Interview: Matthew Sowter, Saffron Frameworks
Part One of Anna Schwinn's talk with Matthew Sowter covers his inspiration and motivation, and how he was able to rise so quickly to prominence in the UK frame building world.
Within the current landscape of UK framebuilding, Matthew Sowter straddles the older and newer school. Unlike the massive wave of newer builders in Britain, Sowter didn’t begin his framebuilding career at one of the UK’s building schools. At the same time, while he did not come up through the ranks at a bicycle factory or an apprenticeship from youth, he still cut his teeth at an established bike manufacturer and has a formal education in welding and metal fabrication. As a result, his approach to the craft and philosophy of framebuilding falls more in line with that of the established builders, though his approach to marketing and product is far more modern.
In contrast to many of the steel frames at the UK show, the frames at the Saffron Frameworks booth featured massive, oversized tubing, tapered headtubes, smooth fillets, and luscious paint themes. Visually they seemed to lean more towards carbon race frames which makes sense given Sowter’s background in racing and his appreciation of the material’s aesthetic and performance characteristics.
Whatever he’s doing, it is resonating. A perennial favorite at Bespoked, it was no surprise that his brand, Saffron Frameworks, took ribbons for Best Finish and Best Design this year.
Sowter’s South East London workshop is located within a massive maker industrial complex on the southern shore of the River Thames. Though the space, flooded with natural light from a substantial south-facing window, seemed to be exceptionally clean, Sowter was adamant that it was pure Bespoked chaos. It was here, on the morning April 20th, that I interviewed Matt, who was still managing his post-show exhaustion.
AS How did you get into bikes in general?
MS Bikes in general: so I started riding far before I even considered framebuilding. I’m originally from South Africa and I probably started riding in 2000, 2001, 2002? A while ago. But I wasn’t saying that I’ve done it from my teenage years. I raced a fair bit.
AS What kind of racing?
MS Road racing, mainly. Then in the off-season, I would race cross country. A bit of marathon racing on the mountain bike. Then I got sick. I got chronic fatigue syndrome about six years ago... a little bit more than six years ago.
AS What did that mean? I’m not familiar with it.
MS It’s known as yuppie flu.
AS Yuppie flu? Oh my god, what a horrible name!
MS It’s terrible isn’t it?
AS For something that takes you out like that!
MS I think it was named as yuppie flu from bankers and people just doing far too much coke and partying non-stop and working, their bodies just crashing. But no, it was a little bit more serious with me. I wasn’t doing any coke.
AS ... For the record.
MS Yeah, and I stopped racing because chronic fatigue basically, your cortisol levels within your body change drastically to the point where you can’t get out of bed. I probably spent about two months in bed. I was an amateur racer. I probably thought I was far better than I actually was. I was an amateur racer, racing at an elite level. I was studying, I was racing, and I was running a business at the same time. Having this hectic lifestyle and then just stopping because I couldn’t get out of bed.
I had to sort of ask myself, “What the fuck is going on with my life? Am I actually enjoying every process of it?” And I wasn’t. Because when you get into a really bad, negative space, being just flat on your back, you can’t sleep, you’re stressing from anxiety, then depression sets in because you can’t do the things that give you enjoyment, as in ride bikes.
AS You don’t have the endorphins that you get when you ride all the time.
MS Yeah. And so it properly fucked me up. It was quite a long road to recovery. So it was like, I don’t know, it was close onto a year where I was like, okay, everytime I try to do a bit of exercise, my body would just crash. If you’ve been training or racing and if you have a cold, you know what it’s like. You try to do a ride when you’ve got a cold and your body just doesn’t feel right. You get this horrible sluggish feeling.
AS Like lead in your legs.
MS Exactly. It’s not just lead in your legs. It’s your chest and your head and everything at once.
AS That was you all the time.
MS Yeah, that was me all the time. It was pretty shitty.
AS Woof. I’m sorry. That’s horrible.
MS No, it’s... it’s pretty shitty but in retrospect it’s taken me to a good place because I’m doing what I love and enjoy.
AS Is this what came out of it? You just re-evaluated?
MS Yeah. That was the catalyst for change.
AS Cool. What were you doing professionally before that? Or… what were you doing for work?
MS At the time, I had two small businesses in South Africa, but they’d only been going for two years. Prior to that, I spent most of my working career as a chef. In the UK, South Africa, Holland, and France. Kind of all over.
AS Not too shabby. I mean, it’s hard work, but you get around.
MS It’s cool, but my love for cooking, there was a love to start with, but because you do it all the time it becomes too all-consuming. I went through this long transition of stopping and starting something completely different, and then getting sick, and then kind of thinking, “Really, what do I want to do? If I take money out of the equation, what would give me happiness?”
I was living in South Africa at the time. There are framebuilders, there was quite a strong heritage of framebuilders.
AS In South Africa? Really?
MS Weirdly enough, yeah.
AS Huh. During what period?
MS All the way up until I’ll say about ‘85, if not a little bit before.
AS Wow. That’s a new one for me.
MS Yeah, we produced a lot of bikes for other companies. A lot of French brands. Peugeot, LeJeune, a couple of other brands were made in South Africa. And then there were... not like masses, but there was a good community of South African framebuilders. I only started riding properly in 2000, 2001, 2002. When I was younger, I rode a steel bike. That was fine. But when I was riding I wasn’t even aware what type of material I was using. As you get older, you get a little bit more mature. Like steel frames, I viewed them when I started off as just a bit of junk. Super heavy, flexy. Why would I ever want to ride that?
AS You weren’t even aware of the material you were riding. What were you actually loving about racing and riding? Was it a compulsive thing?
