Up North With Barbour

Posted in Fashion, Travel.

barbour wax jackets tartan
I’ve been a Barbour fan for a very long time. When I was little, my granddad had a Barbour wax jacket that he wore for general Yorkshire things like mucking out pigs and going fishing. I remember him re-waxing it again and again, the sharp smell making me sneeze as I tried it on, waltzing around the house with this huge, raggy coat draped over my shoulders.

I’ve had my own Barbour wax jacket for a few years now, and although it functions far more for fashion than anything else (I don’t often find myself mucking out pigs, to be honest), it still feels like a rite of passage to own one. And despite the brand being firmly ensconced in the south among yummy mummies and people with pristine Range Rovers, there’s still something very northern about Barbour.

As you can imagine, I was totally thrilled to be invited on a three-day trip to learn more about the Barbour brand. We started in Edinburgh…

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I’ll never get over how much I love Scotland. After a sun-drenched train journey along the coast, I arrived in Edinburgh and was whisked off to Prestonfield House, a luxury hotel just outside the city.
Before I even walked inside, I was in love. I have a thing for old buildings, original features and luxury finishings, and Prestonfield House has all of the above. And peacocks!

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My room was a vision in velvet – all plush wall coverings and cushions with tassels. And what a view!

After an hour of exploring with Rosie, we retreated to get ready for our evening activities. We were in Edinburgh to discover Barbour’s new Tartan collection for AW14, so our first evening began with a fashion show. I have a few pieces from the Tartan collection that’ll I’ll show you in another post, but think rich, luxe fabrics, modern cuts and muted colours. Very Barbour, but with an on-trend twist.

After the show we took our places in the dining hall for dinner. And what a dinner it was – five courses of delicious Scottish fare, endless bread and butter and red wine that flowed all night long. There was also a Robbie Burns poetry recital and a resounding Auld Lang Syne singalong, complete with crossed arms. I was delighted to see Dame Margaret Barbour giving it her all, too.

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The next day, Rosie and I enjoyed a (slightly hungover) breakfast at Prestonfield House before reluctantly checking out – I could’ve stayed a week, holed up in those grand drawing rooms. But we were heading to our next stop – Kinloch Anderson in Leith.

Kinloch Anderson develop tartan designs for families and companies all over the world. Tartans are often associated with Scottish clans, but you don’t have to be Scottish to have your own unique tartan – you just need a connection to the country. If you can prove your Scottish connection, Kinloch Anderson can design a tartan that’s all your own – there are over 5,000 registered tartans, and no two can be the same.

For many years, Barbour used a generic tartan in their clothing. It was Helen Barbour – daughter of Dame Margaret – who discovered Barbour didn’t have their own tartan, despite their strong Scottish heritage. The company contacted Kinloch Anderson and after research into the history and lineage of Barbour founder John, the Barbour Tartan was created.

It was honestly fascinating to hear how tartan is designed – to the uneducated eye, all tartans may look the same, but those subtle differences signify specific families, geographical areas and unique heritages.

After exploring the Kinloch Anderson archives, we nipped over the road for lunch at The Kitchin which was another foodie triumph. I pretty much had to be rolled out of the restaurant and onto the coach. A quick ride later and we were on the train to our next stop – Newcastle and Barbour HQ.

barbour factory shop newcastle
We arrived at Malmaison in Newcastle’s Quayside and headed straight back out for dinner at Cafe 21 – honestly, I’ve never eaten as well as I did on this trip. The cheese and spinach soufflé was out of this world!

For some reason I was really surprised that Barbour HQ was in the North East – I’d always imagined it as a Scottish company. But the company is a huge part of life in South Shields, employing thousands of local people, and is very much ingrained in the community.

We set off for HQ early the next day, dropped off our bags then headed over to the factory.

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We walked in to rows and rows of machinists, each working on a different aspect of a classic Barbour Wax Jacket. Each machinist is expertly trained in three different areas, but usually work on only one. We saw ladies whizzing out pockets, sleeves and press stud plackets in under 30 seconds – a serious skill. As we walked around the factory we saw the jackets slowly coming together, piece by piece. It was slightly mind-boggling!

barbour wax jacket repairs
One of the most fascinating parts of the trip was our talk with Jean, a Barbour employee for 30+ years and head of the repairs department. Barbour offer a wax jacket repairs service for customers whose jackets have been damaged, need re-waxing or are suffering from old age. Jean told us people get so emotionally attached to their jackets they can’t bear to replace them and will spend more than the cost of a new jacket to reconstruct their old one.

The jacket above took Barbour employee Donna 5 hours to complete. She patched up the rips and tears seamlessly, and after rewaxing this jacket will be (almost) good as new. It was originally bought in the 70s! Jean told us they’ve had some famous customers too, including Ewan McGreggor who wanted his Barbour re-waxing. He didn’t want to send it away and be without it though, so the Barbour team told him how to do it himself at home. Amazing!

After a quick bite to eat, we were invited into Dame Margaret Barbour’s office for a chat with the lady herself. I was thoroughly inspired by Dame Margaret – when her husband died, she took on the Barbour company and turned it into the global success it is today. She spoke of her admiration for other powerful businesswomen like Anita Roddick and Laura Ashley and walked us through her life at the top of Barbour, showing us family photos and telling stories.

We rounded off the day with a talk from Gary and a look into the Barbour archives. We met ‘Uncle Harry’, a Barbour jacket from 1910, and travelled through time with amazing pieces from history. Gary told us how Barbour originally made general clothing for working people – practical pieces that met a specific need. Over time the focus of the business has changed, but even now Barbour clothing remains functional. It was amazing to hear Gary talk – he was so knowledgeable about the brand and so passionate about the history.

Before jumping in my taxi to the train station, I managed to fly round the Barbour factory shop – I had no idea this was here, but it was packed with Barbour pieces at huge discounts including lots of classic wax jackets. Highly recommended if you’re in the area and looking for a bargain!

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My adventure up north with Barbour was one of the best, most interesting and informative press trips I’ve ever been on. I adored learning more about the brand in such amazing surroundings, with such great people. And the food – oh, the food! A huge thank you to Sarah, Hannah and all the team for a brilliant experience.

12 Comments

MissPond

The smell of the wax jackets is just divine and reminds me of my dad’s which he’s had all the way through his midlife, until Barbour recently deemed it unrepairable. I’ve since got my own and I’m really hoping to get a quilted one for Xmas 🙂 x

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Harriet-Rose Woodhams

I am in complete Love with my wax jacket luckily I got enough birthday money to purchase my first, of many, Jackets! The quality can be noticed a mile away and I feel wonderful whilst wearing it and I am proud to show off the label!

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kay W

Great feature! It’s nice to see a post about the history and creation of such a popular british product. My ex is obsessed with them, so I got a bit of schooling on barbours but it was nowhere near as indepth as this post!

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Nick Johannessen

What a great post about a fantastic trip! I have to admit that although I’ve enjoyed the Barbour factory shop before, the chance to see the inside of the factory and meed the Lady herself make me quite insanely jealous!

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