New Grenfell at Oi Polloi – Interview with Joslyn Clarke

As long standing fans of the Grenfell golfer, Oi Polloi are chuffed to finally get hold of some to share with you. Made from a tightly woven cotton that could easily be Ventile but actually isn’t, these classic golf jackets are an Oi Polloi archetype and it’s easy to see why they’ve gone to town on them. That town being Southport, by my reckoning though I could be wrong. In fact I probably am. A plea to OP yielded a typical tap of the nose. Those lads keep their cards closer to their chest than a paranoid poker player. All adds to the appeal though.

Anyway, rather than me saying nice things about Grenfell and indeed Oi Polloi, I thought it best to let them both speak for themselves, via this interview Sam Waller  of OP did with the chief Grenfell designer Joslyn Clarke.

For those unaware, what is Grenfell? How long has it been going? Who started it?

Grenfell is a luxury clothing brand that creates a collection for modern adventurers. The Grenfell brand started in 1923 in Burnley, Lancashire. It was started by an English mill owner called Mr Haythornthwaite.

The company is named after a man named Sir Wilfred Grenfell. Who was he?

Sir Wilfred Grenfell was an incredible man, a philanthropist, missionary and doctor, who worked on the Labrador and Newfoundland coast. He devoted his life to improving the lives of others—fishermen, indigenous peoples and those pioneers who had chosen this most inhospitable of lands to settle.

How is he linked with the jackets? Did he design them?

He needed clothing that could operate in the inhospitable arctic weather both on dog sleds and on the ships decks, which were the main forms of transport in the rugged land. He went on lecture tours of the US and the UK to raise funds and profile for his projects; and in 1922 in Burnley Town Hall he met Mr Haythornthwaite who took on the challenge to create a new cloth which could improve clothing performance.

In 1923 the task was completed and Sir Wilfred was so pleased with the result that he lent his name to it. Sir Wilfred wore the cloth usually in the cajole style made famous by the indigenous Inuit people, and combined it with a wolverine fur hood, as this would not freeze against the skin.

A big thing with Grenfell is the fabric, can you explain what this stuff is? How is it made?

Grenfell cloth is made from long staple cotton, constructed in an incredibly dense weave—600 threads per square inch. In the early days it had ‘wonder fabric’ status, as when moist the fibres swell and lock together to create a barrier to water. It’s natural rain-proofing without synthetic finishes or membranes. The fabric is also breathable, comfortable and quiet (important for hunting and stealth activity).

It doesn’t sound a million miles away from Ventile. What’s the difference?

Both share roots as very densely woven cotton cloths for active duty. Grenfell cloth was developed in the 1920s and immediately became the choice of active sportspeople, adventurers and pioneers. Grenfell cloth was also used in military duties, including clothing Spitfire pilots.

Ventile was developed specifically for a military need in the 1930s for a highly durable fabric, for use often in waterlogged environments, such as exposure suits for downed pilots.

Nowadays there are loads of high-tech waterproof fabrics around. How does Grenfell cloth stand up against something like Gore-Tex?

Grenfell cloth is available both in the classic version, and now a fully waterproof version. Gore-Tex has set the modern benchmark for waterproofness and breathability, however it falls down for many consumers on aesthetics.

For many, Grenfell cloth looks even better with age, Gore-Tex look best when boxfresh.

The cloth has also been used in tents and jackets used on Everest. What is it about this stuff that made it so popular for mad adventurer types?

It had been created specifically for a ‘mad adventurer’ and like any exceptional product, it thrived on word of mouth and it delivered in the most extreme of situations. A personal favourite is David Attenborough’s wearing a green Grenfell Walker jacket in Rwanda with the gorillas in 1980.

Grenfell cloth was worn by both Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald for their land and water speed records. Why did they choose this fabric? And how did this come about? Did they get special suits made, or were race-suits something you lot already made?

Sir Malcolm Campbell started wearing Grenfell clothing in the 1920’s because it was the superior choice of racing car drivers, aviators and all pioneering active types. Lightweight, breathable, comfortable, windproof, weatherproof… it was a big leap on from previous garments.

Grenfell cloth was used on tents too. What else was it used on outside of clothing? Is it still used much today?

Grenfell cloth was a wonder cloth of the early 20th century. It was used for tents, including the ‘highest habitation that man has ever built on this planet’ by Mr F S Smythe on Mt. Everest at Camp VI in 1936. Its versatility meant that it was also used for rucksacks, as well as tennis, athletics and motor racing clothing.

The Grenfell Golfer Jacket is a bit of a classic. What’s the story with this? Who designed it? What makes it good?

The Golfer has been in the company since 1931 and has changed very little since. Along with the Shooter jacket, it is one of the most iconic Grenfell styles. It is a timeless classic that has touched a place in the male psyche ever since its creation. It works well for a number of outdoor activities, including cycling. It was worn by the greatest golfer of his day, Sir Henry Cotton, three time winner of the British Open and captain of the 1947 Ryder Cup team.

All your stuff is made in England. How important is this for a company like Grenfell?

We are proud to make everything in England. Because we have our own factory, we are able to control our products to the highest levels and react quickly to customer requests. We are maintaining an unbroken tradition.

Brilliant. One last quick question — I imagine you’ve got some pretty good stuff in your archives. What have you got in there?

Our jacket archives go back to the 1940’s and we are constantly adding to them. The best include early mountain jackets, as worn by Gregory Peck on the Cresta Run in St.Moritz. The weirdest could be our ‘snowman’ suit made in Grenfell cloth, in collaboration with Abercrombie & Fitch back when they were a proper hunting and outdoor clothiers in the 70’s. It features a full length, ribbed quilt and a battery pack to keep your back warm in the snow!

Grenfell is available at Oi Polloi from Thursday 24th March at 10am GMT.

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Mark Smith

I had pizza for tea.

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