17th April 2020

Craft / Featured / Yarmouth Oilskins

Made in Britain: Yarmouth Oilskins’ Designer, Sophie Miller. An Original Interview with Some Good Ideas

30 13 mins 3

Sophie Miller is a designer with over 20 years of industry experience working worldwide for brands such as Marks and Spencer, Adidas and more. Now based in her native hometown near Great Yarmouth, Sophie plays a key role in the development of both Yarmouth Oilskins and Spry Workwear as a design consultant.

Three years ago, Sophie approached the Yarmouth Oilskins’ factory team pitching to resurrect the brand. The addition of her vast industry knowledge, plethora of skills and fondness for workwear have paid dividends to not only the Yarmouth Oilskins brand, but to the factory, too. By opening up the factory floor to form new collaborations and external manufacturing contracts she has helped drive the business forward whilst allowing other independent brands to make the most of the Made in Britain label too. Sophie is a true pioneer of British manufacturing.

This interview was conducted by Sarah Hellen, our curator of the Makers' Row and all things craft at The Good Life Experience. Sarah studied Fashion Design and worked as a menswear designer before returning to her hometown in Wales to pursue her love of craft and making. She is passionate about sustainable fashion and the future of making in Britain.

Some Good Ideas: Firstly, can you briefly tell our readers about your role within Yarmouth Oilskins?

Sophie Miller: My role is Designer for Yarmouth Oilskins. I grew up 5 miles north of Great Yarmouth and have had a 20 year career designing clothes all over the world for some amazing brands. I’ve covered all types of products, working in Italy for Max Mara Group, M&S in London and designing sportswear for Adidas. I consider myself most fortunate though to be part of the small team behind Yarmouth Oilskins. The brand ignites my passion on so many levels, it’s from my home town which is very much a part of my family history, the workwear aesthetic has always been a passion of mine and I’m part of a very small, driven team and between us, we have rebuilt the brand and rescued the factory from closure.

Some Good Ideas: Have you always had a penchant for workwear? What was it that first caught your interest?

SM: Despite working in fashion for so long, I’ve always believed in having my own style, something that lasts a lifetime, not transient with every season. I believe in carefully buying well-made pieces that you will still love in years to come. I’ve always trawled charity shops for 1950s cashmere and well-loved workwear. The beauty of quality made pieces that were designed to last is what appeals to me. These are exactly the same qualities that embody workwear.

There’s something very special about ‘companion pieces’. Pieces that are with you for the journey…

Sophie Miller

That travel with you and take on the patina of your everyday life. I have a khaki herringbone chore jacket bought in the mid 90s, which I still wear today. It’s got a mark from a leaky pen in the corner of one pocket, and the cuffs are beginning to fray, evidence that it’s been so many places with me, but those battle scars add to its appeal.

I now own a Yarmouth Oilskins Smock, from our first production run after we re-launched the brand. I’ve worn it for at least for one or two days a week for the last three years and is now developing an amazing well-loved patina.

SGI: Is there a piece of workwear in the Yarmouth Stores archive you refer to most often?

SM: Our ‘Hero Piece’ has to be the Driver’s Jacket. It offers an alternative to the classic chore jacket style and it seems to have captured people’s imagination as a very wearable piece. We use the original pattern that has remained unchanged for over 50 years.

Each design element has been developed out of practicality. Originally designed for Bus Drivers, it’s cut slightly shorter in the waist because the driver would spend most of his time sitting at the wheel. The back of the jacket has two deep stitched pleats to allow for extra movement while leaning forward turning the big horizontal steering wheel. These pleats are stitched so the crease remains looking ‘smart’. The pockets are really special, there are two top buttoning pockets for notepads etc. and below those is an angled pocket, faced in hardwearing herringbone tape.

For me, these details born out of necessity epitomise workwear.

Sophie Miller

However, our archive is packed with so many great styles, each with their own story of functionality.

SGI: I’m interested in the key workwear design features. Are there certain details -for example- you will never stray far from when designing new pieces of workwear for Yarmouth Oilskins? Why so?

SM: Durability and the product being fit for purpose are the key characteristics that all our products must have. We use a core catalogue of tried and tested fabrics, which we know will get better and better with each wash and wear and will improve over time. We source as many fabrics as we can that are woven or finished in the UK, reducing the air miles as much as we possibly can.

