William Whiteley & Sons has been discovered by home-based crafters, tailors, DIYers and makers of hospital scrubs, sparking a five-fold increase in online sales this year.
It has given the 12th generation company - believed to be the oldest in the western world and one of the last in Sheffield - a huge shot in the arm.
Bosses have spent £80,000 on three new smoothing machines that can process up to 1,500 blades in the time it took a ‘buffer girl’ to do 20, solving a production bottleneck. But they stress they account for just three of 39 production steps and the firm is still overwhelmingly ‘craftsman-led’.
Five years ago industrial customers like Bentley Motors were 95 per cent of sales.
Now, the internet and social media have turned the heritage firm into a global brand and retail sales, already running at a record, could be half of business within the next 12 months.
Director Jeremy Ward said: “The pandemic has given us a huge boost. People are at home crafting and tailoring and making things like never before. People love our story and they want to support British manufacturing.
“But we can’t sell more stuff if we can’t make it and we had to increase manufacturing capacity. We’ve spent a total of £100,000, it’s a huge gamble. But we think we will meet or beat last year’s sales and possibly more.”
Industrial activity has fallen due to the pandemic and the firm is expecting even more growth when it comes back, he added.
The company makes a special range for, and sells them at a discount to, ‘For The Love Of Scrubs,’ tailors making hospital wear at home. William Whiteley also donates a proportion of sales to the charity.
The new machines smooth off raw forgings by vibrating them in a drum with ceramic chips. One was switched on and left overnight for the first time this week.
Director Sally Ward said it was her most exciting time after many years in the business.