Charles Kirk is a rarity these dates – a successful, family-run knitwear business that still makes garments from scratch in its UK factory

Charles Kirk is set back from the main road in Goring-on-Sea, a quiet town on the south coast in West Sussex. It’s a peaceful setting for one of the few remaining schoolwear manufacturers that still creates knitted garments at a UK factory from scratch – starting with knitting the yarn through to sewing in the ‘Made in Britain’ labels.

From the main road, Charles Kirk’s warehouse looks like a relatively small unit, but once inside, the premises take on a Tardis-like quality with a seemingly endless warren of rooms and staircases. The unit has been expanded in what feels like every direction since the company moved in during 1987, and every last centimetre of space has been put to use. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that the family that owns the business, Charles Horton and his wife Deborah, along with their daughters Sarah and Elizabeth, are looking for a new, bigger unit to allow the continued expansion of the business.

Current managing director Charles is the grandson of namesake Charles Horton who, in 1952, invested in a women’s blouse manufacturing company founded in 1939 by Charles Kirk. The London-based company was relocated in 1951 to the south coast, where it started to specialise in knitwear as well as blouses. A year later, toy manufacturer Charles Horton was persuaded to come out of retirement to invest in Charles Kirk, along with his son and daughter; by the 1960s Charles Kirk had sold his part of the company to the Hortons and the company began specialising in schoolwear.

Other avenues

It’s a focus that continues today, along with a desire to maintain its UK manufacturing operations; however, the company is also adopting a prudent and pragmatic approach to the future of its business. “We’re looking at other avenues as well,” explains Deborah. “We went to the Made in Britain show last year and this year and that really fired us up – we want to keep manufacturing in the UK. But we need other avenues, because the schoolwear market, at the higher end, is not going to grow that much more. Some people are not prepared to pay the price for a quality, locally made product when it’s against Tesco and the low prices they sell at.”

Making up the garments

Looking round the factory and the six new Stoll knitting machines, along with the huge piles of orders ready to go out, those being made and orders coming in, it’s clear that a large number of schools – both independent and state – still value having a uniform that matches their school colours and is made to last. While some items are now made overseas in order to help the company hold its own in an extremely competitive market, it’s the ability of Charles Kirk to do bespoke, small runs with short lead times that makes it stand out. “As soon as you want something slightly different, you can’t get it from overseas easily because of the long lead times,” says Deborah. “Just the travel time from outside of Europe is at least six weeks by container. You can fly it in, but then that costs more, both in money and carbon footprint.” There is only one other traditional schoolwear supplier still manufacturing in the UK apart from Charles Kirk, reports Charles. “We know that UK manufacturing has had a slight resurgence recently, however, because of sterling losing its value – it’s allowing manufacturers to have a chance of picking up the smaller run orders that they wouldn’t have done in the past.”

Encouragingly, this move towards smaller runs of UK manufactured garments isn’t confined to the schoolwear market – the fashion sector is moving towards that model too as shoppers start to place more value on clothes that are limited edition and so less likely to be seen on others, confirms Deborah. “Boohoo, Asos… They all want short runs of garments that sell out and create a more exclusive feeling.”

Good housekeeping

It’s an area the company has started to edge into: it’s not only selling to existing retail brands that understand the innate value of a ‘Made in Britain’ label, but it’s also investigating the possibility of setting up its own brand. The company currently employs 61 staff, down from 100 ten years ago when it used to manufacture everything in-house, and the family recognises the need to keep them working all year round despite the naturally quiet periods that occur when specialising in schoolwear. The firm already creates workwear for a number of high profile clients, including cardigans for nurses in the NHS, but the ever-forward looking team is constantly seeking new markets.

Charles Kirk recently purchased six new Stoll knitting machines

One of the Tajima machines: Charles Kirk offers in-house embroidery and heat transfer decoration

Another of the company’s secrets to its success is very straightforward: good housekeeping. As a fourth generation family business, it stands out partly for keeping family members interested and involved in its progression, and also for its financial stability. “Because the family has been doing it for quite a number of years, you get to understand the cyclical nature of what goes on,” says Deborah. “In good times, you don’t take too much money out, because you know there are going to be bad times around the corner whether it’s economical or political or whatever. We want to make sure that we’re solid enough that we won’t ever have to go to the banks cap-in-hand.”

It’s a lesson that was taught to Charles by his father, he explains: “He instilled in me the principles needed for the business to run well. You always make sure you’ve got money so that the next year you can use it for running the business and for investing in new machinery. My grandfather ran the business to provide for his family, as did my father, and we’re doing the same, although not just for our family but also for our staff – they’re part of our family as well.”

As well as keeping a close watch on their finances, they also keep an eye on new machine developments, especially those from knitting machine manufacturer Stoll, explains Charles. Stoll is investigating the knitting of different fabrics, such as those made from breathable polyester, as well as diversifying into new markets. “They’ve even worked out a way of knitting trainer uppers. It’s incredibly clever,” he comments. “We spend a lot of time up at their design studio in Leicester looking at the new technology.”

The company has always understood the value of staying abreast of latest advances in technology – for example, it was one of the earliest adopters of Apple computer technology in the ‘80s. The expectation that automation will replace many jobs, in particular ones in manufacturing, is not, however, something that overly concerns the Hortons. “Making up is a skill,” asserts Deborah. “You can automate certain parts of it – we have computerised sewing machines for buttonholes, for example – but knitwear is difficult because it stretches in a number of different ways, it can come off the machine differently depending on the yarn that has been used, and each cone of yarn will knit up slightly differently, so a lot of it is still done by touch and feel to get the best result.”

That said, the company is looking at new machines that will allow them to save on yarn, as well as ways of designing cardigans so they can have the buttonholes knitted on the machine rather than being done separately afterwards. “But there will always be a need for people within knitwear manufacturing,” confirms Deborah. And, as a quick glance at the busy factory demonstrates, a demand for quality British-made knitwear too.

Decoration demands

While Charles Kirk sells many blanks direct to schoolwear shops and garment decorators, it also offers a print and embroidery service for those customers who prefer the entire job to be handled in-house. It has invested in a Roland DG print and cut machine and Tajima embroidery machines – the company bought a second eight-head machine from AJS last year. This allows the company to decorate any items of uniform as needed. “The colours that are available with the Roland are amazing; it’s ideal for using on things like T-shirts and polos for the little ones where you don’t want the embroidery chaffing their skin,” says Charles.