.

Perhaps I now have a very different kind of insight into the somewhat desultory methods of some British manufacturers. Perhaps, too, I’ve been forced to reflect on the conflicted ‘nationalist’ meanings of manufacturing and branding because of a spectacularly badly mismanaged experience with a high-profile marketing company and the UK department of International Trade (which I may well write about another time). And, at a historical juncture that seems riven with divisive messages about cultural and racial difference (and superiority), I’m increasingly concerned that too much “great” Britain branding speaks rather to messages of exclusion and division than it does to those notions of sustainability, or transparency with which, as a manufacturer of “British” products, I might feel proud to be associated.

The assumption, for example, that goods made in the far east, or the Indian subcontinent, are inevitably cheap or of poor quality is a misleading falsehood that’s underwritten by our own sense of cultural superiority and the racist legacy of empire. In this country, since the early decades of the nineteenth century, we’ve happily reassured ourselves with the foolish privilege of thinking that textiles made in Britain are somehow better than those made in the countries we colonised and exploited. Yet hidden in such assumptions is the obvious fact that so many products we think of as quintessentially British – from Liberty Tana Lawn, to the aforementioned Hunter boots – are created and produced elsewhere. And at the heart of our tendency toward blithely nationalist branding is a bigger, more uncomfortable truth: that the skills, ethics, and accountable business practices of countless manufacturers elsewhere in the world often leave those of Britain far behind.

(Liberty “Tana” lawn, Indian-inspired design, printed in Italy on cotton grown in Egypt and woven in a range of European locations)

To believe that “made in Britain” means “made better” is parochial and narrow-minded at best, and culturally imperialistic at worst. And if making things “locally” is at its heart about issues of transparency, quality, sustainability and accountability, why on earth should this principle exclude working with skilled communities and manufacturers located elsewhere in the world? I like producing things “locally” because I like to know as much as I can about the materials and processes involved in what I make. I’m interested in local production because I feel it is important for me to be able to see every link in the supply chain, and for me to be able to communicate the story of that chain accurately to my customers. I like producing things locally because I want to work with people who I like and trust, who take pride in what they do, and who treat those who work for them fairly. All of these aspects of local production are important to me – wherever in the world they might occur.

And, as I’ve been thinking about issues of the local and the national, and the the complex matters that can be involved in making supply chains and manufacturing more accountable and transparent, I’ve been working on several different projects. I’m making socks with wonderful yarn spun at a mill close to where I live, which we are having knitted up across the Irish sea, in Donegal. I’m making some fabulous garments with some equally fabulous yarn which, from sheep to finished skein, was produced within a fully traceable 50 mile radius in the north of England. I’ve also produced some project bags with a superb Chennai-based company, whose supply chain ethics and labour practices are of a standard that matches the high quality of the things that they produce. I’ve designed and commissioned some beautiful new lambswool accessories to be produced in a historic mill in the Scottish Borders. All of our books are produced by a printer right here in Glasgow, but we’re also about to produce different kind of print product with a German company, whose manufacturing operation is China based. I’ve been working with a British business I like and trust to develop a top-quality yarn for hand-knitting together with a family-run enterprise in Peru. And I’ve been working with a Yorkshire company to develop another unique yarn combining British and Falkland Island fleeces. All of these projects are “local” in the way that I’ve described and all of the manufacturers and suppliers involved have this in common: they do what they do with genuine thought and care; they are happy to account for where what they makes comes from and exactly how it is made; they treat those who work for them well, and they deal with me, as their customer, with an honesty and respect that’s much appreciated.

There are many knotty and tricky issues involved with manufacturing – waste, sustainability, product miles. I certainly don’t have all the answers. Indeed, I often experience my own internationalism (global digital interconnection is at the heart of what I do) and localism (mine is a small Scottish business, with small Scottish parameters) as a conflict. I love Scotland. I feel very proud to live and work here, and as a designer and manufacturer as much as an (English) Scot, I do feel there is something inherently valuable in working with other nearby producers and in making things, as far as it is possible, close to home. But in an often disturbingly insular and narrow-minded world, I also sense the importance of developing a greatly expanded notion of the local — one that perhaps concerns values and practices more than it does immediate location — an international localism, perhaps, which is able to prioritise some of the ideas I’ve begun to explore in this piece.

All of which is meant as a very roundabout preface to a soon-to-be released new “local” product: yoked sweaters, developed by me, spun and produced from Scottish yarn, in a Scottish mill, into whose stitches have been knitted several generations of history and expertise. I’ll tell you more about these garments in a couple of days time.