What I love about Britain, as a seafaring island nation, is its ability to look well beyond its shores and assimilate and absorb people of different cultures and the influences that they bring.
At the same time, I love the British inventiveness and self-reliance built from its own inward country attitudes, culture, history and traditions. It is a healthy mix of these “inside” and “outside” influences that make Britain and British design so interesting.
Good design (and engineering) has always been about problem solving and making things “better”, but what sets British designers apart, I think, is their pragmatic approach and the balance that they seem to achieve between the visual form and the end use function.
Behind most British design is a kind of “protestant ethos” that celebrates simplicity, fitness for purpose and proportion… understated beauty combined with practicality… products that are made well and work as they were intended.
In an age where products often resort to cheap tricks or extravagant gestures to get noticed, there are some products that achieve an impact through sophisticated forms and details that clearly reveal the fruitful legacy of tradition and forerunners in design history.
These products have subtle signals, operate intuitively and couple grace with the ordinary: they don’t “shout” but are appreciated by the owner or wearer for years to come.
Some of the brands on my list are ones that your ancestors would have recognised over 200 years ago. Others are new brands that follow a sense of tradition in everything that they do, even though they’re using the latest technology. All of them create beautiful, practical products that will last – which is why they merit a place on this list.
It is worth remembering that 90% of the clothing that we buy in Britain is outsourced when it comes to production in order to cut costs, but this often means sacrifices in the brands’ sustainability as well as in the quality of the clothes produced.
When you buy a British made product, you are not only choosing something that is generally better for the environment; you are supporting the local people where these British companies are located.
If you are looking for products that will last and have great craft and subtle design, the “Made in Britain” label is still the byword for quality and good taste.
Mourne Textiles is an Irish business, founded by a Norwegian. Established by textile designer, Gerd Hay-Edie, in the foothills of County Down’s Mourne Mountains, the company unites the designs of the past with modern touches, to create luxury home furnishing fabrics, cushions, blankets and scarves.
As founder, Gerd collaborated with Robin Day, Hille and Conran to make a lasting impact on the world of weaving. Her iconic textile designs and innovative techniques became a staple of mid-century British design. Mourne’s signature Tweed fabric is woven from “wild” traditional spun, pure merino Donegal yarn, creating a beautiful and unusual weave that’s speckled with colour.
The brand is now in the hands of Gerd’s grandson, who ensures Gerd’s legacy lives on from the original mill in Rostrevor.
Britsh Millerain: Waterproof Clothing
If you’re looking for a coat to weather the British weather, check out British Millerain.
The label first began to develop fabrics for hard-wearing garments towards the end of the 1880’s in Halifax, Yorkshire. Established by a small group of labourers and academics led by John Miller the elder and John Miller the younger, the business opened its first factory in 1888, creating durable clothes that were ideal for life in the armed forces and country pursuits. In 1894, the business expanded its range with waterproof products, patenting the trademark Millerain® rainproof finish. In 1922, the brand moved to Whitworth in Hampshire. Today, it is based at a new production facility in Rochdale, where it creates wonderful waxed cottons and practical, aesthetic fabrics.
While the technology has changed over the years, the brand remains faithful to its roots.
Brisbane Moss Corduroy
Corduroy and moleskin have an interesting history. Although their origins are obscure, they belong to a group of fabrics once widely known as ‘fustians’.
Most fustians were produced in East Lancashire and West Yorkshire, with the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire boasting a particularly high concentration of fustian weavers, dyers and finishers from the 1800s. It’s here that the Brisbane Moss brand was born.
Sadly, most fustian fabric producers have closed down over the last few decades, but Brisbane Moss remains and is now the largest remaining stock house of corduroys and moleskins in the country.
Like wool and waxed cotton, moleskin and corduroy are the ideal materials for life in the British Isles.
Peregrine: Knitwear Makers
Meet J.G. Glover and Co. Ltd, aka Peregrine. This eighth-generation family business has over 200 years’ experience of creating quality knitwear.
