Field Denim Workshop - The Machinist
On this week’s post, we'll be meeting Lex Cawley who is based in London and is the man behind Field Denim Workshop.
I first met Lex at one of the regular denim hangs that @wornoutglobal organise in London, and it was obvious from the start that not only does Lex share the same appreciation for well-made denim but his love of vintage sewing machines was very clear as he would admit to nerding-out on the subject.
This month I had the pleasure of visiting his new workshop in South London, where he showed me around his new studio including a demonstration of his vintage sewing machines which he uses to craft his garments. He was even kind enough to darn my jeans on his Singer 47W70 machine which was awesome to see in action.
Please tell the readers a little bit about yourself and what you do?
I am a creative pattern cutter, jean maker and I run my own one-man denim factory called Field Denim Workshop. My professional background is creative pattern cutting, womenswear design and fashion lecturing. I have worked in the fashion industry for 15 years and have always enjoyed the craft of making clothes. A big part of my career is fashion education. As well as cutting and making I work as a lecturer in creative pattern cutting at London College of Fashion
What are the motivations behind Field Denim Workshop?
About seven years ago when I was working as a freelance pattern cutter one of the things that started to annoy me was that designers appeared to be more concerned with making clothes for celebrities rather than crafting beautiful garments that regular people would treasure. I’d spend hours of my time making ‘whacky’ clothes that may only be worn once for a music video or a premier. Although the cutting was often fun I’d rather be making more commercial pieces that are beautifully crafted. This was around the time that I started to get into raw denim.
I had the thought “I wonder how hard it could be to make a pair of jeans” (It turns out quite hard!). I already had most of the skills and knowledge so I gave it a go, the first pair I made was pretty shoddy. There was some wonky sewing and I had to turn them into shorts because I did not buy enough denim (My brother still wears them to this day, however).
After the first attempt, I decided that I needed to do better bartacks so I put in a low bid on a bartack machine on eBay and won. It all escalated from there, I never really intended on setting up a denim factory but every time I bought a machine I would discover another machine that I needed. At one point I had three machines in my living room, one in the hallway and one in my bedroom so I had to rent a studio space and Field Denim Workshop was born!
What came first, love of denim or machines?
Both really, before I’d discovered denim my practice was quite machine-based. When I used to design it was based on the capabilities of the machines that were available. Once I got into raw denim it allowed me to really focus on the use of machines as part of the denim design process.
Why search and use period-correct machines when the new ones can be more easily acquired and maintained?
The old machines have more character, it is similar to people who drive vintage cars, a new car is far more practical but does not have the same personality. The old machines can be a massive pain at times, however, when they are running smoothly they are far more fun to use.
Do you have a grail machine you are searching for?
I’ve got most of the machines that I need. The one machine that I would like to get is a chain-stitch embroidery machine, either a Cornelly K or a Singer 114w103. I was lucky enough to get to use the singer at the last university I taught at, they are good fun. The only problem I have is that I don’t have any more space in this studio.
What is your favourite sewing machine to use?
Probably the Singer 47w70 darning machine. I’m quite lucky, I’ve heard that they can be quite unreliable but mine sews like a dream. I also think sustainability is a really important part of my practice. People are far too quick to throw clothing out, research shows that the average item of clothing in the UK is only worn 14 times (any denim head would be horrified by this).
I like the idea that if I make something that someone loves I can then help make the garment last as long as possible.
If money wasn't an object what would be the dream project in terms making a pair of jeans and jacket, fabric? Type of sewing machines, hardware?
If money wasn’t an object, the one thing I’d like more of is space. Because I’m based in London space is at a premium. My studio is currently only 134 sq foot, to my knowledge, it is the smallest denim factory in the world. If I had more space I could set up all my machines, buy a few more and use the studio not only as a workshop but also for educational purposes. In the long term, I would like to pass on all the skills I have learnt over the years and try to bring manufacturing skills back to London. Within fashion there is a slight snobbery about sewing, I would like to challenge that.
Which part of the making process do you enjoy the most? Pattern Cutting, Sewing?
I like both sewing and cutting. The one thing I decided, however, is that I enjoy the construction process more than the design process. Initially, when I graduated I worked as a designer, it was whilst doing this job I realised the part of the process I enjoyed the most wasn’t developing the idea but constructing it after. This is why when I do have to design my starting point is construction, cut and machinery first.
How do you feel about modern techniques versus using heritages methods of constructing jeans?
There are advantages to both, a lot can be learnt from the past however in some circumstances modern ways of doing things are better. One of my favourite old techniques is the single piece fly construction. This method is far cleaner and easier than the normal way. I’m not sure why more companies don’t use it. Another thing to consider is that a Chinese denim factory can make a pair of jeans in 12 minutes (on the machines), it takes me at least four hours. I really enjoy slowing down the process, what do is the opposite of fast fashion.
I hope you guys enjoyed getting a glimpse into Lex's world, for me it was fascinating to see a lot of these sewing machines live and in action for the first time but hopefully not the last.