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Made in England: the artisans behind the handmade bicycle

James Greig | December 7, 2012

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Sometimes there’s an alternative universe hidden in part of a city you thought you knew everything about.

Turning off from Borough Road to visit Matthew Sowter of Saffron Frameworks, I enter a warren of workshops and industrial buildings nestled amongst the railway bridges south of London Bridge, and am soon squeezing by bike through a sliding door and into a world of metal, grease and fire. As we spoke, sparks were showering over the workshop in the background, and we were interrupted a couple of times by the screams of metal on metal.

Matthew is one quarter of Push Projects, whose beautiful book Made in England: The Artisans Behind the Handbuilt Bicycle has been cause for collective murmurs of appreciation from across the British cycling scene since its release in November.

With the craft of frame-building seeing something of a resurgence globally (and thoughts of creating a custom CycleLove bike in the back of my mind), it seemed that making the ten minute ride from my studio could be an important first step in exploring the art of building bikes.

James: Did you have a mission statement when you started?

Matthew: We did. We sat down as a group, myself and Ricky Feather, and did a mission statement.

The intention of the book was to uplift the industry as a whole. I’m from South Africa, and new to frame-building… Ricky too, he’s quite young. Both of us had made a conscious decision to get into frame building  and both of our perceptions were of an old English frame-builder  you know… in a blue overall, stuck in the back of a shop, with no connection for the person he’s making the bike for.

But obviously that’s changed.

We really the felt the book could benefit everybody as a whole: it was to showcase the actual artisan as apposed to the end product. When you get a custom, handmade bicycle, not all of it is to do with the bicycle, a part of it is the connection that you have with the actual builder. And so in the past this guy’s been hidden in a blue overall at the back of the shop. The book was a way to create a bit of a collective… and to show the individual frame-builder off, and his passions. So the reader can have a connection with the builder without even meeting him.

It must have taken a while to do the interviews, because the builders are spread all over England?

We started in December 2011, that’s when we sat down and had our first meeting. And we started interviewing people in February. Because Ricky’s up in York and I was down in East Sussex, and the graphic designer (Samuel Moore) was in Manchester, it was quite weird. For some interviews Ricky and Kati (the book’s photographer) had to go by themselves, and I followed. So we kind of broke it up into sections… I did the interviews with the individuals, and then Ricky would also go and meet them, and then after transcribing everything we’d sit down together and filter out what we wanted to get across.

I don’t know that much about frame-building… the book itself dives straight in there and is quite technical in places. Would you have any advice for someone who wanted to get into the industry? Where would you start?

The internet is a wonderful thing (laughing). The book was not intended as a manual, if it did start interest for a couple of people to become frame-builders, that’s great. If you want to start, spend lots and lots of time on the internet. Anybody that wants to get into it has a got a passion for bicycles already. A lot of it is to do with aesthetics, as well as the ride quality of the bike. So, it’s good to find out as much as you can technically online, and then try to interpret  your own designs and desires for a bicycle.

What would you say the skill set of a good frame-builder consists of?

Patience. That’s a good attribute to have. You’ve got to be ok when things going wrong, and they do especially when you’re learning, as with anything. I think a good practical skill is definitely welding, and any type of fabrication work that you can get your hands on. You’ve got to be ok with a tube. Otherwise you’re going to cut yourself, and you’re going to bleed and you’re gonna hurt.

There’s a few horror stories in the book about things getting stuck in people’s fingers…

Yeah, sure. It’s a part of it. After a while you don’t even feel what’s happening… after a bit of blood… or you’ve burnt yourself by mistake… you just carry on with your day.

Also an idea of maths, a basic understanding of angles and trigonometry. When you’re designing a frame it’s good to be able to figure out what you’re doing with those three skills.

And lastly, determination. You’ve got to strive for something better every time you do it. It’s a constant learning process, and if you don’t push yourself to try something new, you won’t progress as a frame-builder.

Having met all these amazing frame-builders, if you were going to have a bike made, who would you choose?

Ron Cooper. Definitely. He’s in his eighties, and still building three days a week. What really appeals to me is the fact that he’s been doing it since he was fourteen or fifteen… he doesn’t have to work but he does — because he’s got a passion for it. He doesn’t need the money… he just really enjoys doing it. I feel that if a certain amount of work goes into something, it shows. I think it would be something quite special to get a frame from him. Suggested listening: the Bike Show’s Ron Cooper interview

As the interview comes to a close, Matthew reveals something which makes his commitment to the Made in England project shine even brighter. Puling out his phone, he shows me a shot of his living room, stacked wall-to-wall with crates of cardboard boxes. In a bid to keep costs down, his house has become a storage depot for the book.

This is a beautiful, weighty tome of a book which anyone with even a passing interest in the art of bike building should read. And you’ll be helping Matthew restore order to his (ware)house.

Get your copy of “Made in England” for £35 from Amazon  or find a retailer on the Push Projects website.

Posted to Features
by James Greig

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