The pursuit of perfection is ingrained in the gifted craftsmen who make the military uniform, metalwork, swords and accoutrements for the Armed Forces, says Eleanor Doughty
Eleanor Doughty goes behind the scenes to find out how the military uniform, metalwork, swords and accoutrements are made for our Armed Forces.
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MILITARY UNIFORM: HOW IS IT MADE?
A gentle clicking resonates inside a large room down a north London backstreet. About 30 men and women sit, each at their own station, needles and threads in hand, sewing machines on their tables. This is Kashket & Partners, a specialist in military uniform. Soldiers need coats, tunics and trousers as well as weapons – and Kashket is proud to make them. The company’s history can be traced to Russia, where the Kashket family were milliners. Alfred Kashket – later awarded an MBE – made felt hats for Tsar Nicholas II and, after moving to London in the 1920s, built relationships with the Royal Household and military. Today, the company remains a family business and in 2011 made the uniform worn by HRH The Duke of Cambridge at his wedding. Alfred’s son, master tailor Bernard Kashket MBE, is “the font of all knowledge when it comes to uniforms”, explains my guide, a former Welsh Guards warrant officer. Bernard’s son, Russell, is the chairman of the group and senior directing master tailor, and at reception I meet his son, Nathan, who is head of sales and leads the bespoke tailoring business.
When a serviceman or woman requires a garment, they put in a demand that is serviced by Kashket and the six-week journey to their new mess dress jacket, frock coat or gold state coat can begin. Measurements are taken, a pattern is cut and when it’s been made into a fitting – the first draft – Kashket staff visit to fit the garment before any details are added. A King’s Troop officer’s tunic is having its lining stitched; destined for Woolwich, it will visit four or five different Kashket tailors before it is finished. Each garment is pressed and ironed up to 60 times, which makes for a time-consuming process – but one that can be expedited to 48 hours, if need be.
ON THE BUTTON
Kashket is only one part of Firmin House, a military outfitting organisation that incorporates E C Snaith, a medallist, Kashket Tactical Group, which designs modern body armour, and 367-year-old Firmin & Sons, which specialises in uniform metalwork. The relationship between Kashket and Firmin is beautifully entwined, explains Tony Kelly, senior sales manager for Firmin: “There’s no point having a button that won’t fit the buttonhole.” With a workshop in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, Firmin is the oldest privately owned manufacturing company in Britain. It was established in 1655 by Thomas Firmin, with its headquarters on Lombard Street, in the City of London, before moving to Birmingham in 1882. Its first employee, explains Kelly, was 14-year-old George Robotham, who was taken on as an apprentice girdler, making ceremonial sword belts and shoe buckles. The Birmingham armoury contains one of Firmin’s original tools – a blacksmith’s elm, still in use today, having made items worn at the Battle of Blenheim, at Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Somme, Alamein and Helmand Province.
Today, Firmin makes thousands of individual items for the Armed Forces, each with their own NATO stock number. “We are probably the single largest supplier of separate NATO stock numbers,” says Kelly. It’s not surprising, since a typical button “will have at least three sizes, and cap badges will have officer and soldier versions. Then you’ve got shoulder titles, collar badges, ranking chevrons, stars and crowns – and we haven’t even started on the Scottish regalia.” Firmin House services an inventory of more than 48,000 items and has a stock of more than 20,000 dies and tools, says Kelly, “and I’ve got them all in the back of my head”.
Kelly’s colleagues represent a vast array of talented craftsmen and women – die-sinkers, who cut the stamping dies from which a button or a badge is stamped; toolmakers, who make the tools that cut out the metal; press operators, solderers, brazers and fusion welders, who “put the fittings on the back of items”. Then there are the armourers and helmet-makers, who serve three- to five-year apprenticeships, plus burnishers and polishers, electroplaters, supporting maintenance crew – and those who work in product development. “If you were to categorise Firmin, you would describe us as a ‘light engineering company,’” says Kelly.
Although many individual pieces made by Firmin for the military are ancient in their origin, not all have resisted innovation. Two changes to the Household Cavalry state uniform have taken place during Kelly’s tenure: “the state helmet now has a detachable plume, which clicks in and out” and the lining of the cuirass, once a full pigskin, is now detachable, breathable and washable. “When they came in, in 2007, soldiers approached me saying, ‘Tony, this is the best thing since sliced bread.’”
