I spent the week of April 22 in England with a group of fashion editors and bloggers hosted by Barbour, the brand famous for waxed cotton outerwear. Making up the North American contingent were me, Jonathan Evans from Esquire.com, Michael Williams from A Continuous Lean and Marcus Troy and Matthew McGurk of MarcusTroy.com. There were also editors from France, Spain and Germany.
The highlight of the trip was the day in South Shields, a town near Newcastle on the eastern coast of England, just south of Scotland. That’s where Barbour has its headquarters, factory, archive and repair studio. When I thought about it, I realized that I had assumed that Barbour’s jackets weren’t made in the UK anymore. Why? The price, for one: it’s still relatively reasonable at around $379-$449 for most classic styles.
It was this fact, combined with the familiarity of the factory floor and several other factors that prompted both me and Michael Williams to remark that Barbour had a lot in common with Red Wing, the Minnesota-based shoe brand. Barbour and Red Wing both started around the turn of the last century and remain family-owned. Both have enjoyed a surge in popularity while doing what they’ve been good at for more than a century: making simple, well-built utilitarian products for people who work and spend time outdoors.
The Barbour factory floor was a noisy space filled with men and women hunched over sewing machines stitching together waxed cotton and plaid linings, cutting the 161-odd pieces that go into a Bedale jacket (for example), adding zippers and brass snaps and attaching corduroy collars.
Interestingly, the cotton comes already waxed, from Scotland. I was surprised to learn that the finished jackets do not need to be waxed again.
About 36 different people have a hand in constructing each Barbour jacket. From start to finish, it only takes between 60 and 90 minutes for them to make one. The factory produces 600-700 jackets a day, about 3,000 a week. Business is good right now, so they’re planning to add another production line.
The repair studio, behind the factory floor in the same building, employs a team of 18 tailors and waxers who see to it that customers’ jackets are fixed, re-waxed and returned within six to eight weeks. That turnaround time makes Jean, the head of the repair shop uncomfortable—it’s too long—but that surge in popularity for new Barbour jackets has spurred many customers to order repairs, too.
When jackets are sent in for service, the tailors check the pockets carefully: they’ve found fish hooks and live shotgun cartridges, cash, phones and lots of other random items.
Repairs range from small tears to tailoring and major reconstruction. Barbour fans tend to get attached to their jackets. We saw one tailor starting what she estimated would be an eight-hour repair job—pretty extensive considering the skill and speed of these tailors. A repair like that will cost a lot of money, and every customer gets an estimate (and sometimes a plea to replace the damaged coat with a new one). Tom Hooven, Barbour’s general manager for the US, told us of a customer who insisted on spending $1,000 to repair his beloved jacket. Re-waxing takes about 15 minutes and costs £30 (It should be noted that Barbour’s US headquarters in Milford, New Hampshire also has a repair and re-waxing shop handling American customers; re-waxing costs $30 in the US).
While we were there, Michael Williams got the pockets of his Bedale jacket fixed. They had torn from putting his hands in them holding his dog’s leash. The repair job was fascinating to watch (read his take on that here). The tailor cut out an entire panel on the front of the jacket and rebuilt the pockets with surprising speed.