Pretty Polly - the Great British hosiery brand with its roots in Belper
- Credit: Archant
Playing a part on the international stage, Pretty Polly is the UK’s No. 1 brand of legwear with its roots in Derbyshire. Sally Mosley visits the Belper factory
In the 18th century Jedediah Strutt invented the Derby Rib machine to aid early stocking manufacture and in 1778 he established his first water-powered mill at Belper. A lot of water has flowed down the Derwent since then but legs around the world are still strutting their stuff wearing hosiery manufactured in the town. The old North Mill is now a museum, part of the esteemed Unesco World Heritage Site, but across the road is West Mill, state-of-the-art home of Pretty Polly, the UK’s No. 1 brand of legwear.
The Pretty Polly story began in 1919 when Harry Hibbert and Oswald Buckland formed a hosiery company in Sutton-in-Ashfield, initially with two machines and a workforce of ten people. They named their business Pretty Polly after a famous racehorse of the time, although their logo initially featured a parrot. Following a run of amalgamations, seamless buy-outs and steps up the ladder of success, in 2005 Pretty Polly moved to modern factory premises here in Belper and became part of Courtauld’s Brands Ltd.
Among the 300 employees there are several members of the same family working side by side. Many employees are long-serving, such as Alan Statham who was set on straight from school and has 51 years experience of tights manufacture under his belt. With an ethos of investing in the future the company also employs four apprentices.
Pretty Polly prides itself on its products being easy to find from the corner shop to the Co-op, in small independent boutiques as well as upmarket department stores. They manufacture ‘own label’ branded tights for many of our high street retailers. Their products are exported worldwide and with online sales as well, Pretty Polly graces legs as far away as Russia, Scandinavia, the USA and across Europe – even in Turkey, legs are wearing Pretty Polly.
My tour of the Pretty Polly site was kindly arranged by Beth Somi the Legwear Marketing Manager and Mark Freeman, Production Manager. Working my way through the production process, which is strangely described in commercial circles as being from cradle to grave, I first entered the research and development office. My eyes were immediately drawn to a line-up of mannequin legs on the window sill, each dressed in unique and amazing tights and no doubt providing inspiration for the design technicians who work here. Ever watchful of trends and fashion statements these designers are inspired to create new ideas and different looks each season which often challenge the development technicians and can involve upgrading knitting methods to make them. It’s important that tights never stand still in a challenging market of ever-changing fashions.
It’s little wonder that the creative marketing and technology team have won awards for their strikingly attractive and appealing packaging, resulting in Pretty Polly being awarded the Superbrand status and establishing the company as having the finest reputation in its field.
Going from the offices of sales and administration to the actual factory I passed through the raw materials section – the majority of nylon and elastane synthetic yarn required is sourced from Europe, mainly Italy. ‘We have 220 variations of yarn here and use some 12 tons a week,’ said Mark, who went on to explain the definition of denier, a term that most women use but don’t have a clue what it means. ‘Fifteen denier is a thread 9,000 metres long that weighs 15 grams, 80 denier is 9,000 metres long and weighs 80 grams, and so on...’
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Now came the noisy but fascinating part of my tour as I inserted ear plugs and headed through doors to Knitting. Here avenues of machines topped by cobweb contraptions holding cocoons of glistening white gossamer threads whirred, whizzed, spun and stitched at a phenomenal rate of 700 revolutions a minute, 2,800 rows and a million stitches per minute in a race that results in the ultimate manufacture of 25 million pairs of tights each year.
There are 480 Italian made Lonati and Matec knitting machines. Eight are working on development with 472 made available for production. Generally there are 350 machines operating at any one time for 24 hours a day, five days a week. Seven knitters are each in charge of monitoring and maintaining an alley of 50 machines.
I could also see the occasional coloured bobbin as a rainbow of threads is used to identify each specific product and size by a particular colour knitted into the waistband.
Baskets containing heaps of single hosiery tubes that are white, un-dyed and with open toes are then trundled through to the sewing department to be assembled into pairs and sewn with gussets, toes and labels. This is completed by sophisticated machinery, eight having robotic attachments, and overseen by skilled technicians.
The tights are now batched up into cloth bags or sausage-shaped bales, each bar coded for traceability, and stacked into wheeled cages to form an orderly queue before they head through metal detectors on their way to the dyeing department. The optimum capacity for every machine is meticulously calculated. Each style needs to be dyed together as the recipe is based on style and weight. The tights spend 3½ hours in a concoction of colourants, every formula having been tested in Pretty Polly’s fully accredited laboratory.
