As the Jubilee is upon us, an appreciation of Great British Brands has started to come to the fore and why the devil not, eh? I recently had the opportunity to visit the Pretty Polly factory up in Derby.
Now I’m going to be job risking-ly honest about it and admit, I did wonder just how interesting it was going to be. I mean, tights come in black or flesh mostly, they pretty much all look the same and it can’t take much effort to make a pair of tights, right? Wrong! It was an afternoon that opened my pre-judging eyes and gave me a real appreciation for the craftsmanship that is hosiery.
Pretty Polly was founded in 1919 but is owned today by a company called Courtaulds which also owns Aristoc, Berlei and Gossard. They also produce hosiery for private labels, such as Boots among others.
Heart-warmingly , it is here in the Derby factory, that over 95% of their product is created. A great example of British companies keeping the production in house and providing jobs at home! So it is this, plus their long standing history, that qualifies them to be classed as a Great British heritage brand. And this is also one of the reasons the team here at Clothing at Tesco were so happy when it was announced we were to sell them on our site.
The first thing that struck me during my visit was the production levels; frankly, mind boggling! Using 30 tonnes of yarn every year, (with 200 permutations), this factory with 410 employees, 470 machines, working 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, produces 36 million pairs of hosiery, with a retail UK market value of £300 million. All here at home on our very own British soil, in a quiet and rather quaint Midlands town.
I walked through the factory floor feeling geeky awe at this industrious hive of hosiery production. I learned that there are four stages in the making of (most) tights: knitting, sewing, dyeing and drying. I wandered through the spinning section, watching the rows and rows of machinery whirring away at an incredible speed.
From start to finish, the stockings, tights, knee socks, hold-ups and more were spun; spools of yarn whirred furiously and individual white stocking legs gently dropped out from a funnel near the top and floated down into piles. Each one of the 470 machines has 400 tiny knitting needles, which spin 170 hours a week, and between them the knitting machines use 17 tonnes of yarn every year, producing 800,000 pairs every week at a rate of a leg every two minutes.
These individual legs of tights are then wheeled into the sewing department where they’re manually attached to a machine that adds the gusset and seals the toes. I found myself being surprised by the amount of hand labour that goes into the making, I’d just assumed these things were all done by machine and although they are, each one is loaded by hand. Whilst that may not seem like the most exciting job in the world, in this economic climate, a factory such as this provides much needed jobs. For the higher end product in the range, they actually hand stitch the gusset on the tights. The detail, level of work and attention to quality for the product was way above what I’d expected .
By now the tights shape had come together – but each one was a pasty white So, next, they are wheeled through to the dye house. Loaded into drums, the dye is then pumped into the machines, and they’re left to soak for anywhere from 2 ½ to 12 hours (2 ½ for the sheer product and up to 12 hours for the cotton poly mix).
To help the dye to dry, the hosiery is then put in what is essentially a big microwave. I‘ll admit I did wonder if next time I find myself in a situation where my tights still haven’t dried from the wash, could I pop ‘em in the microwave? I’ve yet to find out but maybe I’ll add my findings into another blog post.
At this point, everything’s ready to go, so now the tights just need checking and packing up. Every pair is checked individually using light boxes to search for ladders or snags. Quality is extremely important here in ‘hosiery towers’ (as it’s affectionately named by locals) and you have to hand it to them, checking every single of the 36 million pairs that leave their factory doors each year is pretty darn diligent. Astonishingly, 75% of the packing is done by hand.
So next time you unwrap your pair of newly bought tights, stop and think about these Derby factory workers who individually checked that pair for imperfections and who folded and hand packaged these up just for you. And when you slide the silky stocking up your leg and admire yourself in the mirror, spare a thought for the worker who may have hand stitched those tights, just to ensure a better quality for you. Think of the hard graft and the care and the checking that have gone in to each product, you could say making it ‘fit for a queen’.
No need to pull your socks up Pretty Polly, you’re top of your class already!