Made in Sidcup
Meet Monty. He’s the Master Cutter, and Sidcup’s linchpin. Without him, we’d be tied in knots, if you see what we mean.
I’m digging through the contents of a squat filing cabinet in an otherwise unremarkable factory building in thoroughly suburban Sidcup, south-east London. Monty Nelson, Turnbull & Asser’s Master Tie Cutter, is standing beside me, pointing at little brown pattern envelopes and saying things like, ‘Oh, that’s Mr Firth’s,’ or even, ‘Ah, Prince Charles’ Army tie, yes, that needed a bit of work.’
The fact that this who’s who of celebrities, business leaders, and even future kings all ask Turnbull & Asser to make their ties is proof enough that they are among the very best at what they do.
Turnbull is not a big, corporate manufacturer. Its factories aren’t vast, and its clothes aren’t quick or easy to make. There’s no brushed aluminium, no robots and no lab coats. Instead, expect steaming cups of tea, posters on the wall and seamstresses working wonders with needles and multi-coloured thread.
It’s also not the Victorian red-bricked affair you might expect, because Turnbull’s tiemakers weren’t always based in Sidcup. The sign above the site of the last workroom reads ‘Union Street, London Borough of Southwark’.
This was the home of London’s ‘makers’, full stop. And Turnbull & Asser was no exception – the firm made more than 100,000 ties a week on Union Street. Over 170 years on, many of these makers have left for other parts of the world, or else disappeared completely. Turnbull’s workroom was one of the businesses which, in order to move forward, simply had to move away. Thankfully, when they did, they brought the spirit of Union Street with them, quite literally, in the shape of their beloved Master Tie Cutter.
Monty was an authentic ‘Union Street maker’. In fact, he’s a lot like the tie workroom itself – unassuming, practical, and full of character. Along with his understudy, Fred Summers – who used to make the iconic red boxes carried by Government Ministers – between them, they hand-cut each and every tie that begins life in the workroom, at the start of the manufacturing process. They are Sidcup’s linchpins, if you will; one small mistake from either of them would cause chaos right the way down the line. In most factories, general wastage is two to three per cent, but it is testament to their skill that Monty and Fred cut 500 ties a week with an error rate of just 0.02 per cent.
‘Monty knows everything there is to know and Fred loves learning from him,’ says Amy Ruffell, Sidcup’s Production Manager. Together with Vicky Redondo, the workroom’s Supervisor, Amy keeps things moving. ‘It’s not like managing a factory anywhere else’, she says. ‘We don’t come in and say, “You do this”, “You do that”, it isn’t that kind of environment. We rely on Monty and the team’s knowledge and try to help each person to do their job as easily and efficiently as possible.’
Aside from their prowess as craftsmen, Amy also explains that Monty and Fred ‘are an adorable double act’. ‘If Monty has a day off, then Fred can be inconsolable,’ she continues. ‘They’re a lovely duo, and their working relationship is fantastic. Fred is a capable cutter in his own right, but he still enjoys learning from Monty because Monty knows so much.’
The pair share a tea break at the same time, and for years Fred drove Monty home from work at the end of the day. Monty is over 20 years Fred’s senior, but they appear to be as thick as thieves.
Moreover, the enjoyment they bring to work is infectious. The workroom is a fun place to visit. Framed movie posters in which Turnbull ties appear hang proudly on every wall. Nobody seems to be able to stop themselves from pausing to pick up and road-test a new bolt of cloth when they walk past it. And everyone laughs and jokes between their work stations, too. It feels like a modern remake of a scene from Made In Dagenham.
True to type, Monty is the giddiest of them all. When I ask about the film posters on the wall, he rushes to the aforementioned filing cabinet, ushering me to join him. From it he takes an 18-page ‘VIP’ client list, which he puts on his cutting table. High on the list is Johnny Depp, listed simply as ‘John Depp’.
It turns out that when Depp was looking for a tie to wear to the London premiere of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, he visited the company’s tie workroom to pick it out in person – a stickler for detail is Mr Depp. Following this revelation, Monty grabs a brown paper envelope from the cabinet and pulls out Depp’s self-same tie. Beaming, he points at it and summarises: ‘Nine-and-half inches wide, 51 inches long. It’s a very wide tie at the bottom, but with a very thin neck – unusual, that.’ How like a master craftsman to see right past the fame and flashbulbs, and to hone straight in on the details of the work in front of him. Clearly, Sidcup is a place where making great ties is the only marker of a job well done.
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