We make sure that wherever possible we use binding or French seams, which means the inside of the garment is just as beautiful as the outside, that there are no loose threads or messy seams to fray. Tops of pockets are reinforced with heavy wide herringbone tape to add to the durability. We use traditional keyhole buttonholes, which are stronger and allow the button to sit flat when fastened.

Our buttons are made for us by Courtney & Co in Gloucestershire. They are made from corozo, which is a natural fibre and gentle on the planet. We asked David, the designer at Courtney & Co. to develop the unique fisheye button shape for us based on vintage workwear buttons we have used in the past.

Our brand label is sewn into the back neck of every garment, hand stamped in the factory with the size, as they have been for many years. It carries our iconic Yarmouth Oilskins logo which again has remained unchanged for over 100 years. It shows the two herring on which our town’s fortunes and those of our business were built. It also has the globe with the ambitious strap line ‘Sold throughout the World’, an ambition we maintain today.

SGI: Yarmouth Oilskins is very much rooted in heritage and is less about trends (which we love!). How do you go about designing new garments for the collection? Do you design seasonally?

SM: All of the products we make are more or less exactly as they would have been made years ago. I was very conscious not to tamper with something that has remained unchanged for so long. The authenticity is very important, and if we were to fiddle with details or add in elements, I’d feel we would be making unnecessary changes and disrespecting the heritage.

There are some products in the range where we have used new modern fabrications, which add to the beauty and wear-ability of the garment. Our new dry wax cagoule is a perfect example, based on our archive hooded smock. Historically it was made in heavy cotton sailcloth, which offered no protection from rain. The new dry wax makes it showerproof, and is much lighter, meaning it’s easy to fold away and carry in case of bad weather.

We deliberately don’t design new collections each season. Our products are timeless and non-seasonal. We’re asking people to cherish them for a lifetime, so it would seem glib to replace that collection with another every season. Coincidentally our values tie in well with the current backlash against fast, disposable fashion.

Because we are fortunate to own our own factory, we only make what we know we can sell, which adds to the sustainability and minimal impact our products have on the environment.

Our core range exists as it has done since we launched, we may however add in new colourways or fabrications now and again. Similarly, if a product isn’t performing very well we may drop it, and again we may add a new item if there is demand. We’re launching trousers as part of the collection this year; there’s been such demand and it makes sense to be able to offer top to toe dressing. Similarly, we are looking to add a few knitwear pieces. These are all styles from our history, which we now are able to add into our core collection as the business grows.

SGI: What can we, as modern-day consumers, learn from very traditional workwear garments?

SM: It’s that concept of buying beautifully crafted pieces, which you’ll never tire of, which will last you a lifetime. Made well, and built to last, traditional workwear can be the foundation blocks of your wardrobe onto which you can layer accessories, knitwear, lightweight pieces and jersey to compete the look. ‘Worn in, not worn out’!

SGI: Which companies and/or designers do you feel are the pioneers of the ‘Made in Britain’?

SM: There are a growing band of brands flying the flag for Made in Britain. It’s not easy, and there’s a great deal of educating the customer, so they understand the financial pressures which competing with cheaper overseas manufacturers brings, and that they also appreciate the many benefits of supporting British manufacturing. We love the work that Monty & Co are doing with children’s wear, and Spry Workwear for womenswear: their brand ethos is very similar to our own.

SGI: What do you see in the future of British Manufacturing?

SM: It’s a very real worry that Britain might lose the skills that once made it a great manufacturing nation. Our history as one of the great ‘Makers’ of the world is by no means secure, but thankfully the consumer is becoming more inquisitive, wanting to learn about the provenance of their clothing, and asking ‘who made my clothes’ more frequently.

I believe through education, being transparent about our costings, offering something that’s not available elsewhere, and of course with great heritage, we can try to secure the future of British manufacturing. Once lost, it’s very hard to regain these unique skills, so valuing them and shouting evangelically about ‘Made in England’ wherever possible has to help!

 

 

 

 

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Yarmouth Stores Ltd has designed and manufactured quality workwear garments to the highest standards in Great Yarmouth, Great Britain for over 100 years. Their traditional workwear garments, originally designed for practical use in the workplace, are being reimagined for the 21st century.

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