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  • Writer's pictureIllya Sobtchak

Brand spotlight - United Overalls

In today's post we will be getting to know the man behind United Overalls, a budding new brand on the denim scene, which is embarking on a journey to create the first traditional pair of jeans made entirely in the UK...something which hasn't been achieved in the last 30 or so years.

Tom Burke founder of United Overalls

Tom Burke's vision to craft a five-pocket pair of jeans on UK soil, started of like a daydream whilst working in denim stores is now being realised with his first coming release of the 'ED-1', a regular taper fit which packs an impressive list of specs.

Managing to source a 14oz raw selvedge denim woven on old shuttle looms in Lancashire is no easy task but was worth the wait for Tom as it laid the foundation for his project. The denim features a tight and compact right hand twill weave with a nice bit of hairiness which eventually settles down after wear or washes.

In terms of design, Tom decided to tweak the front pockets which have been lowered for easier access and contain larger pocket bags made from sturdy canvas bags for the ever-expanding modern-day communication devices. Custom arcuates featuring a British broad arrow design can be seen on the back pockets, as well as a neat stitched design under the front pockets add personality and set them aside from other brands.

All design details have been carefully considered.

One of the other striking features is the single piece fly construction with the Selvedge being utilised so that it can be seen on the outside of the Jean. Another great addition is the belt loops being sewn directly into the waistband for added durability and a clean finish. For the Vegans out there you are in luck as they feature a Cotton x Linen patch which has also been woven in Lancashire.

Single Piece Selvedge Fly Construction

Finishing off with the hardware we have a 5 button fly using WWII Laurel Wreath style design.

Solid copper Universal rivets are used throughout the Jean including one on the crotch and exposed ones on the back pockets, so just be careful when sitting in front of a campfire!

Apparently coyboys didn't like Crotch rivet, but the Repro heads sure do love them!

Having known Tom for a couple of years I know his lust for denim is very strong, and he is someone I frequently turn to with all sort of questions ranging from construction techniques, denim weaves and historical designs.

His confidence in his style is also something that has both inspired and influenced me over the period of time I have know him. So it’s a pleasure to be able to sit down and interrogate him about his personal quest with United Overalls.

Confidence in style.

How did you get into raw denim?

Before I got into raw denim I pretty much dressed as any teenager into Hardcore Punk dressed; baggy hoodie or flannel shirt, skinny black jeans and converse. When you are at that stage in life you want your clothes to express what type of music you are into and to fit in with your circle of friends. And yes, by the time I was 15, I was just another kid wearing similar checked flannel shirts as half of the school come own-clothes day. Sue me. 

My first experience with raw denim came when I was 18. My frustrated Mother was trying to come up with a suitable 18th Birthday present for me in 2011 and suggested she could take me to our local Levi's shop in Bromley. When we got there she asked the assistant whether they had any of those "cardboard denim" jeans. She explained to me how when she was younger you had to pull on jeans with coat hangers as they were near-on impossible to get into, owing to their stiffness. I tried on a pair of "cardboard" 511's and instantly fell in love with the way the fabric felt compared to the stretchy Topman or H&M jeans I was used to as a teenager. They felt so much more substantial and present as opposed to just sticking to your skin like some other, often cheaper, skinny jeans. After walking out of the store with them on I continued to wear them non-stop for the next 3 months until my Mother complained that they would start smelling and threw them in the wash unbeknownst to me. It wasn't until a couple of years later when I worked in that same Levi's store that I found out more about raw denim, selvedge and jeans as a heritage product. I still have those first jeans my Mother bought me but I turned them into shorts after washing them out too much while at Uni and blowing a knee out.

Hopefully Tom won't turn these into shorts eventually!

In which ways have you pursued this passion?

My denim passion really started whilst working for Levi's. You are taught all about the history of Levi's as the first company to use rivets on denim waist overalls (to give them their proper name) and it was this that really drew me in as someone who is super interested in any history. 

Slowly I started to see and understand how jeans had become an integral part of other pre-existing interests that I had at the time - such as the punk scene - which made me ever more interested in the heritage side of denim and denim products.

Soon I began altering and repairing jeans for customers and friends alike, experimenting with my sewing machine at home and dying nearly everything I owned indigo blue. I attended denim workshops and events to soak up as much knowledge and as much of the culture as possible. 

One thing led to another and a hobby became an obsession spurred on my next career move to Son of a Stag. My knowledge of jeans expanded tenfold whilst working here as I was exposed to so many amazing denim brands from Japan and America. And even better, in my view, was the vast collection of vintage sewing machines and vintage or archival pieces from Rudy's (the owner and manager) collection. I was using the Union Special 43200G - the original hemming machine - to alter some of the most premium denim products in the world during this time #internalhighfive #denimgoals. Rudy imparted so much knowledge to me which I am forever grateful for; it was an amazing experience. 

Tom knows his way around a Union Special 43200G

What are the motivations behind starting United Overalls?

At first I had a whimsical dream while working at Levi's to start my own denim brand, often daydreaming how "I wouldn't make it like that" and "this would be way cooler with those" etc. but I told myself that without a degree in fashion or any knowledge at all of how to make clothes it was probably a bit far fetched. This dream continued whilst working at Son Of A Stag, gaining a bit more of an eye for heritage details and the kinds of standards expected for premium denims. 

