business globalisation

Hiut Jeans: Re-activating a town’s skill base

Last year my family rented a house for a week near the small Welsh town of Cardigan. It’s a small town of 4,000 people, on the coast and kind of in the middle of nowhere. In the past it was a significant port, but that was a long time ago. More recently, it had a textiles factory, Dewhirst Ladieswear, making jeans for Marks and Spencer. It was a significant employer, with 400 staff and a production rate of 35,000 pairs a week.

In 2002, the company decided to move its production overseas. It was profitable – making £23 million that year – but wages are cheaper in Morocco. “We were called to meet the managers this afternoon,” an employee said at the time, “and when we saw their faces we realised that something was wrong.” The staff were given 90 days notice and the last jeans factory in Britain duly shut its doors.

The jobs may have gone, but of course the skills remained. And with no other textile factories anywhere nearby, they went to waste. Until now.

Cardigan also happens to be home to David Hieatt and his partner Clare, founders of the outdoor clothing brand Howies. In 2009 David left the company, and after running The Do Lectures for a couple of years, was looking for a new challenge. Here was someone with experience in crafting a global clothing brand, in a small town where one in ten people knows how to make jeans. “In Hollywood, it’s hard to find a waiter who is not going to be an actor,” he says. “In Cardigan, it’s equally as hard to find someone who hasn’t made jeans.”

The result is Hiut, a new denim brand that will ‘do one thing well’: jeans. They will be durable, desirable, and aimed at the high end market in London and Japan. Hieatt believes they can make it work in Britain. The financial crisis has exposed the weakness of an economy based on banking instead of real things, and there is a new longing for quality rather than quantity. And they will be made in Cardigan. As the brand’s website says, in words that I find oddly moving for what is basically a marketing slogan, ‘our town wants to make jeans again.’

This resonates with me because I have lived in places that have seen their skills sidelined in similar ways to Cardigan. I lived for four years in a town that had been famous for pottery – Stoke on Trent. Few potteries now survive, and a tradition that was centuries old and world renowned was slipping away, one job at a time. There’ s the unemployment and the social problems that result, but there are unseen sides to it too. The effect on the psyche of the town was and is profound, a decades-long mourning process as your identity dissolves.

I’m in Luton now, once famous for hats, then famous for Vauxhall cars. The hats survive in a tiny handful of specialist workshops. The car factory is gone, reduced to one last production line doing vans. Its future is in the balance. The town is full of unemployed people with a lifetime of skills that are no longer in demand.

I believe there are innovative businesses that can re-activate Luton’s skills base too. I’m not a businessman and I don’t know what they are, but time is short. As Hieatt points out, there were ten years between the end of Dewhirst and his own business. If he had left in ten years longer, those skills would have been lost.

Hiut jeans aren’t available yet. The factory is up and running, and the first product is due to go on sale this month. Let’s wish them the best of luck.

Thanks to Jayne for the tip!


  1. Since moving to Wrexham a couple of years ago it has astonished us to discover that this area of North Wales was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Two hundred years ago it was a global leader in the technology of the time, and the present landscape bears rich testimony to its illustrious past. The whole area is riddled with railway tracks, the metal rails long since gone. A couple of miles from our home we can walk along a deserted path up Minera mountain and discern in the woodland an ancient stone viaduct, or trip over a huge rusting iron cable. It was only in the 1980s that the industrial base was effectively snuffed out, with the closing of the steelworks(still at the cutting edge of their field), and the abandonment of the mines. The old industries were replaced with new and transient ones. Wrexham Industrial Estate, still the second largest in the whole of Europe, is a depressingly silent place.
    We see the effects of this decline everywhere, from neighbours in our street to homeless vagrants in the drop-ins – once-proud individuals whose jobs were stripped from them, whose skills were rendered redundant, and who have never recovered from the pain and humiliation. The fall-out trickles down through the generations as subsequent cohorts of young people enter adult life with little self-esteem and nothing to work for. The pattern is repeated in countless regions of the UK.
    So congratulations to Huit, and may it survive and prosper! It shines like a little spark, bringing a ray of hope to a few people in Cardigan. But what could be done for a place like Wrexham, and the many others like it?

  2. It has astonished us, since moving to Wrexham a couple of years ago, to discover that this area of North Wales was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Two hundred years ago it was a global centre for innovative technology, and it remained a centre of vibrant industry until the 1980s. Since then, with the closure of the steelworks (at the time at the cutting edge of their field) and the scrapping of the mining industry, whole communities have declined into hopelessness and chronic dependency. Everywhere we turn, from neighbours in our street to homeless vagrants in the drop-in centres, we find once proud individuals whose creative purpose in life was stripped from them, and who have never recovered from the pain and humiliation. The fall-out trickles down to subsequent generations, so we now see successive cohorts of young people entering life with nothing to work for and no self-esteem.
    So congratulations to Hiut, and may they succeed! But what can be done for a place like Wrexham?

  3. I so wish someone could turn the deline of Stoke-on-Trent around. It’s a tragedy what’s happened there to our once-famous potteries.

    1. Indeed. I lived there for four years and a couple of the potteries closed while I was there. The town still has a huge skill pool waiting to be tapped if someone can make it work.

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