I doubt many Londoners are aware that their city boasts a micro-mill, so I was surprised to discover just that in an industrial park in Epping, where beautiful fabrics for high-end designers such as Ralph Lauren and Tiger of Sweden are woven on vintage looms. Founded in 2011 by owner Daniel Harris, London Cloth Company is largely a one-man operation (with the help of two part-time assistants), using mechanical looms dating from 1970 back to as early as 1870 to weave everything from sturdy tweed to luxurious wool check. To assemble his menagerie of antique machinery, Daniel travels around the country rescuing neglected looms from factories disposing of their relics, bringing them back to his mill and patiently restoring them to their former glory.
The giant machines that populate the LCC factory are semi-automatic, which means they still require a plenty of hands-on input. Daniel and his team spend hours patiently loading threads, programming algorithms and diagnosing mechanical faults. Back in the day, one person was expected to run six machines but the most Daniel can manage is two, which he jokes is "enough to give me a brain haemorrhage." He flits between clattering machines, hovering over buttons and darting his eyes over the threads that shoot across the loom – it's an exhausting process that requires hawk-like attention, but Daniel believes the effort is worth it. Although slower than their modern counterparts (and a tad more temperamental) the vintage machines are much more versatile and weave at a lower tension which means they can provide a better warp and weft coverage. Small details also betray the superior quality of Daniel's product; "If you look at a standard scarf, you'll notice a tiny feathered edge running down the side of it," he explains. "This is because the manufacturer has woven six scarves on one loom and cut them into strips. However our scarves are woven individually and have a beautiful clean edge. It's a nicer finish and it's not as common which makes it rather special." As a result of these subtle differences, LCC fabrics are truly beautiful, and bare the evidence of the love and attention poured into them (and probably a few swearwords too).
Most astonishingly, Daniel informs me that he never undertook any formal training in weaving, and is entirely self-taught. Before founding the mill he worked sewing costumes for film and TV, but his vast knowledge of the intricate machinery he uses today was acquired by teaching himself over the course of a year and a half. In future, whenever one of my projects at work seems insurmountable, I'm going to think of Daniel.
Watching giant rolls of thread transform into intricate patterns before your eyes is magical, and it's quite exciting to stand amongst Daniel's machines as they pulse and thrust in rhythm. There's something quite remarkable about how, from the thick of this deafening clatter of oily machinery, something as beautiful as Daniel's fabrics emerges, neatly woven and rich with detail.
The LCC prides itself on using 100% British wool, sourced from conservation flocks across the UK and spun into yarn in Halifax. The resulting yarn is completely natural and un-dyed, and Daniel designs the cloth by breed of sheep, using the innate qualities of the material to dictate the look of the final product. Alongside wool tweed, the LCC is also the only mill in the UK to weave rope-dyed indigo fabrics, available in 60 different variations. On the day I visit, a fresh batch is slowly being woven on one of the machines, creating a mesmirising rich blue tone as it meshes together on the loom.
As well as fulfilling orders for larger brands and bespoke commissions, Daniel also sells his fabric on his website, starting at around £48 per metre, alongside herringbone scarves (£60), blankets and even cushions. For a special present, I couldn't think of anything better. If your budget is a little smaller, but you would like to show your support for independent business, then the enamel badge is a nice purchase for just £7.
However, Daniels' brand is no quaint cottage-industry, and his vision for what the mill is capable of is clear. "I have quite a different approach to some home-grown brands," he explains. "Some people only sell a very small amount of products for a lot of money, and while I respect that, I don't believe that will build a company with any kind of longevity. For me, it's about doing something high-quality and doing it well. This idea of 'bringing it all back to Britain' isn't going to succeed unless you're willing to work on a larger scale, because we're part of a global market now." This ambition has meant that despite being a relatively small operation, the LCC fulfils orders for big brands such as Daks and Hardy Amies, alongside more unusual commissions such as creating dye-splattered fabrics for artist Martino Gamper and the costumes for the entire cast of an opera in Dresden.
Daniel describes his fabrics as 'not cheap' but I reckon they are priced just right. As consumers we've come to expect clothes made in minutes, shipped around the world to our door and priced at less than a meal in a restaurant. Companies like LCC remind us that high-quality manufacture creates products that can be treasured forever. For our grandparents, buying a tweed suit was an important occasion, and once they had made their selection, they wore it for years. The skill and attention poured into a garment made from Daniel's fabric means it deserves to be treated with just the same reverence, and I'm so glad to see such an important business thriving on a renewed appetite for quality and craftsmanship in fashion.