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The Dream Works: Inside Saffron Frameworks

James Spender
17 Jan 2017

The Dream Works: Inside Saffron Frameworks

If framebuilding workshops were kitchens, Saffron Frameworks would be Le Gavroche.

It’s well equipped, compact yet functional and, for a place in which bikes are built, conspicuously clean.

Much like that Michelin-starred restaurant, Saffron has taken a traditional craft and injected it with an inspired modernity all of its own, garnering multiple accolades in the process. 

At this point it would be tempting to start drawing parallels between a top chef and a skilled framebuilder, both finely crafting raw ingredients into products way beyond the sum of their parts, but talk to the man behind the Saffron head badge, Matthew Sowter, and he’ll put you straight.

He’s more than qualified to, because among other things he used to be a chef. Then, in 2009, he did what many of us would love to do – he jacked it all in to learn to build bikes.

Seven years on and that dream is a highly successful reality. It hasn’t been easy, though.

Changing direction

‘It was at a point where I had a lot of time to read,’ says Sowter in a measured South African timbre.

‘I’d left cheffing in the south of France and started two businesses in South Africa with my brother: a graphic design agency and one doing illustrative work for architects. I hated it.

‘I was racing my bike a lot and was getting serious, so I decided to see a cycling-specific nutritionist, who basically put me on 375 calories a meal. 

‘They still don’t know what caused it. Pulling my body in all these different directions, training aggressively and this guy messing up my eating habits didn’t help, but I ended up with chronic fatigue syndrome and literally couldn’t get out of bed.

‘It puts you into a bad place mentally – you get quite depressed. Anyway, I was bed-bound and ended up reading this article about an American framebuilder called Darren Crisp.

‘I really liked his ethos so I gave him a call and when I started to get better did a welding course on his recommendation in South Africa.

‘I then phoned around every framebuilder in the UK asking for a job. That may sound strange, but I’m half English and custom framebuilding wasn’t really a thing in South Africa then.’

The plot thickens

At this point you might think Sowter’s story is pretty much ready for a Disney ending, but things quickly got complicated.

‘I got accepted by a company up north and when I arrived there was this weird expectation that I was going to make all their frames.

‘The framebuilder had died maybe 10 years ago, and they had this amazing workshop.

‘The manager said, “We’ll hire you if you can fillet braze,” so I did and he said it wasn’t good enough. Shit.

‘That was a Saturday, so he said to practise and come back Monday. So I went back expecting to see the place teeming with framebuilders, but there was no one there.

‘It transpired that any frames they were selling were being made in Belgium then imported and painted up.’ 

The experience forced Sowter to find new employment with another major UK-based framebuilder, a position he held for two years. Yet even then it wasn’t all roses. 

‘We were easily making 150 custom frames a year, and I was thrown completely in at the deep end, which was great.

‘It was an amazing opportunity to learn my trade in super-high volumes, but – and I don’t want to take anything away from them – it wasn’t the route I wanted to go down.

‘When I went for the interview I was under the impression that everything was made in-house, so I was disappointed to find most of their stock frames were imports from China. So in 2012 I started Saffron.’

Zen and the art of bicycle building

Fast forward four years and Saffron has settled in a converted set of industrial units in Woolwich, a spanner’s throw from the Thames Barrier.

The space is crisp and bright, all white-painted brick and exposed wood that if it weren’t for the heavyset milling machines and racks of tools could easily be mistaken for a rustic art gallery.

Adorning one wall is a series of photographs of flux-covered lugs, flaming brazing torches and swarf-sprinkled benches; on another, hanging just over a bike stand, a curiously drawn circle.

‘These are some images of the workshops we went to for a book I did with Ricky Feather called Made In England about UK framebuilders,’ says Sowter, gazing up at the white-framed photographs.

‘Then this is a drawing I was sent by a Buddhist monk who I built a frame for. The circle is the point of concentration for meditation as well as symbolising the circle of life, the connection between myself as the builder and him the rider and artist.’

Page 1 of 2The Dream Works: Inside Saffron Frameworks

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Page 1 of 2The Dream Works: Inside Saffron Frameworks