100 Hands shirts: Made in Amritsar, India

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Monday, April 23rd 2018
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100 Hands makes perhaps the finest shirts in the world.

They certainly have as much handwork as any shirt I've seen, executed with greater fineness and consistency.

But the most significant thing for many people will be that they are made in India.

In this first article on the company, therefore, I wanted to address that point directly - what assumptions are made about Indian production, and what truth, if any, there is in them.

I did that by going to India to visit the factory myself.

100 Hands is run by a couple, Akshat and Varvara.

They live in the Netherlands, where the company is headquartered, but the factory is in Amritsar, India, where it is managed by Akshat's brother.

Their family business is cotton spinning. For six generations the family has had spinning operations in India, although most of the business today is trading yarn rather than spinning it.

There was always a shirtmaking operation in Amritsar, but it was very small. It was Akshat and Varvara (with previous careers in IT and finance) who wanted to try and turn this into a separate business.

It started slowly, in parallel with their full-time jobs. I had a shirt made by Akshat four years ago (via Chittleborough & Morgan), before the company really existed.

Today, 100 Hands employs 140 people, has moved out of Amritsar to the countryside nearby, and is in the process of adding a second floor to its factory. (That's the countryside above - me on the left, Varvara on the right.)

The workforce is about 60% male, 40% female, and is relatively young. (Most of the people working the sewing machines are men - which is an interesting contrast to Europe.)

There are several very experienced pattern cutters, machinists and embroiderers, but also a large contingent of trainees - often training in parallel with education.

This brings up one of the first concerns westerners have about Indian production: child labour.

Interestingly, the legal working age in India is 18 - by law no one is allowed to work full time until then.

It's also 18 in the UK, but has only been so since 2015. (With various grey areas in between, such as limits on hours per week, internships and so on.)

Younger people can work part-time while in education (again, just as in the UK - I had a paper round at 14) which is why there are a few people in the 100 Hands factory aged 16-18.

Child labour is really about the youngest age anyone is allowed to work at all. In the UK this limit is 13 (except actors and models, with various restrictions) and in India it is 14. 

There's nothing even approaching that at 100 Hands, although it is certainly still an issue in other parts of the country.

Another concern is how the workers are paid and generally treated.

I find this interesting, because actually this is far better than any British factory I've been to.

Everyone is paid considerably above the average wage. They all have pensions and everyone, including their families, is given medical insurance. Some also have local accommodation.

By contrast, workers in most British factories (I've been to around 30) are paid on a par with working at the local supermarket. And while many are nice places to work, few come with any ancillary benefits.

The only factories in Europe that come close are the big Italian brands like Kiton, Tod's or Zegna, which were founded on more communal principles and often supply good food, training and childcare.

Of course, these assumptions are made about Indian production because most brands go there in order to make things cheaply. (I actually had three requests along those lines when I posted pictures of the 100 Hands factory on Instagram.)

But 100 Hands shirts are not made cheaply. It takes specialist skill and about a year of intense training to do some of the hand stitching. Some of the pressing and quality checking is also twice as rigorous as other shirt factories I've visited.

(Bear in mind, too, that much of the world's best and finest embroidery comes from in India.)

It may be cheaper in absolute terms to make shirts here, but the quality produced and time required are greater than almost anything made in Europe. The margins are also similar - a 100 Hands shirt would cost considerably more if it was made in Italy or Portugal.

I entirely understand people that would rather buy from local, European manufacturers.

But there's also nothing wrong with supporting developing communities. 'Buy local' and 'Fairtrade' are similar sides of the debate in food production.

I personally feel very connected to the 100 Hands factory, having visited, seen how well it is run, and been welcomed so kindly by everyone there. It felt like a calm oasis in the middle of the burning Punjabi fields.

And my personal view, as I've always said, is that for people interested in the best, quality should always be the first concern. Location and heritage come some way after.

I'll go into more detail on how that quality is achieved at 100 Hands, as well as their range of offerings, in a separate piece.

For details on my clothing, see Friday's post here.