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Factory visit: Alfred Dunhill

14 April 2010

There’s nothing like a factory you can get to on the Tube. So much less train time involved.

The Alfred Dunhill leather factory and pipe workshop are up in Walthamstow; though it could be in Northampton for all the difference it makes to the atmosphere of leather, antiquated machinery and craftsmanship. A factory like this is the same anywhere.

Of course, having it in the UK has many advantages, flexibility being one of them. One recent bespoke commission was from a US customer that wanted both a coat and hip wallet reduced in size to fit only US notes. He also requested that they both be lined in crocodile rather than the usual leather and the skins to be in a particular waxed, matte finish. Much easier to organise when your factory’s on the Victoria line.

The experience of the craftsmen is another obvious advantage. The leather factory used to belong to Tanner Krolle, years ago, and several of the staff moved to Dunhill at the time. One of the bespoke and prototype makers, Rick Read, is one example and he’s been doing the same job since 1977.

Rick and his colleague in bespoke, Tomasz Nosarzewski, talked me through a few of their new products, including a travel wallet that has the Bourdon House address handwritten on the front to look like a letter. It was inspired by an old model and new versions will feature original stamps from the period.

The design will also be used in a range of notebooks that were surprisingly beautiful for such simple items. The paper is a pale grey with white instead of black lines.

Bags, of course, are the main focus, and Tomasz showed me an original doctor’s bag that inspired part of the new Explorer line. The mechanism is being updated on new models to be made in brass and so reduce the weight of the bag – it never fails to surprise me how heavy the old models were.

This factory makes the Alfred Dunhill line, which is reserved for the highest-quality construction and materials. Bags are made in batches of three or five at a time and given to one craftsman that sees them through to the finish. Each bag features the signature of that worker on the leather label inside.

Only the hand sewing may be done by someone else. Hand sewing is particularly necessary on handles, as they have to be more robust and are often curves that would be tricky for a machine to work.

If anything, though, there is more handwork involved in the pipe making. I never thought I’d find the making of pipes interesting, but there you go.

Because each piece of wood required for the bowl of a pipe is unique, it has to be worked down and hollowed out by a hand-worked machine. Rather like benchmade shoes. They tried to automate one process few years ago, drilling the hole down the centre of the mouthpiece, but found that a machine couldn’t tell when a drill bit was wearing out so it wasted one or two each time the bit had to be replaced. A human hand can sense that.

Equally, because the mouthpiece has to be flush with the bowl and each bowl is unique, the former has to be filed down by hand. It’s a lovely craft that is only pursued now by two or three places in the world, one being Walthamstow.

Thank you to Sue and Steve for kindly showing me around