A sea change for YARMOUTH OILSKINS
Clothes provenance is now just as important as knowing how and where our food comes from. The reinvention of a traditional East Anglian brand is right on trend.
In the roll of honour of East Anglian brand names Yarmouth Oilskins might not be one you readily call to mind. But for over 100 years, a set of Yarmouth Oilskins, made by the Great Yarmouth firm Johnson and sons, were cherished by generations of fishermen to protect them from the worst that the North Sea could throw at them. They were issued to sailors on board merchant vessels and the Navy, and worn by herring girls all the way up to the east coast to the Scottish ports.
In fact, Johnson’s brands were sold worldwide and not just to seafarers. The company supplied clothing to the armed services, industrial workers and the leisure industry, employing, in its heyday, up to 2,000 local people.
But the decline in the fishing industry, cutbacks in the Navy, even the loss of the mining industry – Johnson’s made donkey jackets worn by miners – plus, dramatic change in the UK textile industry, struggling to compete with competition from overseas markets, led to rapid deterioration in the firm’s fortunes. Johnsons was forced to close some of its factories, while the team of workers in the Great Yarmouth factory, who once sewed oilskins for fishermen the world over, found themselves employed to ‘cut, make and trim’, as the company switched production to making work garments for other manufacturers.
But that could all be about to change. The Yarmouth Oilskins brand has been revived and relaunched in a range of high quality, fashion garments – classic fishermen’s smocks in indigo and denim, cream and subtly striped oversized workers’ shirts, rugged blue and tan engineers’ and drivers’ jackets. It’s traditional British workwear, refreshed and modernised, each garment telling its own story about heritage and style. Manufactured to exceptionally high standards, using traditional skills, they’re the sort of clothes you want to own for ever.
The team behind the range are Norfolk designer Sophie Miller and Suffolk-based consultant Jackie McKellar, who share a passion for quality and a reluctance to let another British brand disappear. They both have extensive experience in the textiles and clothing industry, particularly working for suppliers to Marks and Spencer and have both witnessed the decline in UK manufacturing in recent decades.
For them, the story is about turning around a seventh generation family business, breathing new life into an iconic brand and putting the considerable skills of the Great Yarmouth workforce to more creative use. It’s also about bringing to market a range of products that speak volumes about the region’s proud heritage, and which chime with the current appetite for high quality, British-made, artisan products with provenance. Suddenly we’re questioning the wisdom of cheap, environmentally disastrous, disposable fashion. Increasingly, we want to know where our clothes come from, how they’re made, and we want them to last.
They are taking the Yarmouth Oilskins range to trade fairs and have scored successes with independent retailers such as Seven Wolves in Norwich and Cahill in Colchester, as well as further afield in Frome, Somerset, London, Bristol, Japan and Hong Kong. They have yet to secure a Suffolk outlet for Yarmouth Oilskins but no doubt it won’t be long. In the meantime you can find them online at yarmouthoilskins.com
ABOVE, LEFT AND RIGHT: Yarmouth Oilskins are reinvented as fashion garments