Brooks Factory Visit – April 2013
Upon entering the Brooks England factory, it immediately felt like a ‘family affair’. Only a thin glazed boundary divided the office and factory spaces, creating the cohesive feel between office and factory staff. They were instantly welcoming and humorous and I personally couldn’t wait to get on with the factory ‘tour’.
The Office Manager, Steve, guided us through the manufacturing process – ‘Goods In’ all the way through to ‘Goods Out’, showing us the raw materials that make their way through stamping, folding, stretching, bending and breaking. Brooks uses materials as diverse as leather and titanium in the production of their bicycle saddles and accessories.
The factory space is lofty, airy and bright; probably cold in the wintertime but on a sunny day in April, this corrugated cathedral to British engineering somehow shone – the containers of chrome components sparkled through the pulsing commotion of machinery and blaring radio daze. It was a surprisingly pleasant place to be, not just because of the inherent productive activity, but the men and women greeted us with smiles and welcomed us with warmth. They seemed relaxed to demonstrate their activities to us, and were proud, self-assured in what they were producing. This was an earnest effort – a proud individual determination and sense of belonging to a whole.
Steve showed us decade’s old machinery, like bulky old iron men, steadily turning out steadfast parts – turning wire into springs and pressing plates into cups. The somber edged economy of the equipment brought forth memories of a richer material past, a time when brawn succeeded elegance. The large contraptions, mostly air driven, hissed – loudly driving cogs, cams and cutting tools; they were metronomic and hypnotic. Being close to the power of the machinery was slightly disconcerting for us but the calm workers seemed deftly intertwined with their motorized counter-parts. They seemed at one with automation, instinctively moving between mechanical movements, their limbs dancing underneath the tooling.
In another part of the factory, tanned leather (of various colours and hues) lay upon palettes under skylights; their aroma was distinctive, warm and pungent. Hide from the U.K. Ireland and Scandinavia, waited to be divided, cut, pressed and paired into saddles. Veins were visible, evidence that the material was once skin, it was once alive – it had housed a beast, witnessed the seasons and taken on the qualities of its surroundings. Stamped, soaked and stretched, pushed over brass patterns and the edges cut away by hand, the saddles then needed time to rest – they were being cured in rows on racks, now waiting to be numbered, stamped and branded.
Then fixing to the frame. The formed saddles were fastened by machine and by hand. Employees yielded sharp-nosed customized hammers, shiny-ended mallets to round down the rivets. Hands were essential here, harmonious hitting upon the saddle’s surface left the traces of their manipulation in glistening copper. The maker’s monogram was left behind; the individuality of the day was left as a coded signature forever.
And the final cut – the saddle chamfer, carried out by the wonderfully enthusiastic, Eric Murray. Eric executed the chamfer with humility and purpose, using an old knife specially sharpened for the job. Eric and his cohorts seemed to have a wonderful ability for concentration. In all the noise and movement of the factory floor, they seemed to possess attentiveness in the face of incredible distraction. There’s a lesson for us all there in the modern world of attention deterioration it pays to practice, to commit to doing one thing really well. And so to polishing; the black leather saddles, were liquorice-like and quickly buffed to a regimental sheen; the brown saddles had a conker-like finish when completed; the resulting surface, beautifully tactile and pleasing to the touch.
I think we all came away from Brooks feeling proud and privileged to have been allowed to look around the premises. Those of us who didn’t own a Brooks saddle wanted to buy one; those who did wanted to get away and go cycling. The whole experience fuelled our enthusiasm to be involved with the company. It deepened our understanding of the brand, the products and people who are so lovingly involved with them. Thank you for having us.