We travel to the former mill town, Long Eaton to meet the suppliers of sofas to the Cotswold Company, and find out how they are keeping proud local traditions of upholstery alive by producing quality handcrafted furniture.
“When I see the finished piece I feel a huge surge of pride,” says Matt, as he sticks a label displaying his name onto the finished sofa he’s lovingly crafted. “I love the whole process of upholstering.” Watching him you can see it’s an intensely physical job, and one that requires a huge amount of skill. Matt works to the “bap bap bap” sound of the staple guns and the “bop bop bop” of house music. The process from frame to finished sofa has taken eight hours. Matt works so fast that our photographer complains it’s hard to capture him. He uses up to 20,000 staples a day. “He’s faster than me,” his dad, Ash, tells us as he trims away excess fabric and checks how taut it is. “But not quite as good.”
The pair work with our soft furnishing partners, Andrew and Paul, who co-own a family-run furniture factory in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. A firm known for attention to detail, quality and the use of traditional techniques to manufacture exceptional British-made upholstery. “We’ve been in business together for 12 years but have known each other for 25 years longer than that,” says Andrew of Paul. So long in fact, they can’t remember how they know each other in the first place. “That’s a very good question. Everyone knows everyone here through furniture. I’m an upholsterer who wanted to be a frame-maker. He’s a frame-maker who wanted to be an upholsterer,” says Paul. “We worked with each other for a long time before we set up a business together.”
QUALITY IN DEMAND
As both came up through the ranks of the factory floor, they are armed with the knowledge of how things should be done. And aren’t above helping out when it comes to the Christmas rush. “We went into business with an idea of making unique pieces made the traditional way using horse hair,” says Paul. But they quickly grew into a business supplying quality furniture and bespoke pieces to some of the UK’s best-loved brands. Starting out with just eight employees, the firm now has 180, doubling in size in the past year.
“There’s a real demand for quality British-made upholstery at the moment,” Paul continues. They always use hardwoods beech and birch from FSC-approved forests, which are delivered as sliced tree trunks and shaped in the wood mill. In addition, they use traditional techniques like glue, screw and dowel, as well as some other trade secrets that they won’t share. That’s not to say they aren’t open to change. “Every day is a school day,” says Paul. “We’re learning all the time. It’s a different industry to the one we entered. There used to be two or three models. People would have a suite of furniture that they would re-cover two or three times over their lifetime. Now there are many different models and people will update them depending on the trend. It used to be that upholstery followed fashion, but now fashion follows upholstery.”
A LOCAL LEGACY
Matt has worked here for a decade. “I did my apprenticeship when I left school. I had a Derby County season ticket and whenever I saw Paul at matches I would ask him for a job until he gave in,” he laughs. Long Eaton is close to the county boundary, and represents Derbyshire’s last frontier before it gives way to Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. It’s a former mill town, where the history of upholstery is woven into the very fabric of the place. It was once famous for making Nottingham lace – in 1907, no fewer than 4,000 of its townspeople were employed in its making. As demand declined in the post-war era, their skills were put to use making upholstery for the rail industry.
“The whole area used to be railway sidings and when I was a kid we’d go exploring,” says Andrew. “I still have a pitchfork I found that would have been used to load hay onto the trains.” Long Eaton was the place trains would be repaired and repainted. Even the local pub is called the Tappers Harker, named after the men who would tap the railway carriage wheels and listen to hear if they were cracked. The soaring brick wood mill where the frames are made used to be a train shed, and still has its cranes and windows intact.
CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE
Today, over 2,700 people are employed in the upholstery industry in Long Eaton. It’s estimated that upholstery sales from furniture made in the town are in excess of £500 million per year. In 2015, the Long Eaton Chamber of Trade succeeded in getting the town recognised as a Centre of Excellence in Upholstery Manufacturing and its own registered trademark was created. “There really is no better place in Britain for furniture-making,” insists Paul, who works alongside his wife and two sons. “In some instances the trade has been passed down from father to son for three generations.”
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Owning a factory comes with a big responsibility. “Beyond the people we employ there are their families, and the sandwich shops and pubs that they eat and drink at. We look after everyone as well as we can.” Then there’s the environment, too. “We have a biomass wood burner that collects and burns the sawdust from the wood mill. It heats the whole factory in winter so we are 100% gas free. We are also looking at ways to recycle old furniture to save it going to landfill.” Despite the speed of the work, there‘s a family atmosphere here.
“There’s lots of people who are friends who’ve become family,” says Paul. “For example I was Ash’s best man at his wedding in 1976. We met on our apprenticeship. We’ve been on holiday together, our kids grew up together.” The youngest person who works at the factory is 18. The oldest employee is Roy, one of the cutters, who is 84. “And we’re just about to take on 10 apprentices,” says Andrew. “The apprenticeships last two to three years and uniquely, our apprentices work on every station. We like people to gain an understanding of the complete makings of a sofa. That way, if someone is sick it means another person can fill in for them. Rather than relying on contract workers.”
It‘s clear that quality can never be taken for granted. Rather than use MDF and staples to construct frames, we always make sure solid wood frames are used. “Here we put our names to our products with pride,” concludes Matt – and that‘s a philosophy we can certainly get behind.