Of the British Isles Pt. 1: A Workshop Visit with Albion Cycling Apparel

Founded in 2016, Albion Cycling has dramatically expanded its apparel offerings in the past decade. And while the product line has grown, the UK-based company has stayed true to its fast-paced iterative roots and is now working closely with the technical fabric company, Pertex, in designing remarkably lightweight and packable products, for on and off the bike. Petor Georgallou pays a visit to Albion’s design HQ for a closer look…

Albion is the oldest known word for the British Isles. Its etymology is probably from ancient Greek, meaning white or whitish with reference to the chalk cliffs of Dover, facing Europe. Alba in Scottish Gaelic, Albain in Irish, Nalbin in Manx, and Alban in Welsh and Cornish all predate the current Latinized Roman term, Britannia. It’s also the 77th most common pub name, shared by 58 pubs in England alone, meaning that almost all English cities have more than one pub named The Albion. I’m not sure why so many pubs refer to this Gaelic Greek form. Pubs are surprisingly ancient things; I’m sure the majority of the “Albions” reference writers and poets from the 18th and 19th century, themselves obsessed with ancient Greece and antiquity, rather than using language as a form of soft resistance against colonizing Romans. Albion Cycling however has a clear and direct link to its name, designing purpose driven clothing with the mission statement of helping people stay outside for longer (specifically, in the UK).

Albion began in 2016, but it’s only in the last two or three years they’ve really found their stride, slowly growing into what’s become regarded as an exceptional clothing brand. The UK can be a challenging place in which to go outside and stay there at any time of year, and this is felt more acutely on a bike. It’s not out of the question to need three or four seasons of clothing in a day on the island of Albion, with weather systems varying from valley to valley and shore to shore. This is why founders Charlie, Rupert, and Jack started Albion, and why I wanted to visit, to better understand what Albion does and why.

I was on a group ride recently where someone said “It’s like they just do stuff” and I guess that’s what first drew me to Albion – they just do stuff. There’s a rare and defiant authenticity in their approach.

“We wanted to be about tea, not coffee.”

If I wasn’t three deep already I’d have been making eyes for the exit, but Charlie went on to explain:

“Coffee is a social thing and that’s not what we enjoy about cycling. It’s not about meeting for coffee or beers or whatever and then cycling. We didn’t want to be a part of that cafe culture. For us, it’s about going for long hard rides in the UK and then coming back and just getting warm and having a cup of tea. When I think about amazing riding that I really want to get away and do, I don’t think about going to places like Girona where it’s hot. I think about going to Wales.”

There’s something really satisfying about fetishizing a spartan existence in less than ideal conditions, and having with you only what’s necessary and nothing more.

The Inner Workings of Albion

The Albion development and design team consists of Rhiannon, Graeme and SJ. Half of the studio is dedicated to in-house design and repairs. Albion offer free repairs on all their garments using factory offcuts to minimize waste of high-end technical fabrics which would otherwise go to landfill. Their latest release, the AP1 Jacket and Bag is made in their tiny studio in Deptford, London, as a collaboration with Pertex.

Using a unique co-designed fabric, the AP1 items are made using a zero waste cutting principle, which is a more conscientious approach to sustainability than just incorporating recycled fabrics. Zero waste cutting takes into account embedded energy in the manufacture and transport of fabrics, as a responsible use of materials. In addition to the new AP1 range, Albion’s repairs and prototyping are also done in-house from Deptford. In this way repairs and design are linked, so the same people responsible for one also take care of the other. While that might sound unremarkable, it’s a rare overlap, offering unparalleled insight into where and why garments fail.

Graeme is a repairs enthusiast, a tinkerer, a minor modifications madman. A couple of years ago when we first met, I’d recently bought a Zoa Jacket which I’d been thinking of purchasing for a while. Unfortunately, my size was out of stock in orange, so I bought it in black with Albion’s trademark orange lining and wore it inside out. A few weeks later we bumped into each other at Fforest in Wales where Albion were running a little musette making workshop. Graeme saw me wearing the jacket inside out, and made it properly reversible on the spot, by applying patch pockets and branding to the inside to make it wearable both ways. On my recent visit to the studio he refined the pockets and made new longer zip pulls to make it work better inside out. He also fixed my massive chrome messenger bag, as well as adding a strap and a buckle to one of the white X-pac musettes that he’d made as an edition for the volunteers at Bespoked 2022.

According to Graeme: “We like to try and do the most we can with what we have available. We like to squeeze the most out of each machine.”

