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How I got here: Simon Ellson on why he believes in British

Heritage sock manufacturer Pantherella’s production manager on why he believes in British manufacturing.

Simon Ellson

Simon Ellson

What does your typical week involve?

While no week is ever the same, there are some recurring tasks I have to work on. Every Monday I read a report of the previous week’s production and try to identify any capacity issues that might occur. This could involve rotating the machines so that they can produce different thickness of socks, depending on the types of orders that have been placed.

We have 57 knitting machines that run each week and another 30 machines we use to adapt capacity. Our machines operate on four needle gauges, ranging from 96 needles (for a thick walking sock) to 176 needles, 200 needles and 240 needles for a fine silk sock. Essentially, the smaller the number of needles, the thicker the sock. In the summer, for example, we might need to produce more fine socks, so we customise the machines to add more needles.  

I also order all our yarn from Europe, which includes luxurious Egyptian cotton, 100% cashmere, silk and wool. I need to make sure I buy the right the amount of yarn for all our orders and the samples we produce for our sales agents. We have just finished sampling for our spring 16 collection, for which we produced 12,000 samples. We also manufacture lines for the likes of Ted Baker, Vivienne Westwood and Thomas Pink. When these retailers visit the factory I also give them tours around the plant. It’s really fun to meet other people in the industry.

What impact is technology having on your role?

As we need to get product to market quicker, over the past five years we’ve invested in new technology. Pantherella socks are known for their ‘hand linked toe’, which in the past was produced by hand machinists who linked the fabric together on a revolving dial fitted with needles, a very time consuming process. Over the past five years we’ve invested in updating 25 of our 57 knitting machines with technology that can automatically link the toe. This investment has changed our whole workflow, meaning we can reduce lead times and get product to market quicker.

What have you got wrong and how did you learn from it?

I’m quite a perfectionist, so I really have had to learn to delegate more, which I still find difficult. Before I tried to do everything myself, but now I get a buzz out of collaborating with my colleagues as it gives me the opportunity to learn new skills. Delegation can be one of the hardest things, but it’s about trust.

If you could change one thing about your career path, what would it be?

I worked as production controller at Margaret Howell for two years, but I think I left before I’d achieved what I wanted. I was part of the team that set up the shirt manufacturing and I wish I’d stayed to see that evolve. I loved the buzz of working in a fashion company, especially one involved with London Fashion Week.

I was offered a nice job at Dread, which manufactured the team clothing for the British superbike team. So I spent six years travelling back and forth to China and learnt about production there, which was one hell of an experience. However, I’m much more at home in fashion and I’m so pleased to be back in the industry after nine years away. When I left Margaret Howell I never thought I would get back into UK manufacturing, but I’m so proud, as British manufacturing is the best in the world.

Who in the industry do you aspire to emulate?

My first senior manager Allison Burton, who at the time was head of design at Gloverall. She was professional, focused and fair. I learnt such a lot from her at Gloverall and then she headhunted me to join her as production manager at Margaret Howell, which was a great experience. I believe she’s not working in the industry any more, but she was a great manager.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Always work hard and give 100%. I would also say take on every experience you come across as you never know when a similar situation might arise. Another piece of advice would be to never take things personally.

What are the key skills they need to be acquiring to keep progressing up the career ladder?

There will always be deadlines to be met. I will need to continue to be very organised and methodical. It is also important to have a can-do attitude and always find a solution to the problem. For example, if someone places an order tomorrow and says they need it in two weeks’ time, this can have a massive impact on the plant, but if it has to happen then I need to find a way to make the production work.

How do you see your career progressing? 

Over the next couple of years Pantherella is planning on relocating from our old mid-1950s factory to newer premises, also in Leicester. When we move I will be required to map out how everything would fit and set up the factory floor to make it more efficient. The last time I designed the layout of a factory from scratch was when I was working at Margaret Howell setting up the shirting factory. In terms of a new role, I see myself moving up to production director. I would have a production manager who would be responsible for the day-to-day running of the 30 strong production team, allowing me to take a more strategic view.

If you could work in another area of fashion, what would it be?

I’m a production person through and through. I get such a buzz from the factory floor, it’s just who I am. However, I think I could have worked as a buyer as I have a keen eye for detail. I have been fortunate enough to travel to the Far East while working at Margaret Howell and Dread, so I would probably also enjoy the travel aspect of a buyer’s role.


2011       Production manager, Pantherella

2002       Production manager, Dread

2000       Production controller, Margaret Howell

1997       Assistant factory manager/production planner, Gloverall

1990       Workstudy engineer, Gloverall

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