Pick up
the threads

In the 19th century Hebden Bridge was known as Trouser Town. Now, two entrepreneurs are seeking to re-establish it with high-quality products

Hero image

At the top of the stairs of a ramshackle Hebden Bridge mill HebTroCo head honcho Brant Richards is understandably cheery.

He and mate Ed Oxley are the brains behind the burgeoning business, which was set up in a bid to save Hebden Bridge’s long trouser-making heritage.

Eight months after the idea was conceived in the pub – naturally – the company is making a profit. But most importantly, even in challenging economic times, home is where the heart is for the pair.

“The thing is, living here, if you look around the valley there’s chimneys and houses but there’s no manufacturing anymore and my kids and their friends at school don’t know anything about mills,” says Richards.

“I’ve lived in the valley since 1996 so I can remember when there were mills before they were either knocked down or converted into flats.

“This place used to knock out more trousers than anywhere else in the world and this is the last factory making trousers in Hebden Bridge – it would just be such a shame to let it all go abroad.”

“We thought, well, everybody deserves one good pair of pants.”

Hebden Bridge earned the nickname Trouser Town because, at the height of the industry in the 1800s, it turned out a million pairs of trousers a year. Shorties, the town’s last remaining mill, today houses not only HebTroCo but the factory where it places its orders.

Once the pair, who met through their mutual love of all things bike-related – Richards designed them, Oxley rode them – became hooked on the tales of old Hebden they set about turning their plan into action.

A Kickstarter was launched with the aim of selling 176 pairs of trousers – a weekly run at the mill – within 30 days. Much to the amazement of the pair, all sold within five hours.

Oxley says: “I remember when we were starting up, you talk to a lot of normal people and £100 is quite a lot for a pair of trousers – but not out of the range that some people pay for a pair of jeans.

“But we thought, well, everybody deserves at least one good pair of pants. People do want something that is really good quality.”

From the outside, it may have looked like the easiest task in the world – design some trousers and sell them. But with no mass media interest – despite them expecting there would be – and with problems over materials being delivered, things were anything but easy in the days leading up to the launch of the project.

They had to create product photos of both dark navy and grey trousers using only one pair of navy trousers that weren’t the finished design – and some green samples – “so all the photos were very vague and soft focus so you couldn’t really see much”, says Oxley.

“The rolls of materials we were using were meant to be here but they hadn’t arrived so on the day I was in here with a photographer trying to take some photos of the grey material to show what they would look like but in the artificial light it looked like it’s pink and in sunlight it looked like it was blue.

“Then we put them on the wrong way round so it was this frantic struggle – tomorrow’s the coronation but when is the crown going to be ready?”

Even though the Kickstarter proved a success – and HebTroCo is now turning a profit – Richards says bosses at the factory that made their products were still unsure of their motives.

“They were so suspicious after we’d done our Kickstarter because they assumed we’d just get everything made in Portugal after that initial run but we said no, although that would have been easier.

“This factory was surviving on the fact it was the last man standing, so as the other factories closed they picked up the orders.

Overseas suppliers were “battering” the factory on price. “We’ve never battered them on price – we want a fair price but we’re not going to screw them down because we want it to keep going.”

Just after the idea was formed, Hebden Bridge was devastated by the Boxing Day floods. Almost 12 months on the clean-up operation is still underway. But while closed shops are still evident, the spirit of the town and a sense of togetherness are there for everyone to see.

HebTroCo is trying to harness that togetherness by involving the local community as much as it can. They use the local post office to post out orders – which come complete with a free Yorkshire Tea teabag – and have a local collection point, and a place to try on trousers, at Drink, a bottle shop and bar in the town.

Richards says: “We try to keep everything as local as possible. Our banners and postcards are made in town. I’m sure you can spend hours trawling the internet for better prices but there is nothing better than doing face to face.”

Oxley adds: “We do little pop-ups, which are great because we get to play records and have drinks and show off our lovely trousers. We have the barbers in from the North West Barber Co and food from another local supplier.”

With things going as well as can be expected, do they think Brexit – when it eventually arrives – will have an impact?

They were initially apprehensive, they say, about Britain’s reputation with their continental neighbours and whether they would want to be associated with anything made here. But Oxley says that despite a slight wobble immediately after the decision, the orders from over the Channel have continued to flow.

“I’m proud to be British,” he says. “And after Brexit it was as though we haven’t been allowed to say that because if you do you’re some kind of fascist. Now it’s important to do something positive about Britain because it’s not a rubbish country full of bigots.

“There’s a lot of history in what we’re doing. The fabrics we’re using – moleskin and corduroy – were the uniform of the industrial revolution and the working people and it was developed in this area. That’s something to be very proud of.”

Photo: Adam Booth

Interact: Responses to Pick up
the threads

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.