No soldier is complete without a sword, of course, which is where Robert Pooley MBE, founder of Pooley Sword, comes in. Pooley, a sprightly octogenarian, set up Pooley Sword in 2005, when Wilkinson Sword, which had made swords for the Armed Forces for 150 years, ceased trading as a sword maker. Pooley promptly bought Wilkinson’s drawings and production logs, and now makes between 40 and 50 different swords – including Swords of Honour for the Army, Navy, RAF, Royal Marines and for Commonwealth nations – from the company base at Shoreham Airport, in West Sussex. Pooley’s knowledge of swords and their owners is legendary. During our conversation, he relates several stories about people of my acquaintance, completely coincidentally, remembering each by name, face and regiment. This is partly down to the personal service Pooley Sword offers, visiting Sandhurst, Dartmouth, Cranwell and Lympstone to show cadets its wares, with Pooley himself giving lectures on the history and care of swords. Top tip: store your sword coated in Vaseline to protect it.
The process of making a Pooley sword begins in the Abbeydale forge near Sheffield, where the blades are made before they move to Shoreham. A team led by head cutler Peter Harmsworth, who trained at Wilkinson, creates the finished articles. These, with their intricate patterns, crests and battle honours, are silk-screened then etched using acid, before being hand-painted to fill in any details. I observe one of Pooley’s staff with a tiny paintbrush, his hand unnervingly steady. Scabbards are made in-house, too. The leather, which comes in sheets from Northern Ireland, is cut into squares, then soaked and stitched from top to bottom. This alone can take more than two hours. When complete, the scabbard is stretched on a rod before being dehydrated and painted to suit.
Pooley’s favourite sword is the Household Cavalry trooper’s sword, which was designed in 1892. Its 37in single-edge blade, with a fish-skin grip bound in silver-plated copper wire, gives it quite a weight and as we practise sword drill, I remember why I am not in the Army. The sword used by Royal Artillery officers is based on an 1822 pattern, with a slightly curved carbon-steel blade; the Royal Regiment of Scotland carry a basket-hilted broadsword in an 1831 pattern with red felt and a blue silk ribbon, while RAF officers use a sword with a gold-plated brass hilt, its brass pommel in the shape of an eagle, the emblem of the RAF borne on a gold-plated brass cartouche.
Having dressed and picked up your sword, you might be missing a hat. Some of these are more recognisable than others. The bearskin caps worn by the Guards are made by Hobson & Sons, which began as a military tailors near Woolwich in 1850, but if you are a general in need of a bicorne, St James’s is the place to go. At 7 Piccadilly Arcade, you’ll find hatters Herbert Johnson. The company was founded by Herbert Louis Johnson in 1889, after he was spotted by the future Edward VII, whose top hat he caught and repaired after it flew off the then Prince’s head. Johnson’s new company shot to fame, making hats for Wilhelm II of Germany and George I of Greece. The company produced ‘Jack Johnson’ soft-topped caps for Generals Haig and French during World War I and the military continues to patronise it today, as it makes the generals’ bicorne hats worn at Trooping the Colour. Generally speaking, clients are referred to Herbert Johnson via their tailor, explains creative director Ian Harding, but the vast majority “we would have seen from school”. When they reach the rank of general – or in the civilian world, perhaps high sheriff – “we are just like their dentist”. It takes about six weeks to build the body of a bicorne hat. A further fortnight is required for the goldwork and another month to build the swan-feather plume, which “can cost more than the hat”. These hats “go to the grave with you”, says Harding, “although it has become common for them to be bequeathed, which goes against a superstitious hatter’s ideal”. He adds that it is bad luck to put a hat on the floor, or on a bed.
BADGE OF HONOUR
All of this work takes extraordinary levels of skill, and at Hand & Lock in Fitzrovia, they’ve had more than 250 years to perfect their art. In 1767, M Hand, a Huguenot lacemaker, arrived in London and began selling to military tailors. Soon, he was designing and producing military badges and uniform accoutrements, leading to the business that is Hand & Lock today. Officers can buy cap badges, epaulettes and shoulder cords from Hand & Lock, each hand-embroidered. These are hard-wearing, but not indestructible. “Over time, they can tarnish,” says Jessica Pile, production director for Hand & Lock. “You can’t clean them, so when people refurbish their uniforms, we’ll replace the badges.”
The history of the company is ingrained in its work, says production coordinator Alice Murrell. “Whether we’re working on a specific military project or a bespoke design, we’ve always got the history in mind. We want people to learn about the techniques we’re using, because they haven’t changed a huge amount since the company started.” That history also brings with it high expectations, adds Pile. “There’s a lot of pressure from clients that worked with Hand 30 or 40 years ago, so we have a responsibility to make sure we’re carrying on the same quality.”
This thread of pride in the past runs through every conversation I have with military craftsmen. Like the troops that wear them, the makers of their uniforms feel privileged to be involved in the journey. Pooley puts it best: “Passion is what this is all about. Our swords must be perfect.”