Fox Brothers – PART 1 – INTRODUCTION & HISTORY
For this month’s in depth feature two of the Cabourn team – Rachael and Ben – ventured deep into the heart of the Somerset countryside to visit one of the most renowned fabric mills in the world, Fox Brothers.
This historic mill, which dates back to 1772, has contributed to some of Nigel Cabourn’s most iconic pieces. From 800-gram double-faced wool on our Donkey Jacket, Raw Flannel on our pinstripe suits to checked tweeds on fishing satchels; Fox Brothers has been a huge part of the Nigel Cabourn journey from the early days.
The pair were lucky enough to spend some invaluable time with head of design, Rosemarie Boon, and woven and textile designer, Jo Neades who have extensive knowledge and passion for the cloth and the history behind this iconic British brand.
When chatting with Rosemarie it became clear that, although Fox’s official founding date was 1772, it really began much earlier than that.
“…Fox started much, much earlier than the official date, it was more around the mid 1600’s. Wherever you had green fields, you had sheep, and where you had sheep you had wool. That’s what happened everywhere in England, not just here. A lot of the wealth of Great Britain was based on that; hence the woolsack seat that the politicians sit on in the houses of Parliament – wool has always been very important.”
“Wool made Britain very wealthy very early on. In some of our Fox ledgers you can see we were shipping over to Amsterdam, America then to the Far East, in the late 1700’s, which is quite incredible really. “
Nowadays, however, it’s a different story as Rosemarie explained that the finer cloths (the flannels and worsted yarn) mostly come from the Southern Hemisphere, places like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, while a much smaller amount is now spun here in the UK.
“Part of the reason we don’t use UK wool on the finer cloth is that from the late 18th century into the 19th century sheep were bred in the UK for meat. Wool became less important, so they kept breeding it for meat and that jeopardized the wool element. I think there are people interested in reversing it, but that would obviously take time and generations of different sheep- so at present we just don’t have the quantities here, whereas places like New Zealand have 1000 sheep in one flock.”
There are British wool companies rising up again though and Fox Brothers work with them when they can.
“…There’s a UK wool spun by a company called Laxtons, who are based in Yorkshire. He started spinning not so long ago, so it is nice that an old established mill such as Fox Brothers can combine with a more recent factory like Laxtons and create something special together.”
This sense of heritage meets contemporary was a prominent theme during our visit to Fox Brothers. The company manages to uphold its core values of traditional manufacturing, and a long standing skilled workforce, while still adapting to the modern world with their vast range of design technology and willingness to collaborate with companies with much less of a heritage background than their own.
With a history spanning so many hundreds of years, there were lots to talk about and when we asked Rosemarie about the Fox Brothers workforce and the changes over the years, there was a clear time period that stood out,
“Between the two wars was when we had the biggest work force, around 5000 people were employed. We are now down to 25. During the wars years we did huge bulk orders of cloth for the army and navy.”
It was hard to imagine that the workforce had once been so big. Yet when Rosemarie told us about some of the production quantities coming out of the factory, it was understandable why such a vast army of workers was required,
“ We made around 850 miles of puttees in Fox Brothers during both wars, that was around 70,000 puttees a week” Rosemarie explained,
(Puttees were the long strips of cloth that soldiers used to wrap around their legs for support; the name comes from the Hindi word for bandage.)
Above is the original Fox Brothers factory, ‘Tonedale House’ built in 1807 by Thomas Fox, only a stones throw from the current one in Wellington Somerset.
“…In the archives we have books of these putties, which were confiscated from prisoner of war camps in Austria, which is even sadder really…”
“Fox’s were making puttees for a long time. Since 1898 in fact. They were developing them specially, and even shaping the putties to the calf of the leg. They became a huge part of both world wars and images of soldiers taken during that time all show them wearing their puttees.”
It was not just puttees of course. In the years before the first and second world wars, Fox lay claim to developing a new serge drape mixture known today as ‘khaki’ which was used during the Boer War of 1899 –1902.
This new colour replaced the traditional redcoats, whose bright colour often proved dangerous when faced with the enemy. The word Khaki is based on the Indian word for dust, which is quite fitting really when you think of the colour!
For the spelling Fox were able to make it whatever they wanted, as they took ownership of it. Some examples of how the name Khaki could have been spelt are shown an original document, below.
Above shows a picture taken from an original book of accounts from the late 1700’s and shows the a customers monogram. Each customer had its own unique mark created by Fox Brothers for reference.
‘FOX CLOTH’ marketing sign from the extensive archive.
Moving forward, and past the wars, we wanted to find out if the factory still remained busy and what caused the massive decline in the workforce.
“We suffered like many other mills producing woolens when people started to grow fond of man-made fibres. You could just chuck garments in the washing machines and wash everything very easily, wool really suffered because of this. However, slowly from the late 80s-90s it has grown up again, and back to being valued. People appreciate more where it is from and where it was made. So we produce a lot more cloth now than what we did 10 years ago”.
It was wonderful to learn from Rosemarie that today the company was still thriving, despite the drop in the size of the workforce over the years. For a company with such an extensive history and method of working, we wondered how easy it was to find people to match the skill set and passion of those workers who have been with Fox over the past few decades,
“Succession is a real worry. Often the skill our work force has takes a lot of time to learn, and they involve concentration. They aren’t reliant on computers or gadgets, which many of the younger generation use nowadays, which is a worry about the generations coming through who may not want to learn about weaving. “
In a world of social media and at a time when computers and the internet are so prominent we had to agree with Rosemarie in hoping education would make a U turn, allowing people to appreciate the process of manufacturing and design.
“ I think it is important that people know it isn’t always about being the most academic, for us it is about making things and craftsmanship, and that is a wonderful thing to be part of. “
The above images show the line sheets and fabric swatches from the Fox Brother’s archives, dating from the early 1900’s.
The above images show the account books dating from the early 1700’s, in each you can see the customers unique monogram for reference.
Above is a collection of original cardboard signs used for marketing from 1900 onward.
Thank you so much to Rosemarie and Jo for allowing us to visit the factory and learn so much about their extensive history, which is such a huge part of the Nigel Cabourn Authentic collection story.
PART 2 COMING VERY SOON….