Peregrine makes classic British-made products that are functional and smart: from British Millerain waxed cotton jackets and traditional knits to a collection of accessories.
This small family-run business is a champion of wool (highly sustainable, renewable, biodegradable, recyclable and flame-retardant) and I really like their attitude to producing beautiful, high quality garments that will last and their approach to sustainability.
Hiut Denim Company: Jean Manufacturers
For 30 years, 400 people made 35,000 pairs of jeans a week in Cardigan in Wales. But then the factory closed. To make the most of all that talent, David and Clare Hieatt (former founders of the Howie’s brand) started The Hiut Denim Company.
Focused on jeans and nothing else, the brand produces great quality denim, made by their “Grand Master” denim makers. They espouse a ‘no wash’ philosophy, encouraging customers to act more sustainably by keeping their jeans out of the washing machine. Could you go without washing yours for six months?
Joseph Marples: Quality Tools
Marples is a Sheffield-based family business that was established in the 1840s. Joseph Marples and his relatives manufactured joiners’ tools, such as brass inlaid rosewood and ebony braces, boxwood spokeshaves, beech planes, gauges and squares. Although modern technology has now been incorporated by the business, many of the traditional manufacturing techniques remain the same. In fact, the threads used in the gauges are the same as those used over 100 years ago.
I inherited both my father’s and grandfather’s oval beech-handled Marples screwdrivers, with their precision ground-tempered steel blades for a great grip and lasting edge. All are as good today as they were decades ago.
With the brand’s dedication to high quality materials and manufacturing as strong as ever, Marples tools will continue to be found in sheds and workshops across the country.
Chester Jeffries: Glove Makers
In 1936, Chester Jefferies began manufacturing high quality gloves. He was drawing on a long family tradition – the name Jefferies has been linked to English glove making since the 1820’s.
Today, the Chester Jefferies brand is run by the third and fourth generations of the family, from a factory and head office based in Gillingham, Dorset. Their gloves are made from the finest materials, which are painstakingly selected by the Master Glove Maker. The leather is individually selected and prepared before being cut by hand the traditional way.
With this expert craftsmanship and traditional methods, these fine, English-made gloves are always a perfect fit.
NPS/SOLOVAIR: Shoe & Boot Makers
So many of these brands have fantastic stories behind them and this one is no different. In 1881, five men from Wollaston formed a co-operative called the Northamptonshire Productive Society (NPS). It was known locally as ‘the Duffers’ and the group set up shop in a dove house in Thrift Street.
NPS got off to a terrific start by winning a year-long order from the Government for army boots. Later, they went on to produce Dr. Martens shoes and boots (under licence). In the mid-1990’s, NPS trademarked the name SOLOVAIR and began manufacturing their own air-cushioned boots and shoes. This footwear is made using the same lasts, leather cutters and machines that were used to make the first Dr. Martens.
Today, NPS brings together over 130 years of traditional craftsmanship with the latest technology and materials to produce some of the best footwear around.
My pair of SOLOVAIR (sole of air) shoes are still going strong after 12 years! Buy a pair, they are great for all seasons.
Chapman Bags: Hand crafted bags
Established by John Chapman in 1984, Chapman produces hand crafted canvas, leather and tweed bags. The founder first started creating bags at his kitchen table in Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria. Today, Chapman bags are sold around the world for leisure, business and sport.
Each bag is made to last a lifetime and produced from high quality, locally sourced materials to withstand the British weather. However, if time takes its toll, the business will also repair them so they’re as good as new.
“Chapman Weekender” bags are particularly useful – the perfect blend of elegance and utility.
Tanner Bates: Leather Maker
Want a gorgeous belt that will last for years? Tanner Bates is the place to go.
