Armani, GAP are using linen fabric made right here in Kochi. Take a guided tour with Stephen Logan, C.E.O, W.F.B. Baird and Co, through the warp and weft of the manufacturing process

Linen made in Kochi. How does that sound? Then here's one more…Armani, Marks and Spencer, GAP and Banana Republic are some of the brands that use the same linen. W.F.B. Baird and Company Private Limited is the company manufacturing it at Kakkanad at the Cochin Special Economic Zone (CSEZ).

On seeing the rolls of linen fabric at the W.F.B. Baird manufacturing facility, there is a ‘wish I could see how that gets made' moment. Leave that mid-thought and meet Stephen Logan, CEO of the company. The United Kingdom (UK) based parent company is Baird McNutt Irish Linen, which completes a century next year.

‘Why Kerala?'

The inevitable question is ‘why Kerala?' and pat comes the reply, which is probably the best advertisement for CSEZ, ‘water, power and the effective system of effluent discharge.' Interestingly the first choice, when the company was looking for a place to set up shop in Asia, was China. But the autonomy that India offered was one of the factors that brought the company here. The dreaded ‘S' word? Strikes? “No, except normal strikes which affect everybody.” However, one of the things which he has ‘begun to find offensive' is the “but sir, this is India” excuse when something hasn't been done and refuses to buy the excuse.

The Kochi factory, says Stephen, employs around 500 people. Season for the factory is from October to February/March when work is on full steam. Stephen mulls over the ‘working in India experience' question and calls it interesting, ‘the work ethic is different'. He is full of praise for the quality of work despite the ‘laid-back approach'. Stephen who is ‘Irish with a British passport' is full of quotable quotes. That he is as Indian or rather as Kochiite as the rest of us is evident when he talks about the roads, “it really fascinates me how the guys keep digging holes in the roads.”

The conversation veers to the technicalities of how flax (from Europe – ‘specifically Poland, Belgium and France') becomes yarn (in China because ‘spinning yarn is labour-intensive') and then reaches Kochi, in India, to become fabric and is then exported to countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka to become garments before heading to the United States of America. Stephen offers a guided tour of the factory, and he turns out to be the best guide. Rows of machines weave fabric with a certain degree of synchronicity, a red light blinks when a machine stops and a very business-like woman in a surgical mask tinkers with it and bingo! the music restarts.

It is fascinating to see how yarn becomes metres of fabric. Huge machines weave, dye, finish, soften metres of linen fabric. Freshly woven linen fabric (got to see that!) tends to be coarse quite unlike the supple ‘finished' fabric that we find in stores. It goes through a process which is like the tumble dry principle of the washing machine. A peek into the gigantic machine through porthole-like windows reveals metres of fabric going through the process of being softened. The contrast between the sizes of the machinery which make linen fabric is striking. The machines which weave the fabric are diminutive in comparison to the huge machines that ‘finish' the fabric. Rollers singe ‘hair' (which is the hair-like fibre on cloth), wash and dry the fabric. The fabric is designed by Peter McNutt in the UK.

There is a strong bias against linen garments, and Stephen acknowledges the fact. But he makes a very strong case for the cause.

Versatile fabric

Linen crumples or wrinkles yes but he says there are so many reasons why linen can/should be used – ‘it is durable, harder (read sturdy), versatile, it is more absorbent and therefore stays fresh'.

The company which has been in Kochi for the last five years and exporting, is now looking to making its presence felt in the domestic market with a brand called ‘Burgoyne' (as an experiment). They are retailing from its Kochi outlet at the Gold Souk Grande Stephen says. The company does supply linen to Indian brands too. As of now Burgoyne will stick to fabrics (as there is a culture of getting clothes tailored, as in Ireland) and not venture into readymade garments for the ‘time being.' If the ‘experiment' pays off, the company will open stores in other cities in South India and then move north-wards.