In my little dream, I imagined it as an English made brand using English woven denim, in much the same way as Japanese Brands used Japanese selvedge denim. The brand would tackle the big problems I was seeing with the industry such as the unethical production of clothing in Third World Countries, the excessive carbon footprint too often involved in garment production as well as the growing emphasis on fast fashion with items being specifically designed to be prematurely thrown away. I also saw the emerging crisis of microplastics as something a denim brand could deal with and address - if you use 100% cotton fabric and threads, you can eliminate any microplastics from entering our water system and our food chain. 

The problem with this dream, however, is that there wasn't any English selvedge denim. This, of course, all changed one day in 2016 when I stumbled onto Hewitt Heritage Fabrics, a new selvedge denim weaver based in Lancashire...

One of the more distinctive features on the ED-1

Can you tell us about the name United Overalls and what it means to you?

I wanted the name to reflect my interest in turn of the century jeans from brands such as Neustadter Brothers, Greenebaum Brothers and obviously, early Levi Strauss & Co. During this period all of these influential brands used the term Overalls to describe their jeans. Seemed like a no brainer then to make reference to this in the brand's name as a form of acknowledgement of those brands that have come before. 

What was more difficult was deciding on what to put before the word 'Overalls'. Would it be "Burke Overalls" in the vein of these older brands? Appreciating that perhaps this doesn't quite have the ring that I was after I settled on "United Overalls" which, for me, hit the nail on the head for several reasons. Not only is this a reflection of the fact that the jeans are manufactured and constructed in the United Kingdom but it is also a nod to the many different craftsmen and trades that need to be more recognised and celebrated in this country as the skilled jobs that they are. 

United Overalls; a testament to UK craftsmen.

You are currently working on launching your first pair of jeans, can you tell us about the process of what’s that’s like?

As someone with little prior knowledge regarding the manufacturing process involved in producing a pair of jeans, it is safe to say it has been a very sharp learning curve and special thanks have to be given to the amazing people at Blackhorse Lane Ateliers who have helped to incorporate my ideas for the ED-1 into the design. It has also been a very long process as well - I've been working on this project since 2017 - so I'm very relieved that the end is now in sight!

The ED-1 have been 2 years in the making.

Why does Made in Britain matter to you?

We hear about factories using child labour and unethical treatment in South East Asia. The problem is that the news alone doesn't really seem to enforce change in the industry. People still buy their products and the status quo never really changes. 

Many brands would identify themselves as "British Heritage" brands but actually make their products overseas. There are even still cases of child labour in Turkey which is meant to be a fairer place to manufacture. So the only way for me to start a brand and be able to influence this would be to make it in Britain. As the jeans are being manufactured in North London I can see the environment that the workers are in and can also ensure the jeans are made at a much higher level of quality than in most overseas manufacturers. 

Using the same ethos, it therefore seemed like a no brainer to use fabric woven in the UK rather than risking the endorsement of potentially unethical factories in Turkey or China. Furthermore, it also has to do with the environmental impact the clothing makes. Why use up carbon emissions delivering fabric from another country when we have the fabric here? Yes, there are some very cool fabrics from Japan but then can we claim to be more environmentally minded shipping fabric halfway across the world?

The ED-1 is a Regular Taper.

Why choose Black Horse Lane Ateliers to do the production?

There are number of reasons why I went with BLA, the main ones being ;their ethos of producing garments in an environmentally sustainable and ethical way as all workers are on the London Living Wage. Having the knowledge and machinery to be able to produce denim in the “correct” way with such details as a single-piece-fly construction.

Having also personally known them for a number of years and building up a relationship with Han and the team this made it feel like working more with family rather than an outsider who might not necessarily get the passion behind what I was trying to achieve.

Clean construction executed by Black Horse Lane Ateliers in London

Where do you see your jeans sitting in the market?

We always envisioned our jeans in the higher-end denim market. We wanted to make the best jeans that could be made in the UK with the best construction possible and that would inevitably place them in the higher bracket for denim. They will retail at £350 which is a price point that is very similar to a lot of the other brands that produce both fabric and manufacturing in the same country but not necessarily with the same level of construction i.e. using overlocking or very simple stitching. As we are selling online only, this is a lot lower price point than if we had wholesaled them to other shops. You will also be buying a limited edition one of 50, hand-numbered pair of selvedge denim jeans being made in the UK, so they are a very special piece of history!

The first batch of jeans will be limited to 50 pairs and come hand numbered.

What would you like to achieve with the brand?

Once we have shipped out our first edition: The ED-1 jeans, we would like to create a cinch-back edition that features suspender buttons, a wider leg and possibly a cotton x linen selvedge denim to really showcase some of the ideas and inspirations we have as a brand. We are also dreaming up shirts and jackets that showcase some of the other fabric manufacturers in the country but that is probably a ways off yet. Eventually, we want to get to a point where someone can dress head to toe in a completely UK made outfit, underwear and all!

When can people expect for these to be released?

Pre-orders can be made on 19th August with the launch of the website and the ED-1’s will be released on September 30th. If you have any questions please get in touch via the below:

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