John Hagger, the founder of Tanner Bates, is one of the few leather makers who still uses traditional techniques. Following a mid-life change of career, John trained as a saddler and bridle maker in Walsall. He then relocated to Devon, where he studied traditional, pre-industrial leather-making techniques. His preferred tanning process lasts two years and is a world away from modern industrial methods.
It involves using the minimum treatment to process the hides so the distance to the finished product is as short as possible. And so that there’s no doubt that the product was created from the skin of an animal, John deliberately chooses leather with stretch lines, scars and blemishes.
John’s products are a marriage of traditional techniques and contemporary product purpose. Check them out.
Le Tricoteur: Artisan Knitters
Over the past 20 years, my guernsey jumper has kept me warm and dry during the worst of the British winters. It’s a classic design – the original fisherman’s sweater: practical and easily repairable. And it’s still going strong!
Le Tricoteur is the only authentic “guernsey” that’s hand-finished on the island of Guernsey. These jumpers were originally knitted in one piece to keep mariners warm and dry in all conditions. Both Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots rocked one and Nelson recommended guernsey jumpers to the Admiralty for use by sailors. Guernseys were even given to soldiers in Nova Scotia in 1857 to keep them warm in winter.
This colourful history doesn’t stop there. Le Tricoteur guernseys were worn by the crew of The Virgin Atlantic Challenger power boat wore, and many of the teams competing in The British Challenge in Americas Cup events. What a recommendation.
William Whiteley: Scissor Makers
Whitely & Sons have been making hand-crafted industrial scissors since at least 1760.
The business was granted a Royal Warrant in 1840 and is still a family-run firm, with craftsmen passing their skills down through generations. The brand has developed a reputation for on excellence, insisting on quality even when (now-defunct) competitors cut prices and outsourced cheap products.
Today, Whiteley’s manufactures over 250 different kinds of scissors for all sorts of industries, from MOD Kevlar vests and carbon fibre in Formula 1 racing cars, to Savile Row and golf courses.
SEH Kelly: Enduring Clothing
SEH Kelly clothes aren’t cheap, but they will last you for years to come.
Their men’s garments are lovely to wear, and have a timeless, understated design. The company has been in business since 2009, employing craftspeople who are at the top of their game. Shirts and jackets and trousers are expertly cut and sewn, while knitwear is hand-framed by professional makers all over the British Isles. It’s the same story with cloth, buttons, buckles, and toggles. All are made by traditional establishments within the United Kingdom.
Leach Pottery: Ethical Pots
One of the most highly regarded potteries in the world, the Leach Pottery was established in 1920 by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in St Ives, Cornwall.
Inspired by the Mingei folk art movement and his time with Japanese potters, Bernard Leach began producing ‘Standard Ware’ to defined sizes using weighed clay in the 1930s. His ‘ethical pots’ are utilitarian and designed to show the traces of their creation.
Bernard Leach’s Pottery went on to welcome scores of potters, students and apprentices from across the globe, based on a creative principle of East/West exchange. Today, it is widely regarded as the birthplace of British studio pottery.
Although the Pottery closed after Bernard Leach’s death in 1979, it has recently been restored with the hope of passing on his legacy and inspiring artist potters across the world.
Blackhorse Lane Atelier: Bespoke Jeans
Blackhorse Lane Atelier (BLA) make jeans with serious sustainability credentials. Working with selvedge and organic raw denim in their London atelier – a renovated 1920s factory building in Walthamstow – the brand aims for exceptional quality, eco-consciousness and to support the local community.
The business was founded in 2016 by Bilgehan “Han” Ates in 2016, who brought 25 years of experience in the textile industry. BLA now sells ready-to-wear selvedge and organic raw denim jeans in a wide range of fits, from modern slim to vintage straight, in multiple raw denims.
Joseph Hudson: Official Referee Acme Whistles
I bought my wife an Acme “Thunderer” whistle for playground duty as a school teacher 20 years ago and it has been very effective in bringing overzealous or wayward children under control!
