Bringing Manufacturing Back To Britain

Back To Britain

It’s no accident that Trakke, a company specialising in handmade outdoor bags, are based in Glasgow. Founder Alec Farmer explains the pull of the city, “Glasgow for me is this great place; it’s creative; it’s near the mountains, once home to the world’s biggest sewing machine factory in the ‘40s. It’s kind of poetic” These three elements are key ingredients in the Trakke story. Glasgow is home to the Glasgow School of Art; famous for producing five Turner Prize winners. The city is also incredibly close to some awe inspiring yet easily accessible wilderness. The sewing machine factory that Alec referred to was the Singer Company’s factory, which shipped its sewing machines around the globe. However, with the decline of British manufacturing it was forced to cease production in the 1980s. It’s a similar story with the shipyards that once used to line the River Clyde. At the peak of Glasgow’s shipbuilding production, one fifth of all ships in the world were built on the River Clyde. Cyldebuilt ships were synonymous with quality and innovation. Unfortunately, the shipyards were victim to the same fate as the Singer Company. Advancing global competition undercut Glasgow industry ensuring demand dwindled and finally faded away. Nowadays you’re more like to see examples of Glasgow’s industry on display in a museum.

Creating A New Relationship With Glasgow’s Industrial Heritage

The city’s landscape still bears the scars of this once flourishing industry in the form of deserted warehouses. Dotted along the Clyde a lot of these historic buildings are undergoing a transformation, once the old warehouses that serviced the shipbuilding industry, now they are being repurposed by creatives who are breathing new life into these buildings and beginning a new relationship with Glasgow’s industrial heritage.

Trakke’s workshop, aptly named Basecamp, now occupies a former tobacco bond near the banks of the River Clyde. The space is bright and spacious, the complete antithesis of what you would expect a manufacturing workshop to be. The space has a personality reflecting the company’s attitudes and ethos. It’s remarkably neat, although I was assured by Alec that it’s usually not always this way, every piece of material, tool and accessory has its rightful place. Seeing how methodically laid out the workspace there’s a natural connection with the bags that are made here; deceptively simply designed with each one meticulously made by hand placing an emphasis on quality and craftsmanship.

How It Began

However Trakke grew from much humbler beginnings. Alec inadvertently began the company when he was a student studying Graphic Design at Glasgow School of Art. He grew bored of sitting in front of a screen all day and was itching to make something with his hands. He recalls how one summer in third year of university, “I was a student so I was completely broke, I used to head out into the city at the weekends with a friend and we used to go around jumping into all the skips and find old sofas and suitcases and prams and stuff and cut them up and take all the webbing off them and take all the fabric and buckles off them and take them back to the flat. We had a crappy sewing machine in the flat and we used to sew stuff together there. We probably made 200 bags like that, each one completely different, we didn’t use patterns so we just used to make them all with whatever came to mind really.”

Alec’s ability to see the potential of discarded items coupled with eye for design lead to some quirky pieces in the early days. He remembers how he, ‘made quite a nice pouch from a really horrific leather skirt that was absolutely awful, it was better made into a pouch for sure’.

As many of his university colleagues succumbed to the prospect of the steady employment the south could offer, Alec had a different idea. After graduating in 2011 with little job opportunities available, he recalled “I could go and get a proper job but if I then want to start something having had a proper job it’s quite a big sacrifice so I’m kind of in an ideal position to start a business because it can’t get any worse than it currently is!”

Made In Scotland

Five years later Trakke have grown to a team of seven, including founder Alec, all housed in their Basecamp workshop. Hanging prominently in the workshop is a sign proudly declaring ‘Handmade in Scotland’ whose slogan is a cornerstone of Trakke’s business approach. Alec is the first to champion his team and he speaks with candid admiration of their skills and dedication, “There’s four machinists and they’re all awesome and the beauty of it is, is that they’re perfectionists. Some of the stuff that goes in our sample bin, that they won’t send out to customers, I’m like ‘what’s wrong with this? This is fine’ and they will respond, ‘you see this one stitch here that’s a little bit dodgy’ – it’s crazy! It’s what I want because I don’t police them in any way, they’re their own worst enemy for that, they’re just so into it and so good at it and what’s really important for me is that we talk about them a lot because I think a lot of businesses don’t talk about the people making their products. If you give people pride in what they do, they’ll do it way better.”

Empowering His Staff

Alec’s approach to business and management is not only refreshing but inspiring because it’s a model that not only works in practice but is getting incredible results too.  One of his key aims with Trakke is to help bring manufacturing back to Britain but Alec is wary of being overly sentimental about the glory days of British manufacturing, “I would love it if we were at a point where we could call it British manufacturing again, we had like big places making stuff again, I think that would be really cool but I think you just have to change the focus because when Britain was great for manufacturing it was very much like mass-production set up and that’s fine but it’s not very satisfying for people working there.” Instead Alec enacts a leans production model, he explains, “we train our staff to perform every task in the workshop – helping to rekindle skills that might otherwise be forgotten. This gives them the autonomy to decide amongst themselves which tasks they perform each day. If riveting doesn’t seem too riveting, they swap around and do some pattern cutting instead. They benefit from a wider range of skills and experience, and ultimately, their working week is more diverse and varied.”

