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Blog

Headen & Quarmby - The factory behind Kinky Knickers

Chris Roberts

Owners - Paulette Roberts, David Moore & Sandra Ward

Owners - Paulette Roberts, David Moore & Sandra Ward

To say the last decade for Headen & Quarmby has been a bit of a roller coaster would be an understatement. The business has seen near unmanageable highs as well as seriously testing lows. But they are currently working hard to get Kinky Knickers and their new brand Ella & Me back into the limelight.

Headen & Quarmby is based in North Manchester and has been manufacturing lingerie and sleepwear since 1935. The business is steeped in history and was set up by Mary Headen, a pattern cutter and Eric Quarmby a machine mechanic. The two of them later became man and wife and continued to grow the business which is still family owned, now under the watchful eye and third generation David Moore who co-owns the business with Paulette Roberts and Sandra Ward.

Until the early 2000’s the factory used to employ 60 machinists producing thousands of items a week before competition from cheap imports forced the Company to send production abroad. But back in 2012 the factory featured in the Channel 4 documentary 'Mary’s Bottom Line', which saw Mary Portas crusading to revive British Manufacturing. The idea was to recruit eight apprentices, get them trained up, and start a knicker production line. The show was a huge success and demand went crazy, within the first week of the show airing Headen & Quarmby had almost 45k orders to fulfill. They quickly scaled up the business taking on more staff expanding from the original 8 to 32 people. Demand continued to rise but as the retail price point of £10, which they had set during the show wasn’t altogether sustainable for the longer term the price had to increase. A new price point of £15 was agreed and the final show in the series explained the need for the jump in price. Investment in new machinery, a continuous training program & ultimately a marketing budget were all needed as these would disappear once the TV coverage had finished. Almost all the retailers were happy with the new price point and it didn’t stop them ordering more knickers, however attempts to communicate this to shoppers became difficult and many people jumped to the wrong conclusions. Sales were heavily impacted and stockists we’re left nursing high levels of inventory. The factory had gone from riding a wave of excitement and over demand to reduced sales and public anger. Coupled with this Headen & Quarmby then fell victim to several of their customers going out of business, owing them a substantial amount of money and at the very beginning of 2014 found themselves forced into administration.

But following a dramatic buyout by managing director David, creative director Paulette and technical director Sanda, 12 staff returned to work and the factory continued to trade. They have been trading now for 17 months and are still selling Kinky Knickers as well as their own label Ella & Me, building the business back up in a sustainable way. David said “We love making these garments, we always have, we are very proud to show how good English craftsmanship can be, it’s up there with the best in the world.”

There are always highs and lows in business but the management and staff at the ‘Kinky Factory’ have experienced the extremes, extremes they can learn from, extremes that will make them stronger and more robust in the future. The great thing that has come out of this roller coaster is that new life has been breathed into an old factory, new jobs have been created, Middleton is producing quality English products again. It may have all been kickstarted by TV but the one thing that remains true and strong is the passionate people at the heart of the business, producing brilliant products and now starting to build a business and a future that is sustainable for everyone who’s part of it.