Tucked away on the outskirts of Ammanford, a small town in the south of Wales, the Corgi factory is quietly going about its business, largely unchanged since its inception as a specialist knitwear manufacturer 124 years ago. Trading continuously since this time has placed Corgi in the rarefied air of being one of only 100 companies in the UK to be owned and run by the same family for 5 generations.
The current generation responsible for continuing the company’s heritage is comprised of brother and sister team Chris Jones and Lisa Wood, who have helped to steer Corgi on a path of significant growth in recent years, whilst staying true to Corgi’s roots and reputation for quality.
Best known for their hosiery and cashmere products (cashmere is by far their best selling fleece) what differentiates Corgi from really any other maker is that almost everything they make is hand made on manually operated machines (the exception being some of Corgi’s socks, some of which are made on automatic machines). Most other manufacturers exclusively use automatic machines, where the relevant program is entered into the machines’ computer and it then goes about running that program, resulting in the finished panels being made. At Corgi, each machine has its own operator, who loads the needles by hand, then rapidly runs the shuttle back and forth to form a new link with each pass, eventually resulting in a finished panel (sleeves, chest, back or sock) which are then hand linked together, forming a finished product. An interesting by product of all this manually operated machinery is the unmistakable quietness of the factory floor. At any other knitwear factory, earmuffs are almost a necessity when walking around the workrooms, but at Corgi, the most you hear is the pleasingly repetitive “click-clack” of dozens of machines humming away, interspersed with the conversation of employees, who are actually able to hear each other. Elsewhere, discussion tends to take the form of a shouting match, even when you’re inches away from someone.
Each lady in the team specialises in a certain pattern (cable knit, argyle etc) and will only work on garments made in that specific pattern, due to the complexities and nuances involved in making each style. The more complex patterns can take up to 13 hours, per garment, to manufacture (whereas an automatic machine would do the job in minutes). Those responsible for working on the manual sock machines (which are hundreds of years old… the machines, not the lady’s) are able to make only 3 pairs per day, which obviously pushes the cost per pair up dramatically, so it’s a constant undertaking to educate the market as to the higher cost of some items.
In addition to their own products, Corgi make for a number of other designers, from some of the world’s leading luxury brands, to new designers starting out. For someone entering the knitwear industry it’s often very difficult to create a first collection, or even samples, due to the high minimums required by most manufacturers. With Corgi, as every item is individually made, it doesn’t really matter if a client wants 1 product made in a specific design or 100 as the time required to make a single item is the same, so there is no scale of economy that would exist at other makers, although samples will obviously incur a cost, to ensure the product which will be made is 100% correct, but once that’s taken care of, there’s no benefit to be gained in ordering larger numbers.
Admirably, Corgi make no white label products (a product made for another company, with the other company’s logo and not the makers), choosing instead to work with businesses who are willing to co-brand their products, meaning that any item made for another client will also Carry the Corgi label. It’s a gutsy move, considering many brands don’t want anyone elses logo on their products, but due to Corgi’s pride in their heritage and unwillingness to make a product which doesn’t carry their name, it has come to be seen as a value added, prestigious benefit, for even some of the leading luxury brands of the world to have the Corgi label alongside their own on their knitwear. I really admire that conviction.
Of all Corgi’s employees, one unexpected member of staff is their engineer, who’s responsible for maintaining all of the old machines. When we visited, their engineer, along with Chris’ father, now 76, was building (not repairing, but building) a new machine as nothing suitable actually exits elsewhere, to fill a large order for a 2 gauge (read: very chunky) knit.
As a boy, Chris spent summer holidays working in different parts of the factory to learn the business so that one day he would be ready, along with Lisa, to take the reigns of the business and put their own stamp on it when their time came. Chris’ enthusiasm for the business is palpable, and there was a real sense that he’s doing something he loves a great deal. I’m yet to meet anyone as enthusiastic about the construction dynamics of socks as Chris and I’d be willing to bet my sock collection that his sock related energy won’t be topped in future.
In terms of my experience with Corgi’s quality; I picked up a pair of navy cashmere everyday socks from the factory shop before I left and have been wearing them frequently since, to be able to provide an honest assessment of them. Most of the socks in my wardrobe (other than my cashmere/mink socks from William Abraham) are in lightweight merino wool, due to it’s relative affordability and durability over cashmere. I can say that the cashmere socks from Corgi are easily the softest and most comfortable socks I’ve worn and they’ve shown no signs of wearing out early.
It will be enjoyable to watch Corgi’s future success and to see it pass into the hands of the 6th and 7th generations when those decades roll by, but for now, with Chris and Lisa at the helm, one of Britain’s oldest family owned businesses appears to be in very safe hands.