MS Yeah, it was being competitive.
AS Huh. Okay. You could have been competitive with anything. It was just with a bike in that case.
MS It just happened to be a bike, but then I think as you race, especially for me, as I raced a little bit more, you race in a club, and then you race in a team, and you get that real nice sense of family and community, which is pretty cool. If you’re a team, you’re core to the bone why you’re racing. There’s like a massive rivalry between you and other teams, other riders. It’s kind of like fitting into that.
AS It’s tribal.
MS It’s very cool. You can be racing and you can be swearing at the guy next to you, as harsh as you can. Then you cross the finish line and everyone chills and relaxes and is friendly to each other. I used to really dig that. It was a really cool way to express yourself.
AS I’ve never heard anybody talk about racing as expressing yourself. But yeah, that makes sense. I see that.
MS I mean, everyone expresses themselves in different ways.
AS Typically, people are like, “Here is this concrete physical thing that you can hold that’s an expression of me.” But racing as a form of expression is pretty cool. Never thought of it that way. So racing as your means of expression… and then all of that kind of shuts down suddenly and you were in South Africa.
MS And there were not a lot of framebuilders in South Africa at the time.
AS Not anymore. Okay.
MS There hadn’t been all the way through the time that I had rode and raced properly. I knew I loved bicycles. I mean, I loved my bike. It was carbon. It was light and it kind of did the job. I absolutely loved it. I would always work on it myself. I would go to the extreme of like trying to find the best bottle cage bolts and so on and so forth, just getting really geeky.
AS Oh that’s so fun!
MS Exactly! Every Friday or Saturday before I would race, I would clean it and polish it. I was super proud and happy about that. I read an article that was written by Darren Crisp of Crisp Titanium. At the first NAHBS, he won the best Ti frame. He only builds in Titanium, but he’s based in Italy. It was a Q&A that some platform had done with him. It really inspired me. I picked up the phone, called him, annoyed him, got some advice, and the rest of kind of history.
AS Cool. So why are you set up here instead of in South Africa?
MS My mother’s advise to me was, “If you ever want to get into a new industry or so something, get some experience in the industry before you set up on your own.” Which was pretty sound advice. I’m half English and so it was easy for me to come to the UK to see if I could get a job with somebody.
AS Who did you work for?
MS Enigma Titanium, when they were making all their steel bikes in house. Yeah, so I spent like a year and a half with them, less than two.
AS Did you work with Ti while you were there?
MS A little bit. I would do all the machining work for the Ti. I didn’t TIG weld any of the Ti stuff. I did on things I would play around with, but never for customers. I did all the fillet brazing and the lug work, and all the steel work that wasn’t TIG welded. I would do the machine work and so on and so forth, which was good.
AS What capacity did you come in as?
MS The one bit of advice that Darren really tried to hone in on me, “Really get your welding skills up as much as possible.” Before I came to the UK, I did a welding course for quite some time, for a couple of months. I learned how to TIG weld, fillet braze, and do lugwork. So with the basis of that, they hired me based on my welding skill. The intention was to work for somebody and gain some experience and go back to South Africa and start setting up in South Africa. But I got to the end of the process of working for Enigma and I just thought it would be too much effort to educate South Africans on handbuilt bicycles. It was just far easier to set up here, but there is a little bit more of a culture around that. So that’s... I probably spent just under two years with [Enigma].
AS So you have two or three machines here. I think that the really interesting thing, at least with the limited exposure I’ve had with builders in the UK, the obstacles in this part of the world are space and machinery. Machinery because of space available, even. You’re limited because have so little space for machines, so people hand-miter rather than bring in a dedicated mill to take up space. But you’ve got a pretty decent sized workshop here. How big is it?
AS Not including your mezzanine space.
MS No, not including.
AS I’ve lived in houses smaller than this.
MS So have I.
AS First of all: nice find!
MS Especially in London. I really fell on my feet here because there is a community of other makers and creative people in this whole block. There are like 400 small businesses here, so it’s massive.
AS That culture is so crazy. I mean, I’m not saying that people don’t make things in the States… but people don’t really make things in the States anymore. Not like they used to.
MS It’s the same here as well. This corridor is mainly makers, people who physically make things, but most of the businesses are other... painters or photographers or designers, so on and so forth. What’s really nice about being around those kinds of people is it’s not that I get ideas from them, and it’s not that I get business from them...
AS ...Of course not.
MS Exactly. They are in the same boat as me. I can’t even afford one of my bikes.
AS It’s crazy. Builders can’t buy bikes from other builders. How messed up is that?
MS I don’t know, I think a lot of it’s got to do with the time it takes to make something, it’s just so time-heavy.
AS I’m asking about your machines here. You have two vertical mills here… and this adorable horizontal mill! That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. And I love that big chip plate! What a find!
MS I know! It’s brilliant. It was £500, it was so cheap. It cost me about, I don’t know, maybe £30 or £40 to get it shipped here from Wales.
AS Is it tight? No slop or anything?
MS Yeah, it’s pretty sturdy.
AS Great. Yeah, that’s the cutest horizontal mill I’ve ever seen. And you’re giggling too.
MS Well, it’s small, it’s sturdy, and it does the job. So it’s perfect for somebody who has a sized-deprived area they are working in.
AS It really makes sense.
MS My outlook on machining work is that it saves time and it creates better accuracy. Because of that, why not use them?
End of Part One. Part Two will follow on May 17.
Saffron Frameworks photo gallery link for MOBILE PHONES (if you cannot see the embedded gallery below):
All photos by Anna Schwinn.