Benton and Johnson Factory – A Tour

20 comments

A few weeks ago, I was given the great privilege to tour one of the two remaining gold and metallic thread factories in the UK. Natalie, from Sew by Hand, (you may remember her from the owl I stitched up recently) was visiting the UK, and had arranged a visit of the factory. Very graciously, she invited me along. I jumped at the chance! Not only was I probably not going to see this opportunity present itself again, but it also gave me a chance to meet Natalie in person.

About Benton and Johnson

The factory we visited is the factory for Benton and Johnson, located in Coventry. It was originally located in London, but in the 1990’s, when it was purchased by the Toye company, the factory was moved to join Toye’s existing weaving factory in Coventry. Both businesses focus on quality and craftsmanship. And once you have seen how these gold and metallic threads are made, you will certainly appreciate them a lot more!

The team behind Benton and Johnson is small. There are just two employees making all those lovely threads, plus Neil who manages the whole business. He is a busy man, dealing with orders, management, marketing, and to top it off, will get in and help if needed! The sad part here is that one of their employees came to retirement age a few years ago, and one is due to retire in a couple of years. And with no one interested in taking on these roles, there is a rather large question of who will be available to continue with this craft. It obviously isn’t just gold thread manufacturing in this position. There are many other crafts on the ‘endangered’ list – however it certainly does give us reason to consider what will happen in the not too distant future, and where our threads will be manufactured.

All the machinery used to create these beautiful threads have been in use for a long time. There is something to be said for building quality products! Neil remembers being sent down to London to learn the craft, and transporting these machines up to Coventry when Toye first bought Benton and Johnson. That certainly would have been an intense few months!

 

One of the two remaining metalwork factories in the UK - Benton and Johnson

The Machinery

Not much has changed in the way our gold threads are made over the past few decades. Carefully, and lovingly, these threads are put through their paces in these lovely old machines. There is no technology involved here – and if something goes wrong, it can at times take a few days to get the machine back up and running.

Lets have a peak!

First up, the factory floor.

factory floor at Benton and Johnson

This machine here is wrapping fibres which can then be used in wrapped threads such as passing thread.

The metal thread is being wrapped around the core of silk or nylon.

Machine used to wrap fibres for threads such as passing thread
These weights are altered to change the tension

It is a skill that uses a lot of know-how and skill.

Adjustments are made not by using a computer, but by using weights to change the tension, or the thickness of the metal.

Metals are put to work with this machine – they are guided through here and flattened. The amount they are flattened is again changeable by weights.

This machine flattens metal which is then used as a core for other threads
Spinning large bullions is done my hand.

Spinning large bullions is done by hand. Great consistency is required to ensure all the bullion of the order are the same!

Next up – making long strands of pearl purl and red check purl.

The red check purl is guided into long lengths in the pipe.

The pearl purl winds round and round the basins at the bottom.

Making red check purl
Making long streams of pearl purl

The process of stretching copper pearl purl is a long one, and requires a lot of patience  – winding and stretching onto the large bobbin, then taking it off to another bobbin (by hand), to then be stretched again onto the large bobbin!

Making copper pearl purl

And to finish – bobbins!

The first picture shows some threads being wound onto the bobbin.

And the second –  just some of the many bobbins ready to be used!

Wrapping bobbins with the finished thread
So many bobbins! At Benton and Johnson

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little look into the making of gold threads.

For me, it was certainly an eye opener as to just how labour intensive these threads we use are to produce.

And a big thank you to Neil, Dot and Dave. Natalie and I spent a couple of hours touring their workshop, and they were more than willing to give us their time and knowledge on this craft. Let us hope that someone will want to learn this craft from them, so the manufacturing of our metallic threads can remain in the UK.

20 Comments

  1. Cathy

    How fascinating, but I find it very odd that there aren’t people in Coventry who would love to train and take on these jobs.

    Reply
    • Catherine

      Yes, it is quite surprising I think, especially when there are people without jobs. Neil was saying it is because despite the skill level required, they aren’t highly paid. Which unfortunately turns the younger ones off!

