016. Yarmouth Oilskins

A pioneering founder story celebrating over 120 years of British craftsmanship.

Head to the far East coast of England, between the river Yare and the sea and you’ll find Yarmouth Oilskins, a heritage artisan brand with a rich history.

Current custodians Sophie & Will share their inspiring story, of continuing the pioneering ways of their original founder in 1898, John Johnson.

There’s an ironic story about the invention of Yarmouth Oilskins.

In 1880 our founder John Johnson travelled to New Zealand and saw first-hand experiments using paraffin wax for waterproofing.

The paraffin wax was much more practical, less stiff and drier than the linseed oil used previously. He returned to England and started making the Yarmouth Oilskins “NZ Proofing” range.

Unfortunately, he failed to patent the idea and shortly afterwards Mr. John Barbour of South Shields also discovered the same process, the rest is history!

There’s probably no way to 100% validate that story, but Yarmouth Oilskins was the clothier of choice for those who worked at sea during the early 20th century.

Great Yarmouth was a prominent port on the east coast and we had chandlers all down the east coast selling our wares. During this time we made everything from smocks to baskets, all in Great Yarmouth.

large boats can be seen passing amongst the roof tops

We are small team of around 20 today, this is predominantly made up of those who make clothing; organising, sourcing, cutting, sewing, checking and dispatching. Beyond that we have two who cover design, marketing and commercial.

Interestingly there are only two men in the business and our longest serving employee has been with the business more than 40 years.

Making clothing is not as glamorous as it could seem, it is a job that requires a huge amount of skill and precision, this is often under-appreciated, especially today where fast fashion dominates.

‘Rickety’ is probably the best word to describe our factory.

Its very functional and there are several very prominent sounds – the rumble of sewing machines on the first floor, the hum of the cutting blades downstairs and radio 2 that can be heard at all times from a 90’s tap recorder.

The internal walls are painted in various pastel shades that no interior designer could ever imagine, around most walls are card patterns that date back decades – I suppose it’s a bit like going back in time.

The upstairs windows look out onto the river where large boats can be seen passing amongst the roof tops. A little quiet can be found at Ted’s, the café at the end of the road where syrup sponge pudding is bathed in more custard than your heart could ever desire.

Our clothing is all based around the concept of traditional workwear that was worn outside, predominantly at sea.

Many of the items in our collection are taken from original patterns that date back decades, innovation has always been at the heart of what we make, so we still develop new styles that are designed to meet the functional needs of today’s wearers.

Each item of Yarmouth Oilskins clothing is cut by Richard and Lorraine who are our husband and wife team of cutters.

After that a garment is made from start to finish by a single person, this is quite rare where many factories opt for more of a ‘line’ approach where each maker does a single part.

Our products are made using entirely natural fibres sourced from some of the best mills in the country. We love to work with and challenge the capabilities of what grows naturally and can biodegrade.

Customers love Yarmouth Oilskins because our products are timeless, built to last and entirely made in England.

Everything we do is also unisex and we do not adhere to conventional fashion seasons, opting for a core collection.

We love to work with and challenge the capabilities of what grows naturally

In 125 years, you have a lot of highs and lows – as travel took to the roads and skies, the demand for coastal workwear diminished which had a huge effect on our business.

Add to that globalisation and much cheaper overseas manufactures and you have probably the two biggest lows.

There has been many more highs though, employing hundreds of people during the early twentieth century and more recently our regeneration which started in 2018 and has seen us welcomed at trade shows in London and Italy as well as visits to 10 Downing Street.

Seeing our clothing being worn across the world again brings us great joy and seeing our products being worn by explorers, cult musicians, Blacksmiths, some of the best known gardeners and people doing all kinds of things, inspires us to keep going.

We know that we are custodians, the brand is far older than us and our time at the helm is an opportunity to leave it in a better state than we received it.

We do our best to maintain all of the best bits of the past whilst pioneering into the potential of natural fibres and their capabilities outdoors.

Our aim is to inspire the next generation of makers and show that there is a future of British clothing manufacture. It is important to invest in our local economy and the British Economy by working with suppliers, craftspeople and other businesses that share our values – this ranges from fabric mills to where our business cards are printed.

When we are working with people who also love what they do, it doesn’t feel much like work at all.

This year we launched our 12 months, 12 looks lookbook that shows different ways to wear and layer our collection throughout the year, without the need to constantly change your wardrobe – good staples last and can be dressed up and down.

We plan to develop a room at the factory to be more of a showroom and occasional factory shop where we can talk to customers and show our collection and archive.

One day we would also love to open a shop again to create a space to experience the brand, other than that we want to showcase our brand at trade shows in the USA and Europe.

We also love to collaborate and are working on a number of projects to be able to shine the spotlight on other amazing makers.


IMAGES ©Yarmouth Oilskins 2024

I’ve loved reading this story and reflecting on how there are so many wonderful brands like this that we as individuals are yet to discover, even if they are a strong heritage brand like Yarmouth Oilskins with a loyal worldwide following.

I’m delighted to have unearthed this fine example of British craftsmanship (even if I am a little late to the Yarmouth Oilskins party) and love their reassuring dedication to crafting clothes that are built to last.

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