“The time it takes to construct an umbrella, completely depends on the type of product; compact, bespoke frames, one-off props.” Richard Ince, of Ince Umbrellas, the oldest umbrella manufacturer in the UK told TM.
Just off Vyner street and the buzz of Bethnal Green, East London, is 200-year-old umbrella manufacturer, Ince Umbrellas.
The family-owned business has been making bespoke umbrellas for centuries. This soon became obvious when seventh-generation umbrella maker, Richard Ince talked about the history of the business and the skills involved in umbrella construction.
The key to umbrella construction
“To make an umbrella, simply, it is pattern-cutting, assembly and stitching of the canopy, and then this is attached to the framework. It is then pressed, rolled and trimmed.” Ince said to The Manufacturer.
He gestured toward the vast variety of umbrellas in front of us, from the more common compact folded umbrella, to one-off umbrella props for stage shows like Mary Poppins, right through to bespoke solid shafted umbrellas made of hickory and maple wood.
“No umbrellas are as elaborate as they were 50 years ago, there was a whole industry in the UK making handles out of precious metal, horn and ivory.”
The manufacturer works across two levels in the factory, the bottom level is dedicated to pattern-cutting the eight-panel umbrellas, frame construction and handle attachment. The upper-level is for canopy assembly, stitching, quality control measures and packaging orders.
Overcoming disruptions in industry
Umbrella manufacture has changed a lot in recent decades, as much of the production has moved offshore, resulting in umbrellas becoming less elaborate and produced on mass scales.
Ince said: “Umbrella manufacturing worked alongside walking stick manufacturers, they would make the handles for us, walking sticks became less elaborate and then essentially less fashionable.”
A key strength of the manufacturer is the fast production line. Ince said: “Turnaround is key. We are a small volume manufacturer, but there is more rigorous quality control.
“The volume we can produce entirely depends on the umbrella type, because for some products we make the frames ourselves, whereas if you buy a complete frame – usually from China – you can make many more in the same time.”
The company has been able to compete with mass production of umbrellas in markets like China, because they offer a higher quality product.
Ince said: “One interior designer, who had umbrellas made in China wasn’t very happy with the quality so came to us, she said she needed more reliability because she was fed up of the returns from customers. That is what we can offer.”
Seasonal changes are a factor
Not only is Ince Umbrellas able to overcome disruptions, such as many key handle makers moving away from the UK and a rise in mass production of umbrellas offshore and then imported to Britain, the business is also – of course – affected by seasonal changes.
“We have just had the hottest summer for decades and we were busy up until July, and yet that heat started in early June. People are looking forward, they know it will rain. We send umbrellas to people, shops and companies in June that aren’t going to use them yet, but if there is a downpour and people don’t have the umbrellas, they are losing sales.”
However, Ince doesn’t consider climate change as a significant threat to the business. “It will always rain here in the UK, sometimes more and sometimes less, people are always looking to buy umbrellas ahead of time.”