To say that Carradice embodies the concepts of heritage and artisanship within the production of their legendary cycling luggage would be an understatement verging on a dis-service to the small, family owned company that nestles amidst the narrow streets of two-up, two-downs of Nelson, Lancashire: Carradice define these two concepts, pure and simple. It was here in this small, northern town under the imposing flanks of Pendle Hill, the gateway to the Lancashire moors and the stunning Forest of Bowland, that Wilf Carradice would toil his week away in the cotton mills of 1930s England knowing that the open air and rolling hills that he could see from the factory floor awaited him once the whistle blew on a Friday afternoon, thus signalling the end to the working week.
Wilf’s escape from the claustrophobic and often dangerous world of industrial scale cotton production was, like so many young men and women of his day, the bicycle. Weekends would be whiled away on touring trips across the peaks and through the valleys of this rugged yet verdant playground. The trips demanded sustenance- and often the means to cook it, even a canvas to sleep under – so Wilf would construct hard-wearing, waterproof saddle bags and panniers using his cotton workers’ skills. The bags soon developed a reputation within the tightly knit cycling community as being the best available, primarily due to Wilf’s skill in working with the core element of his products: Cotton Duck.
Cotton Duck is an extremely tightly woven and waxed cotton. The density of the weave creates a totally natural waterproof material. How waterproof? In WWII the army used it to construct collapsible buckets to carry water in (not to mention gas mask cases), so tight is the weave. That the fabric swells when wet is key to the waterproof properties. Thus, even when a hole for fixings or the sewing process is punched into the material, the weave’s nature means it remains totally waterproof – not something you get with modern ‘technical’ fabrics, hence the need for taping of seams.
Friends’ requests for them soon snowballed from a sideline Wilf could run alongside his apprenticeship at the mill from his family’s spare room so he left the world of industrial mass production: Wilf set up on his own to specialize in producing high quality saddle bags and touring equipment by hand in a small workshop above a shopfront. And that, to this day, is exactly what happens in a well lived-in, somewhat cluttered, workshop situated in a small cobbled courtyard just a few streets away from Wilf’s old house.
We sit chatting whilst leafing through the collection of old Carradice brochures and grass-track race programs with old Carradice adverts in that date way back to the 1950s; the yellowed pages and frayed binding testament to the heritage that permeates the air of the workshop.
Carradice bag production is now under the stewardship of David Chadwick, whose father bought the business from Wilf as a going concern in the 1970’s when Wilf decided retirement beckoned and his craftsman’s days of hand-stitching and finishing should come to an end. David’s dad raced with Tom Simpson in his youth (well, signed on with him prior to Tom disappearing up the road and not being seen again) and introduced David to cycling and bike racing as a lad, with David’s first memories of the exotic world of the pro-peloton dawning with the first real Tour de France coverage in the UK on the fledgling Channel 4. It was love at first sight…
I made the journey north to enjoy a weekend of riding around the aforementioned Forest of Bowland in mid-March and took the opportunity to visit Carradice and meet with David to gain an insight into the company. We sit chatting whilst leafing through the collection of old Carradice brochures and grass-track race programs with old Carradice adverts in that date way back to the 1950s; the yellowed pages and frayed binding testament to the heritage that permeates the air of the workshop. Perhaps the most touching endorsement of the brand which reaches out to us from that golden age is in an anecdote David relays to me over a bacon and eggs cobs (a Carradice Friday morning institution, I am informed- and I’m never one to rail against tradition!). It concerns an old, dyed-in-the-wool Clubman who came to see David at the workshop with a threadbare saddle bag and asked if it could be restored to its former glory. David, unsure it was worth it – not to mention his reservations about being able to “work successfully with thin air”- was happy to strike favourable deal for a newer model in recognition of the old hands’ brand-loyalty.
”I’m not interested in a new one!” the visitor exclaimed “This bag belonged to Beryl Burton!”
That Beryl Burton, perhaps England’s greatest ever racing cyclist, used Carradice bags to cycle the length & breadth of the country in order to race and win everything in sight holds no surprises for me. It has to be said that her name did not crop up by accident: I had spent the evening before our meeting trying to conjure up as iconic a name as possible from British cycling lore with which to fish for stories with; Carradice’s history did not let me down.
The workshop’s atmosphere is alive with a calm, focused industry: bolts of cotton and boxes of fixings are stacked and stowed everywhere, off-cuts of material and newly finished panniers vie for space atop tables and upon well-worn shelving. Everything is, no doubt, completely ordered but, as an outsider, it appears to be a somehow comforting, chaotic jumble which greets me as I emerge onto the shop floor from the small office David and his backroom staff occupy. Hammers, Stanley knives and bradawls lie amidst the Singer sewers and hundred-year-old leather working machines. All bear the scars and scrapes of much usage and are doubtless ingrained with DNA from the hands of their previous owners from down through the years; true craftsmen’s tools, part of the fabric of the building in which they’ve crafted fabric for years. Like every good workshop, there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place – but I guess you’d have to live it day in day out to truly read the scene.
Staff turnover is low. Very low. All of the employees have many years service. Paul Clegg, production manager, still rides the 5 miles to work down the Liverpool-Leeds canal, which the old mill sits beside, every day: He’s been doing that for 30 years. Experience counts – is crucial – when working with Cotton Duck, Carradice’s trademark material of choice, as it is difficult to work well with. The knowledge required is gained via lengthy service; working completely by hand brings real pride to the work and a love for the product.
One of the first things that strikes me is the lack of any computerised interference. All processes are etched into the minds, eyes and hands of the creators with all but brief guidance on a particular process scribbled in pencil on bits of old card lying amongst the craftsman’s tools. Every bag is signed on its label by the individual who made it; each bag is made, start to finish, by just one person, reinforcing the artisan ethos. Carradice do not use ‘section sewing’ assembly-line techniques. Postcards often arrive addressed to the individual sewer, thanking them for their reliable work. There is quite some competition as to who gets a card from furthest flung place!
The workshop’s atmosphere is alive with a calm, focused industry: bolts of cotton and boxes of fixings are stacked and stowed everywhere, off-cuts of material and newly finished panniers vie for space atop tables and upon well worn shelving
The process all take place under one roof: Materials arrive in downstairs, are then conveyer-belted upstairs to the shop floor to be taken to each of the various workstations for cutting, sewing, the attaching of buckles and leather work and finishing touches before being quality controlled and sent back downstairs for packaging and distribution out via the same doorway to that cobbled courtyard through which the materials arrived in by.
Carradice have, naturally, developed and refined their product range over the years – nods to the needs of commuters and urban riding provide modern twists to the range – but the core product, the care with which it is crafted and a passion to ensure that the principles of quality, as tightly woven into the heritage of the brand as the Cotton Duck itself is, remain central to the companies ethos.