Another way that Alec is bringing pride back to British manufacture is by sourcing all the material for the bags that are made in the workshop from British suppliers. This is not only important for Alec to support local businesses but it also means that he has a very close connection with each supplier. He explains the appeal of this way of working, “The beauty of it was that he was just down the road and I could go and check in and check that everything was being made nicely, I could go and pick up the stuff when it was ready and suddenly I was like this is a nice little set up having this guy so close to home and I could buy ten at a time.”

It’s not only a connection with his suppliers that’s important; it’s also the personal relationship he builds with his customers. Every Trakke bag is made to order, and they involve each customer in every step of the process, “connecting people with what they see on the shelf and how’s it’s made is really important. Because we’re online we know that not everyone can come into the workshop, what we do is have this system that if you order a bag from us, when your bag gets cut we send you an e-mail saying ‘we’ve just cut your bag’ and there’s a photo , and when we start making the bag we send you an e-mail saying we’re really stoked and here’s a photo and we explain who’s making it and when it arrives it’s got a little card with it signed by one of the guys who made it. While you may be on the other side of the world we’re trying to keep you involved in the making process and I think that’s really exciting.” It’s this level of care, passion and attention to detail that is resonating with customers worldwide. Trakke have shipped bags to Iceland, Japan and America to name but a few. The journey doesn’t end when the bag leaves the shop, it takes on a new life by the owner and this is one of the most fulfilling  aspects for Alec, “This is the most exciting thing for me is when you see a bag in an exotic location, our customers are awesome and so many of them do amazing stuff. One guy who’s an artist went on a residency on a tall ship and sailed to Antarctica so I’m excited to see the stuff from that!” This perfectly encapsulates the company’s ethos of ‘Adventure Everywhere’ and Alec is quick to affirm that adventuring doesn’t need to be something grandiose. “I want to make products that inspire people to adventure in whatever form that is, ‘adventure everywhere’ is exactly what I mean; whether you’re exploring a new city, or climbing a tree or doing something stupid with your friends or skimming stones or whatever, it’s an adventure; it doesn’t have to be climbing the biggest mountain or cycling the furthest distance.”

This is something that Alec feels passionately about and ultimately he would like to establish, “a placement or an internship or something that helps young machinists get into machining because a lot of these skills are dying out and it would be great to have that hook-up with a college and begin to help keep those skills alive and get people in a manufacturing environment to practice”

Working With Jura Whisky

Alec recently went on his own adventure to the island of Jura seeking inspiration for the newest addition to Trakke’s collection. Jura is a small remote island off the west coast of Scotland perhaps best known for the whisky that’s produced there of the same name. The distillery approached Alec to design and produce a bag that was inspired by the island. “While Jura Whisky is itself a huge company, it is very rooted in the island, it’s very much a product of the place where it’s from and they were really keen to showcase the wild adventurous side of the island and appeal to younger people at the same time and I think they came to us because maybe we connect with people quite well in that sense.” Alec thrives on this creative freedom that was afforded to him on this project, ““absolute dream project, I’m worrying that I might have peaked too soon with quality of project because it is so good!”  The bag not only exhibits Trakke’s characteristic fastidious approach, there’s also the story of Jura imbued into its very fabric. The research that Alec undertook of the landscape and culture of the island is integrated into the design. This is apparent from the colour which is derived from the native lichen to the copper detailing inspired by the stills at the distillery.

Like all Trakke bags there is a deceptive simplicity underpinning the design that is in part inspired by vintage mountaineering kit which many outdoor brands are currently emulating albeit on a very superficial level. For Alec, it’s not only the aesthetic, it’s how original mountaineering equipment was made that really influenced him, “there’s still a lot of it around today – it’s been used and abused and like duct taped and thrown off mountains and duct taped again and re-sewn and it’s still going! The reason it’s still going normally is because A – they’re really simple so it’s not all this technical stuff you see on backpacks today and B – it’s made from materials that are long lasting.”

In Trakke’s short existence their considerable growth has been remarkable but not surprising through Alec’s devotion to his own principles of simplicity and integrity supported by a dedicated and talented team. He muses about his aspirations for Trakke, “I would like it to be a household name, not for any self-indulgent reason, but because I think that if it were a household name it would mean that we succeeded in making British manufacturing work on a bigger scale and that’s where I want to get to”. A bold ambition for sure but it’s one that’s rooted in an implicit understanding of Glasgow’s manufacturing heritage with a commitment to shaping its future, one bag at a time.

You can find out more about Trakke and their collection on their website

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