My interest in fashion started with a humble sock. 1991, a family trip to Florida or LA, I can't really remember where exactly, (it wasn't that memorable), the airline loses our luggage. We go to the local mall to buy some new clothes to tied us over, I picked up a single pair of white tennis socks. I'd never seen individual pairs of socks sold before. It had a strange, embroidered navy blob of a man on a horse on the top part of the sock. My mother baulked at the price, but for some reason I really wanted this pair. I didn't know it was any different from all the ones in the plastic packs.
Anyway, this sock quickly became my favourite pair, it felt better than all the others, it lasted longer, and was generally superior to anything I'd worn before. This really switched me on to the fact that not all things are the same. I realised that these symbols and labels denoted the better difference and why this pair was more expensive than all the others.
Fast forward twenty years and I've had plenty of pairs of socks since then. My favourite brand in terms of quality and style is Richard James and it's only when you really like something do you start to research more about it. I quickly found out it was made in England by Pantherella in their factory in Leicester. This switched me on to the Pantherella brand and made me want to find out more. For the history of Pantherella - Click here
Pantherella kindly invited me to see for myself where the sock magic happens.
Located in Hallaton Street in Leicester, the Pantherella factory sits quietly in a residential area. Surrounded by anonymous 1930s housing, the red brick exterior hides a British success story. Leicestershire was once the epicenter of the world's hosiery and sock business employing over 500,000 people at one point. To still be 100% producing in the UK today alone is success in itself, but Pantherella is expanding, the order books are full and they are set to take delivery of 10 new manufacturing machines each worth £30,000.
They have a great business on which to build, 40% is in the UK, 40% in the US where they are seen as the premium sock brand, Jon Hamm even wears then in Mad Men, and 20% the rest of the world. As people's incomes have risen Pantherella has become more affordable and as commodity prices of raw materials such as cotton and wool have increased, Pantherella has become more competitive.
Pantherella currently produces three main sock brands; Richard James, Scott Nichol and Pantherella itself. It has 1352 sock options and makes 1.3 million pairs of socks using 60 tonnes of yarn a year. They make 8 different sizes of men's socks in various lengths.
It takes five minutes to make each sock. On the noisy factory floor, Bentley Komet machines, which are nearly 50 years old, hold their own against their more modern Italian cousins. Like Willy Wonka's sweet factory, socks are knitted and appear in a vacuum tube above the machine, growing longer and longer until they reach the required length then Augustus-Gloop-style disappear up the tube.
The next stage is the linking. There are two ways to finish a sock, one is called Rosso linking which is to simply stitch across, this is a cheaper finish and leaves an annoying ridge along the top of the toes. Pantherella uses the hand-linking process which matches stitch-for-stitch so the connection is smooth. The process can only be done by hand and requires between a year and 18-months of training to perfect. There are 200 stitches in fine socks, which requires a very good eye, and 96 in the thicker sports style socks to match. Pantherella have such high standards that throughout the manufacturing process things are continually rejected, they have 7% rejections, the industry norm is 3%.
Today, Pantherella has 103 employees with an average length of service of 12.5 years. John Plum recently retired after 51 years of service. 80% of the workforce live within a mile radius of the factory and walk to work, giving you something of a romantic Lowry-esque fantasy of factory life. While I was there, there was a backlog in the packing department and the girls from the office upstairs went down to help out. This kind of environment is conducive to good business and having a workforce which is happy and this proud of the product can only make it better.
4 years ago Pantherella bought the Scott Nichol brand. They have taken away any styles that overlapped with the Pantherella brand and are focussing on country/tweed and younger collegiate styles.
Things for the future included a dedicated e-commerce site and expansion into new markets and also further dominance of the American market.
Going to the Pantherella factory has made me even prouder of 'Made in England'. There really is nothing better.
Spring 2011 Styles