For those unfamiliar with Hull, Yorkshire, the poet Philip Larkin was pretty good at encapsulating its spirit. The opening stanza of Bridge for the Living reads, “Isolate city spread alongside water, / Posted with white towers, she keeps her face / Half turned to Europe, lonely northern daughter, / Holding through centuries her separate place.” Having grown up in the port city, I can say with conviction that his description of my hometown is totally accurate. Its location is geographically awkward, which means it’s the type of place that doesn’t seem to change or develop easily. The end-of-the-line mentality frustrates some, but for others, it’s a safe place to concentrate, knuckle down, and thrive.
The latter is the case for Alex Jones, founder of Studio Kettle, a label that offers practical bags and hats inspired by fisherman styles. A fellow Hullite, he moved back up north to Hull at the end of the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020. The decision to leave London and head back to Yorkshire appears to have paid off. With a slower pace of life and the coast so close by, Alex has been able to focus his energy on building up knowledge of the rich local maritime history and perfecting his making process.
With Alex’s home studio just a few streets away from mine, it made sense to swing by for a conversation about whether being near the mighty river Humber has impacted his practice of making modernised versions of traditional fisherman accessories.
“When I left home to study fashion at the University for the Creative Arts, Epsom, I wanted to remove any connection to Hull and have a fresh start,” he says. “The garments I designed in the first two years didn’t reflect my heritage in any way and it wasn’t until I got to my final collection that I felt compelled to reclaim my roots. Looking back, my Hull background had always inspired the way I dressed, and I knew it was finally the right time to capture it.”
He started sourcing old fishing newspapers and found a book about the textile history of Whitby, which was “almost like a directory of people who made clothes, darned socks and repaired things.” It inspired the silhouettes for his degree show, and after graduating, he was approached by a couple of stockists in Japan, who wanted to buy items from the collection – especially the fisherman style hats. “My brand was still very small at the time, and I juggled making the orders myself whilst holding down my job working for a fabric shop in London. Moving back up north offered me the chance to focus full-time on expanding Studio Kettle.”
The trawlers, the docks and the folklore that goes with it are interwoven into the families of most of Hull’s inhabitants. Whistling is said to be unlucky because it brings bad weather. Washing clothes on the day a family member sets sail (or travels away from home) is meant to bring bad luck. Sunday is generally seen as the best day of the week to set sail, with Fridays actively discouraged. Superstitious maybe, but there’s also something reassuring about the maritime DNA that exists within the community here.
You may have heard of the so-called “three-day millionaires”, referring to the extravagant weekend antics of mid-century Yorkshire fishermen. Hopping back onto dry land with cash to spend, most would head straight for the tailors (not the pub) to commission fancy new made-to-measure suits. The contrast between strictly functional seafaring garb and flamboyant bespoke tailoring is something Alex has always found fascinating. As we sit flicking through the pages of old fishing memorabilia, he explains how most seafaring folk could sew very well, by all accounts. He points out an image of a man wearing a battered (but beautiful) cotton smock and explains that most of their clothing was made by hand, at home.
His first experience of sewing was at the tender age of six, when he asked his mum if he could use her sewing machine. “Mum was always making things, so I figured I could do it too. Even then, I had my own strong ideas about style and would alter shop-bought clothes, so they were more in line with the distinctive look I was going for,” he says, laughing. At school, he didn’t tell anyone he enjoyed sewing, “but I kept dabbling, tweaking things and making garments in secret, until I turned 16 and started a fashion design course at college.”
Prior to this, he attended Trinity House Academy, whose pupils stand out on the streets of Hull thanks to their full naval “square rig” uniforms. Lunchtime sees the city centre teaming with boys dressed in white cloth-covered peaked caps, immaculately pressed black trousers, brass buttons and polished black shoes. For me, it’s always been a reassuring sight – there’s something comforting about the protection of its 235 year history. Marine studies and sailing were part of the curriculum. “Imagine being 11, all dressed in black like a cadet with a beret on, sitting in a one-man vessel with your classmates in a lake, being taught how to sail as part of your timetable,” he recalls. “I loved it! Maybe that’s where the real idea for Studio Kettle was hatched.”
For TOAST, Alex makes every rain hat and pint bag by hand, using either waxed cotton or waxed wool. The shape and proportion of both give a clear nod to classic fishing togs, without feeling like caricatures from the past. Coated with a special type of dry wax that doesn’t feel sticky to the touch, they gradually become more characterful over time. Made without buckles, zips or buttons, the deceptive simplicity is what makes these pieces so sought after. “They’re designed for daily use, not for people to feel precious about them,” Alex says. “You can fold up the bag or hat and shove them into a pocket without worrying about them creasing or looking worse for wear. The wax is like nature’s waterproof coating, which means they’re versatile, whatever the weather.”
As we examine the samples on his workbench, it’s clear to see how his craftsmanship clearly fills him with so much pride – as it should. He’s keeping the art of humble maritime expression alive and kicking, a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. It seems his move back to Larkin’s land was definitely the right one.
Interview by Leanne Cloudsdale.
Photographs by Luke Hallett.
Watch Alex create his signature pint bag in his studio and explore the banks of the river Humber on our Instagram.