David Hellqvist talks to Matthew Sowter and Ricky Feather about the craftsmanship needed to build bespoke bicycles
Passion is a wonderful thing. It doesn’t really matter what it is you care about as long you are driven by a love for your hobby or work. If you are lucky, your hobby is your work. You can always tell when someone is passionate about what they do; they talk a little bit too long about it over dinner, their eyes glow when they describe what they do for a living or get up to in their spare time. They tenderly talk you through every single detail, describing the most complex process in layman’s terms, making sure you fully take in and comprehend its beauty.
This is exactly what you are faced with when reading Made in England: the artisans behind the hand-built bicycle, a book mapping Britain’s best manufactures of hand-built bikes.
Matthew Sowter and Ricky Feather are not probing journalists, but frame builders themselves. Respectively building bikes under the names Saffron Frameworks and Feather Cycles, the pair offer beautiful insights into the craftsmanship needed to assemble a bicycle. Together with photographer Kayti Peschke, Sowter and Feather travelled around Britain, visiting workshops and talking to bespoke bicycle builders. The result is almost like a national stock take of frame building experts, artisans who have honed their craft over decades, and whose enthusiasm and glow can felt throughout the book’s pages.
David: You build bike frames for a living, what made you want to publish a book about it?
Made In England: We believe that for the most part, frame builders can have more of a voice as a collective. We can make ourselves heard when it comes to materials that the manufacturers are supplying, tubing for example. We can also raise awareness more effectively as a whole than as individuals, the book allows us to give people an insight into the industry and how, unlike huge multi million pound manufacturers, it would make things difficult if we looked at each other as direct competitors.
We want to change the stereotype of the old school builder, which is often perceived as one who dons a blue overall, hiding away in the corner of a dark workshop and is never seen out in the public eye. The book comes along with ideas such as the Bespoked Bristol show and the forthcoming UK Framebuilders Collective and is another outlet for each builder to have their word, as well as being a celebration of British bicycle manufacture which is rich in history.
David: Is there a big industry in Great Britain for this, compared to other countries?
Made In England: The industry is very much on the rise. We think, as with many things, that people want something that is made with care, locally. We say locally, but as a generalisation, we mean within the country local to the buyer.
People, for a long time, have been sucked into a world of mass production, a world without soul or character, a world that destroys a local economy. The list goes on, but we believe that there are many factors that account for the growth of small businesses such as bicycle frame builders. People want something individual to them, something that is made with care and with passion.
David: What makes the UK builders unique?
Made In England: We believe that the heritage of British bicycle manufacture is what makes us unique. We feel very at home building bikes in Britain, it is a subject close to every British frame builder’s heart. We somehow, in someway have something to prove to ourselves and our customers, that Britain is still on the top of our game and we can make bicycles that match those of the highest quality from anywhere in the world.
David: How did you select them?
Made In England: This was one of the easier areas for us: each builder in the book has something very unique about them. Each builder has their own character and this was important to us when deciding who would be involved, as well as choosing twelve builders that are passionate and knowledgeable of their field. You will see by reading the book that the builders are all very individual with different ideas and ways of thinking, yet we are all essentially doing the same the same thing… Creating quality bicycles.
David: What is the most critical moment when building a bike?
Made In England: This is quite a hard question. Most of the process is pretty critical but the most critical would probably be getting the design right. Making sure that the bike is going to fit the customer well and that it has the correct geometry. Communication is key! Really understanding what the customer wants and turning it into their aspirations is important. Then, of course, the building of the bike, making sure the joins are strong and that you take care when cleaning the joins to prevent under cutting the tube itself.
David: Have you seen a change in attitude towards your craftsmanship in recent years?
Made In England: We believe that as awareness rises, more people are talking about it, meaning more people are looking at it and more and more people are looking further into the craftsmanship side of things. This is the reason we feel it is important to show what is underneath the paint as much as possible, as well as doing things like the ‘Great British Braze Off’, which we recently held. At events like this, people can come and watch a few of us performing our craft in public; this gives us the opportunity to explain to people how and why we use certain methods.
David: What’s the secret to building a bike, what’s its soul?
Made In England: We don’t believe there is a secret. There is of course a lot of skill and each builder has different skills and different techniques but we don’t think it is a secret. Just a bunch of very talented and passionate people making something of themselves, creating something for someone to either treasure or ride the hell out of until the time comes when they are ready for something else. But for the most part, the customers want something that they can pass on to their children one day. Being self-critical of ones work, always looking at what can be improved for the next build. Complacency destroys the soul so we suppose the drive for perfection is a part of the soul.