‘More than 90 per cent of hosiery manufactured here is black or leg shades with a very small percentage being fashion colours,’ explained Mark.
From this point most of the tights are then straightened, smoothed and packaged ready for dispatch to the Courtauld’s warehouse at Loscoe. However, my tour wasn’t over yet. I was taken to the Manual Sew Department where skilled machinists work on hosiery that is hand finished for perfection.
‘Some lines might be considered expensive,’ said Beth, ‘but this is because of the manual work involved. For example flat seams on our high end range of tights are individually sewn for maximum comfort as they leave no indentation marks on ladies’ tummies. But having no lines comes at a cost.’
Here reels of Nottingham lace sourced from Coalville and Long Eaton are made into garters then hand-stitched to the tops of Aristoc Sensuous Stockings.
A skilled machinist was bonding individual textile hearts under the feet of Sweet Steps tights. These are made of a nano-porous material that traps odour molecules, a process originally perfected for the armed forces. Pretty Polly also manufactures Winter Warmers which are thick opaque tights, soft, scrumptious and very flattering. Their Heat Sense tights keep you warm whilst Cool Sense cool you down. The team at West Mill is proud of the innovations that they add to the range each season.
‘We do outsource a few processes locally,’ added Mark, ‘but we are always keen to develop new skills in our workforce and keep the whole production process here at West Mill. New ranges such as the Alice & Olivia collaboration, based in New York, meant the whole team had to work together to develop the required intricate designs.’
Legs lead the way for each season with new ideas or variations on a theme. Far from being run of the mill, some Pretty Polly tights are dynamic and chic. The Flirty range is fun, fabulously decadent and devilishly daring! Pretty Polly retro chic nylons are 1940s in appearance but use 21st century technology and contemporary yarns to create. Diamond Fishnet tights offer more coverage and are therefore more wearable than the original fishnet stockings of old, whereas Pretty Posies have a raised pattern and are perfect for wedding outfits.
There are also popular types of legwear for every day, work, rest or play. The Shape it Up range offers great control and is flexible and flattering whereas Pretty Polly Naturals are traditional and Curves fit ladies who have that little bit more.
Support tights have been looking after ladies legs for a long time but unfortunately often get associated with an older generation. Pretty Polly aims to keep younger legs looking and feeling good for years to come, so Legs on the Go were developed and have taken support tights into the 21st century. This light compression legwear is worn by Virgin Airlines air crew. Tights are mainly worn by women but some are known to be popular with fishermen, men employed in manual work outdoors in cold weather and motorcyclists, whilst XXL stockings have a niche male market.
Walking back across the yard I commented on Beth’s eye-catching chevron patterned legwear. ‘I’m one of several employee volunteers happy to try out new styles,’ said Beth. ‘We have to wear the tights twice, wash them twice and give feedback. These zig-zag ones I’m wearing today are from the new Autumn/Winter 2016 range.’
To model Pretty Polly tights is a prestigious compliment and over the years the perfect pins of many famous celebrities have worn them. Notable past advertising campaigns have featured supermodel Eva Herzigova and singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor. More recently Rosie Fortescue from Made in Chelsea and Kimberley Wyatt from the Pussycat Dolls have been photographed showing off shapely Pretty Polly clad legs.
‘It was a fantastic endorsement and marketing opportunity when Beyoncé wore Pretty Polly tights for her Super Bowl dance performance in 2013,’ remarked Beth, ‘and evidently Meghan Trainor wears our secret socks all the time.’ However, I was most impressed when told about Sarah from the Midlands who is an unsung hero. She is a regular model for Pretty Polly whose legs have featured constantly for over a decade. She now knows just how to stand and has perfected the Pretty Polly pose.
2016 promises to be an exciting year for Pretty Polly. In February the company worked with Henry Holland to supply tights for catwalk models in the London Fashion Show. Later this year the flamboyant Suspended Sparkle and Blue Diamond lines will be launched, where blue, white and black diamond shapes woven into the tights change colour as you walk. Every season sees an exciting new range.
Having visited West Mill I will never look at a pair of tights in the same way again. I came away inspired, eager to celebrate Belper’s hosiery heritage and wanting to promote its continued success. I think there should be more days in the year when we females ditch the leggings, jeggings, jeans and trousers, pull up a pair of Pretty Polly’s and proudly show off our legs as we stride through the streets of Derbyshire.
Pretty Polly produces tights in sizes from small to XXL, which stretches up to 60” hips. Prices range from £2.75 to £25 a pair and all are listed and available for purchase online at www.prettypolly.co.uk.