      Reply
  2. Anne Lawson

    Isn’t it amazing that two people can run all these machines, as well as the hand work that seems to be need to be done? I love old machinery like this, and it would certainly be a shame if these skills were lost.

    Reply
    • Catherine

      Yes, it is incredible how much they can get done! And they seem to always be moving from one task to another. Let’s hope these skills aren’t lost.

      Reply
  3. Alex Hall

    That certainly looks fascinating – I’m very envious of your tour!

    Reply
    • Catherine

      It was a wonderful opportunity! So fascinating to see it all. It definitely gave me a new appreciation for the art of making these lovely products.

      Reply
  4. Jessica Grimm

    Thank you for this lovely tour Catherine! I had a similar one at Maurer in Vienna a couple of years ago. They face the same problems. Such a shame! However, we embroiderers play a part in this too. All too often we complain about the price of our materials. I think we should be willing to pay a little more when it comes to these small family-run businesses producing high-quality materials!

    Reply
    • Catherine

      Couldn’t agree more Jessica! I don’t mind spending more for quality products and supporting small businesses and individuals. They are such an important part of our world today.

      Reply
  5. Helen Rowen

    Jobs like this are not what need to go to a job centre. There are crafters out there who would probably love the chance of devoting themselves to this kind of work but the problem is finding them. They need posts similar to this on the net to go viral so that other crafters know these jobs are possible to get. The kind of person who would be ideal for this could live anywhere in the country but the right person would be willing to move area to secure this kind of training. It is more a problem of where to look and how to get the message out there. I am sure there are people who would be thrilled to try these arts.

    Reply
    • Catherine

      I too find it hard to believe no one wants to do this craft Helen. I’m sure there are plenty of people who if they knew this existed they would be at least interested in finding out more! Maybe if we all try to get the message out there the right person will see it! Let’s share away!

      Reply
  6. Isabella

    Great post Catherine! I think many fiber artists to take for granted the amount of time and effort that goes into the quality materials that we use. Thank you for reminding us all!

    Reply
    • Catherine

      Thanks Bella. It was a great eye opener, and you are right about taking for granted the materials we use at times!

      Reply
  7. Dima

    Thanks for sharing. Natalie showed me her pictures but it’s great to get the explanations side by side with the photos.

    Reply
    • Catherine

      I’m glad you enjoyed the second lot of photos you’ve seen Dima!

      Reply
  8. Margaret Creek

    Wow, looks fascinating, I must admit I didn’t think threads were still made so traditionally, it certainly makes you appreciate them more!

    Reply
    • Catherine

      Absolutely Margaret! It was very interesting to see. We seem to automatically assume ‘everything’ is done with technology and computers these days. Definitely gives us something to think about when we use these threads and materials.

      Reply
  9. Rachel

    I think part of the reason people are reluctant to pay as much as perhaps they should is that they really don’t connect what they pay with someone’s wages. And I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to who’ve thought that all these companies are huge, when we know that so many of them of them consist of one man, his wife, and the dog! (And in some cases, I’m not even sure about the dog…)

    Those of us who know have to keep spreading the word!

    Reply
    • Catherine

      I do think we need to spread the word Rachel! Not only do we assume technology has somehow intervened, but you are absolutely right in saying we assume it is also a big company behind the brand. With a lot of these materials we use, that is just not the case (though well done to the companies for giving that impression!).
      The more we talk about this the better I think – we will get a better appreciation for what we use as a group of embroiderers, and you never know, others might be tempted to take up the craft!

      Reply
  10. wybrow1966

    This was so interesting, I hadn’t really thought about the way in which my threads are manufactured and I certainly didn’t realise how much was done by hand. It would be such a shame if these skills were lost – we seem to be losing so many skilled people these days.

    Reply
    • Catherine

      It is definitely food for thought! As Rachel said, as a community of stitchers, we have a large role to play in this regard. The more people that are aware of these challenges the better I think. And lets hope it isn’t another craft that ends up disappearing. You are completely correct – we are losing too many of these skills these days.

      Reply

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A Tour of the Benton and Johnson factory

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