From a pretty meager starting line up of just three products—one of which being a waterproof phone pouch—Albion’s range has grown exponentially in the last decade. There’s an extent to which there have been refinements in cycling jersey design, however the differences between them are nuanced details. That said, the interesting products Albion makes aren’t your standard industry fare—socks, jerseys, hats or bibs—though I do own some of these products they make and rate them highly. The predictable pieces feel pretty inconsequential in comparison to a few products that Albion uniquely offers. The most unexpected of this group is the Burner, part of their Zoa range, and is literally just an insulated Pertex square, that weighs half nothing, which is designed to shove down the front of a cycling jersey for extra warmth on descents. Packability is a core value for Albion and the majority of their garments are designed to be as packable as possible to allow for three seasons of layering in just jersey pockets, or four seasons of clothing with the addition of a 7g musette.

Pertex, first registered in the UK in 1979 by mountaineer and adventurer Hamish Hamilton, features consistently within the Albion range of super lightweight layers and outer shells. While Pertex (now Pertex Quantum) has been consistently used for high-end outdoors clothing since its inception, Albion are the only cycling-specific brand working closely with Pertex in their development of fabrics. This close relationship is a big part of why Rhiannon, who used to work for fashion studio Raeburn Design, said: “The office feels like a playground. We basically have any technical fabric we want, that we can just make stuff with straight away, so there’s literally no time between having an idea and being able to make it.”

In addition to Rhiannon’s impressive knowledge, and fluent mastery of technical fabrics, having Graeme as part of a design team is pretty much a superpower. From 2007-2018 Graeme was a designer at Rapha, during what I’d definitely consider “peak Rapha.” After a brief stint back in fashion, he was itching to return to designing more purpose driven, utilitarian garments.

“What are you working on?” I asked him. He unloaded a bag of every design iteration of a new winter hat onto the table to show me. There must have been 20 prototypes all sewn in house with different shapes and peaks. I pulled one out with a longer flappier peak than a normal cycling hat. I love this peak… I think it’s my favorite.

Graeme: “We decided that one’s a bit too leathery, and it’s too long so it flaps down in the wind and you can’t see. We were playing around with different materials to find one that’s flexible and packable. This one’s got cosplay foam that people make their outfits out of. It’s way lighter as well. It’s been quite weird ordering it – I get quite a lot of weird adverts now.”

I continued my line of questioning: “How many iterations of new products do you normally make before you decide on the right one?”

Graeme: “So the traditional model of making something like this would be that you send a diagram or a model to a factory and two or three months later you get a sample back, but that sample might end up like this one with a weird wobbly peak. So then you’d get another sample made, which takes the same amount of time again and after that you have to go into production because another prototype would take too long.”

Rhiannon: “The first samples are almost never right but by taking back control of it, we can manage that here and make as many samples as we need to get the product to a really good place, before we send anything to a factory. It means we can kind of get ahead of the game, but it also means we really understand what we’re making; I think that’s a key thing as well.”

Graeme: “Have you tried our waterproof trousers?”

Me: “Yeah! I just got a pair! I think they might be a bit big though.”

Graeme: “So again that’s a good example of why it’s great to be able to work with this iterative process, to work out things like the closure, and just that sweet spot of being able to get a boot with an overshoe on through. Working out things like what’s the optimum height of the zipper to go for that. A real focus for us was to make them as easy as possible to use. Maybe we can swap them over for you for some smaller ones… although you are going to be a Dad soon so…”

Me: “It’s okay, I have rollers and a projector set up hahaha!”

Graeme: “I guess getting the fit for on bike – off bike right is also really specific, and nailing the closure so it doesn’t get in the way.”

This is what strikes me about Albion and what makes me excited about their process, and the brand at the moment. There’s a real connection and commitment to every product. A deep knowledge of both cycling and bad weather, high-tech textiles, utilitarian sportswear and fashion, which as a team Albion are nailing. They’re making products they need based on lived experience, that no one else is making. While I live in moth-eaten merino base layers (which I’m sure Graeme will repair at some point if I ask) I’m not sure there’s an alternative product to the rain trousers I’m currently testing, or the Burner. Each visit to Albion has yielded a hand stitched gift or a repair, this flying visit saw me off with three repairs AND a prototype reversible Pertex Quantum all weather changing mat, with Primaloft Gold Eco breathable insulation for our new baby. I don’t want to encourage the moths any further, and I have a couple of packs of the repair patches for technical fabrics that Albion make, but I’m excited to wear out some more of my Albion kit, as an excuse to go back and visit again…