Cardigan is making jeans again. It sounds like a fashion joke, but it's true: until 10 years ago, the Welsh town of Cardigan was home to Britain's largest surviving jeans factory. In November 2002, Dewhirst Ladieswear informed its 400 workers that their biggest customer, M&S, was to move its manufacturing to Morocco. Overnight, one in 10 of the town's 4,000 people was put out of work. Now, though, local husband-and-wife entrepreneurs David and Claire Hieatt are harnessing the area's residual expertise to establish their own brand: The Hiut Denim Co.
Jean Day sewed ladies jeans at Dewhirst for 17 years. When the factory closed, she says, "It was devastating. There were whole families working there, husbands and children, too. I was a single parent, and Cardigan's such a small place that it was hard to know where to go after Dewhirst. I always thought I'd be there until I retired." Day was lucky; she found work sewing horse rugs for another local firm. Many of her colleagues were less so – and moved away, or into less skilled professions. Amanda Freeman, another former Dewhirst worker, became a customer services manager in Somerfield, then manager of a mobile phone shop. The headmistress of the Hieatts' local school used to measure waistbands.
In May last year, Day and Freeman answered an ad calling for machinists, in the Tivyside Advertiser. Along with erstwhile Dewhirst floor manager Elin Evans, they make up the first cohort of jeans-makers at the new Hiut factory: a small, sun-lit, wood-panelled premises in an industrial park on the edge of town. David Hieatt says he wants to bring all 400 jobs back, though for now he's happy to have employed four: the three machinists and a cutter, who between them have 120 years of jeans-making experience. Their task is to produce a mere 10 pairs a day. Unlike at Dewhirst, where the best job on the production line was sewing inside leg seams, the ladies will now sew entire pairs start to finish. "Dewhirst made 35,000 pairs per week," Hieatt explains. "They were building Ford Escorts; we're making Rolls-Royces. In fact, Rolls-Royce will make more cars today than we will jeans."
Hiut claims to be the only British brand making its own jeans in its own factory, and its mission is to "Do one thing well". For now, that one thing is men's jeans, in a choice of just two cuts – regular and slim fit – sewn from a choice of two denims: 12oz Turkish organic, or 14oz selvedge from Japan's esteemed Kuroki mill. A pair of organic Hiuts costs £130, relatively modest by designer denim standards. A selvedge pair is a more ambitious £230. "I don't want to be in the fashion game," says Hieatt. "I just want to make a great pair of classic jeans. Well-made jeans get better with age. And they're the uniform of the creative man."
Hieatt, who is 47, grew up in the South Wales mining valleys and quit his A-levels to set up his own sportswear brand, via a stall at Pontypridd market. Later, he moved to London to become an advertising copywriter, rising fast to join the creative team at Saatchi & Saatchi, where he contributed to acclaimed campaigns for British Airways, Anchor Butter and the Conservatives, under the mentorship of famed ad-maverick Paul Arden. With his heart still set on sportswear, Hieatt left Saatchi to follow the Adidas account to a rival firm. But by the time he was offered a role with Adidas in San Francisco, he and Claire were already building their own clothing brand, Howies, from their living room floor.
In 2001, the couple moved their new company to Cardigan. They had been holidaying in the area for years, and their philosophy seemed more at home there than in London: the clothes were made with organic materials, the owners invested in the community, and the catalogues contained short "rants" on ecological and political themes. But, flush with success, the firm over-reached, and in 2006 the couple were forced to sell their stake to Timberland. Its high ideals somewhat diluted, Hieatt quit Howies in 2009. "Howies was a first love," he says. "And I thought mostly with my heart, not my head. This time, I'm going to use both."
In the interim, the Hieatts established the Do Lectures, an annual (now biannual) event in the nearby countryside, featuring talks, music and workshops with leading thinkers and doers: like a more friendly TED, but in rural West Wales. Among the couple's other investments is The 25 Mile, a recently-opened gastropub in Cardigan, which serves food sourced from within 25 miles of the town. People told Hieatt it would never work, but he likes to prove them wrong. He brings the same bullish attitude to Hiut Denim. When Howies placed a logo tab on the rear right pockets of their jeans in 2003, a trademark-conscious Levi's threatened to sue, and Hieatt offered to settle the dispute with an arm-wrestle.
With Hiut, he claims: "We're going to give Levi's a bloody nose. In the nicest possible way." His rivals in the short-term might more realistically include boutique Swedish jeans brand Nudie or mass-market Cheap Monday. And, in any case, the Hieatts have a habit of fashioning enterprises with smallness built into their business models. "I think there's beauty in smallness," he agrees. "Sometimes small companies can be really influential, if they crack a big idea."
At present, the big idea accompanying this small company is the "History Tag". Denim-lovers who purchase Hiut jeans will find each pair comes with a unique number on its label. When that number is registered at HistoryTag.com, the jeans' new owners will be able to see seven pictures of their jeans being made by Jean, Amanda or Elin. They can then add pictures of themselves wearing the jeans at Glastonbury, or on holiday, or at the Do Lectures. And when they're finally handed down, or to a second-hand shop, future owners will be able to follow their journey.
The Hieatts came up with the idea, but have entrusted its upkeep to a London web developer, keeping only a small stake and the promise that Hiut's will remain the only jeans to sport a History Tag. They hope, though, that fellow manufacturers will take up the tag for other products. "It will be a slow burner," Hieatt admits, "but I think there's a deep desire in people to know where things have been and where they came from. Products tell stories. We all watch Antiques Roadshow – and if we make products that last, then the stories that get attached to them will last, too."
Hieatt and his company are also relying on a resurgence in demand for lasting, quality products with "Made in Britain" on the label. "The banking crisis got everybody thinking: we trusted something that we didn't really understand. And if you can't trust the banking sector, then you've got to start making things again. I think 'Made in Britain' will become more relevant. And people are tired of buying crap; they enjoyed things being cheap, but now maybe they'll buy the best, instead: one pair of £230 jeans, rather than five pairs of £60 ones."
Update: This article originally stated that Cardigan is in Pembrokeshire. It is in Ceredigion.