17th April 2020

Craft / Featured / Yarmouth Oilskins

Made in Britain: Yarmouth Oilskins’ Factory Manager, Sharon Bowles. An Original Interview with Some Good Ideas

6 8 mins 1

YYarmouth Stores Ltd. was established in 1898, manufacturing and selling classical coastal workwear across the world. Before the Second World War, the company employed more than 1200 people, the majority of them machinists making overalls, uniforms, smocks and other workwear in factories in Great Yarmouth. Today, this family-owned firm has responded to a rapidly changing market whilst remaining true to its heritage.
Sharon Bowles is the factory manager. Not only do they manufacturer the house-brand Yarmouth Oilskins, but Sharon’s team produce for other independent brands too, such as SPRY workwear and Monty & Co. Sharon and her team are really at the heart of a vibrant creative community flying the flag for 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: Hi Sharon, to our readers new to your company, can you give us a brief overview of Yarmouth Oilskins?

Sharon Bowles: Yarmouth Oilskins has designed and manufactured quality workwear garments in Great Yarmouth for over 120 years. Today we still create our original collection in the same factory using traditional methods using many of our original patterns. We work with British suppliers and manufacturers where possible. We have an online shop and we also have a handful of valued UK stockist, as well as stockists in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

SGI: Can you tell us about the current team at Yarmouth Oilskins?

SB: I have a team of 17 people, who are all very important to the story of Yarmouth Oilskins. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. They are a mix of UK and European nationals from Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.

There are:

  • Seven ‘Flatbed machinists’, whose service time ranges from 2 years to 34 years.
  • One ‘Overlocker’, who has been with us for three years.
  • Two ‘Finishers’ (of buttons, buttonholes, bartacks etc.) who have worked with us for three and four years.
  • Two ‘Quality Controllers’, who have worked with us for four to five years.
  • Two ‘Cutters’, a husband and wife who’ve worked here for nine years.
  • One ‘Bundle Packer’ (she creates the bundles of work for the flatbed girls). Sue has been with us for over 35 years and is our longest Yarmouth Stores employee
  • One ‘Sample/Pattern Maker’, our youngest, Beth, a Manchester University graduate and we are so lucky to have her on our team.
  • One Cutting Room Assistant, Barry, who has been with us for 18 years and is 72 years old. He works just a few hours a week with Beth to pass on his years of knowledge from working in the rag trade all his life.

SGI: The Made in Britain stamp is a hugely important part of your brand DNA. Have you ever felt pressure to move parts of your production offshore? 

SB: This is an easy one. No. Well not yet anyway but if we did this then our whole story would change!

SGI: How have you seen the demand for the ‘Made in Britain’ stamp change over the past few years? 

SB: Yes, there is more demand for British manufacturing now. But unfortunately, it is still an expensive option. However, for those looking to produce a clothing line, who understand that what we produce will be of extremely high quality and won’t fall apart after a couple of washes. And it is not just about the quality of what we make, it’s also the carbon footprint involved with buying overseas. From a quality control point of view, it can also make life a lot easier by being able to visit the factory that actually produces your clothes and see the people making them for themselves without flying out of the country to do so.

SGI: I’ve been reading recently about initiatives reintroducing apprenticeship schemes into the textile and garment production industry in Britain. Do you feel there is a demand for this?

SB: I like to think there is a new generation of girls and boys considering the textile and garment industry, but they will be being put off by the lack of factories which means very few job opportunities. They may have to move away from home, and how would they survive on apprenticeship pay? Even though I am sure most factories would pay above the minimum wage, it is still not enough to survive on. We have a plan for us to consider apprenticeships in 2021.

About four years ago, we tried with three apprentices. The first left in under a week, the second left on the day they started, and the third got pregnant after six months. But we’ll interview them differently next time around to make sure that this is what they want to do, that they have a passion for, not just because if they don’t take the job their benefits will stop.

SGI: Can you tell us about Yarmouth Oilskins’ commitment to sustainability and the environment?

SB: Our collection is made entirely with natural, durable fibres, designed to last a lot longer than one season, hopefully many years. We promote designs to “wear in not wear out” and are proud that our garments actually get better with age. We don’t design and manufacture several collections each year, our products are non-seasonal, designed to be worn all year round, and we only make what we know we can sell. We don’t have seasonal sales or discounts, or stock mountains to clear, we are very transparent about this with our customers. None of our products are ever sold off to discounters or are in danger of going to landfill. In terms of materials, we source as much as we can locally. Our fabrics are all dyed and finished in the UK, and our ambition is to buy woven fabric in the U.K. too, as soon as a suitable product becomes available. Our labels and packaging too are sourced as locally as possible to reduce air miles, in fact we use local potato sacks from a village nearby to post out our mail order requests.


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Yarmouth Oilskins

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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