The Thunderer was created when Joseph Hudson decided to find a way to replace the sticks and handkerchiefs that were used by football referees back in the late 19th century. While police whistles needed a sound that would carry, the referee’s whistle had to be heard by players over the noise of the crowd. Hudson’s solution was the famous ‘pea’, which gives that shrill, penetrating sound. The Thunderer model can still be heard today on football and rugby pitches the length of the land.
Tricketts of Sheffield: English Cutlery
Tricketts of Sheffield make cutlery – but not just any cutlery. Their beautiful sets are dishwasher-safe versions of traditional English faux bone handled cutlery, made of stainless steel with a sateen finish.
Knife blades are connected with the handle without the use of adhesives using traditional techniques. And, if your cutlery ever needs repairing, you can take it back to Tricketts’ ‘cutlery hospital’.
Tricketts was originally started in 1880 by Walter Trickett, a cutler and silversmith. The business soon developed a reputation for quality, with cutlery produced at Anglo Works on Trippett Lane in Sheffield.
Today, Tricketts is part of the Chimo-Sheffield group of companies, but it still sells the same traditionally-made knives, forks and spoons, which bring a touch of elegance to any table.
AW Hainsworth: Cloth Mill
The scarlet tunics of the Queen’s Royal Guards.
The ceremonial uniforms worn by the Royal Family during state occasions.
The uniforms worn by soldiers during the Charge of the Light Brigade.
The British military’s first Khaki Serge in WWI.
What do they all have in common? AW Hainsworth.
This family-run brand has been weaving fabric at their Yorkshire mill since 1783, with much of it representing England around the world. The brand’s heritage and attention to detail makes their cloth stand out from the crowd, with designers, architects and tailors all appreciative customers.
The roots of the Vertex watch brand stretch back to the early 20th century. Claude Lyons, the business’s founder, started out with a £1,000 loan, which he used to launch Dreadnaught Watches in 1912. The company did so well, it was able to repay the loan within its first year. Dreadnaught then supplied watches to the British Army during WWI. Buoyed by this success, Lyons established two shops in 1916 at the same time – one in in London and one in La Chaux-de-Fonds. His new brand name? Vertex.
Unfortunately, Lyons’ fortune wasn’t to last. Following 25 years of growth, Vertex’s Hatton Garden factory and showrooms were obliterated in the Blitz of 1940.
Despite this, Vertex became one of a dozen watch makers to supply the British Army during WWII.
Today, Vertex is flourishing once again. In 2012, Claude Lyons’ great grandson, Don Cochrane, revived the Vertex brand, selling high quality “stealth wealth” watches with a smart but practical style.
Silvine: Red exercise books
Silvine stationery is part of the furniture. Generations have grown up with the brand’s red exercise books, with the laurel wreath logo on the cover. The business has been around since Victorian times, with the oldest product recorded a ledger dating from 1837. And Silvine exercise and drawing books are both to be found in their oldest surviving stationery catalogue, dating from 1928.
Today, Silvine’s products look a little different as the brand continues to adapt to the times. However, their iconic bright red or blue and white marbled covers are lodged in people’s memories worldwide.
Corgi socks have graced the feet of Royals and the proletariat since 1892.
The brand’s story began when Rhys Jones started making socks for Welsh miners. Rhys’s creations were no ordinary socks. Thigh-high and made of wool, they kept miners warm during the long days underground.
Rhys Jones then upped his game by making ‘Sunday Best’ socks for the miners to wear in chapel. The Army were impressed and asked Corgi to supply socks for soldiers in both WWI and WWII.
Nearly a century later, Corgi still has links to the Armed Forces. Corgi Socks was commissioned by HRH The Prince of Wales to produce the ‘Regimental Range’, which supports Combat Stress, a charity that helps servicemen suffering from mental health problems accumulated during combat.
Corgi Socks continues to make luxury men’s socks in Ammanford, Wales, and the brand has forged a strong association with the Crown.