One Saturday morning back in February I set out on my bike to meet Matthew Sowter at his workshop in Southwark. London’s winter was particularly bitter this year, and as I rode the 4 or 5 miles to see Matthew I began to wonder what on earth I was doing heading out so early when I could have been tucked up in bed.
As I arrived the snow began to fall and after a few minutes of searching I eventually found Saffron Frameworks HQ. My toes at this point were still frozen, but Matthew’s jolly welcome and offer of a steaming cup of coffee soon warmed me up enough to get my limbs and digits to work as I wanted.
He shares his workshop with another bike mechanic, whose projects and frames were hanging throughout the two rooms that make up the premises. Whilst the coffee brewed I took a quick look around, immediately spotting some gorgeous frames that were in the process of being sculpted into dream machines.
You worked for a bike manufacturer previously. Where was that?
Yes, in 2010 I started work at Enigma Titanium, which is in East Sussex. Just outside Eastbourne and in the middle of no-where really. Working there allowed me to get started in the bike industry.
And had you had any previous experience with bikes?
I used to race bikes a lot back in South Africa. I did road racing – in the national league. And then in winter months I would do cross country and marathon racing. But I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome in 2009 so I had to stop racing.
So what happened?
Well, it was bad and I wasn’t able to get back on the bicycle for at least 6 or 7 months. So, I had to reassess what I wanted out of life, and I knew I wanted to work in the bike industry. I quit my job at the time and I convinced my wife to come over to the UK. I had been in contact with some frame builders and they said in order to have a good foundation in bike building it is important to hone specific welding skills, so I did a course in welding – brazing, gas welding and TIG welding.
After that I got on the phone to the majority of frame builders in the UK to ask for a job.
Luckily Enigma said come and do some welding and see how you get on and that was that. I spent just under 2 years with them as a frame builder. Then I left Enigma to write a book – Made in England – about frame builders.
Ah! I went to the launch of that at Look Mum No Hands. I was so great to see those bikes there.
Yeah, we were really pleased with the launch. I dedicated 6 or so months to the book and we had all these really lovely contributors like Ricky Feather and his wife Kayti. It was a full time project for me, and it allowed them to contribute to it in their own time. I think that’s what made the project work.
So that was quite recent.
Yes, we launched the book in November 2012 and whilst that was tailing off I started to work in this workshop and Saffron Frameworks took off.
Do you just work with steel?
I work with steel and I also do a bit of carbon.
And do you paint the frames as well?
Yeah, I’ve recently started doing the painting too.
And… how are you finding that?
Well, it’s very time consuming and quite nerve-wracking because you only get one chance to get it right. Since venturing into painting I’ve gained huge respect for spray painters. But it’s a very satisfying process because you get to finish the bike off, which gives you total control over the whole process.
What influences your design?
Every bike I make is different from the next. The biggest influence on the design is of course the customer him/herself. And a lot of my bikes have quite a racy design because that’s where my background lies. But, each one is different to suit the customer.
Any trademark flourishes?
Not really. I take it as it comes. It has a lot to do with the relationship I have with the customer. I like to find out about who the customer is. What makes them tick, and then use that to try to put a unique design on their bike to reflect their personality or interests.
That must be really rewarding. Have you made a bike that you’ve enjoyed making more than any others? Or one that you’re particularly proud of?
Even though my history is with road racing bikes and mountain bikes, every bike that I make is enjoyable. It’s a process that you go through with the customer and you are realising the customer’s dream. A lot of the time, especially if they’re in their 40s or 50s, it’s a bicycle that they’ve been thinking and dreaming about since they were a kid. It’s really lovely to go through that process with somebody and realise their dreams. That in itself is really rewarding.
Do you ask them to bring examples of bikes that they like? Or do they just ask you to make a really nice road bike with this or that?
It happens in different ways. I could have a customer who keeps quiet and just says ‘I want a road bike’ – and then I have to work with them to shape their ideas, but they give me lots of freedom. On the other hand, I’ve had customers with very particular ideas about what they want. I’ve had a customer saying they want their bike to be the colour of the green on an iPhone text message. There’s real variety.
What was the first bicycle you made under the Saffron Frameworks name?
It was a show bike and I made it for myself. It’s a road bike with a carbon integrated seatpost/seat-tube and hand carved lugs in the bottom bracket. It’s made of Columbus spirit and is fillet brazed.
Have you noticed your lugwork developing since you started?
I have. It’s a real skill and it has developed but I don’t have a preference for whether I use lugs or not. For example, if I am doing a road bike I often prefer to fillet braze it. What I like about lug-work though is that there is a lot of creativity that you can put into their construction.. But there are many ways of putting a bike together and they all have applications that work best.
Are there any plans for 2013? Will you be making any show bikes?
I am working on a special bike for Jo Burt, who is a legend in my eyes, which is really exciting… but I can’t say much more than that!
I see shows like Bespoked Bristol as more of a chance to meet people in the industry and to interact with customers too. It’s not really a sales thing for me. If someone is making a custom frame for you then you’re buying into the frame builder too. That interaction with the builder is an important thing.
With that Matthew showed me his workshop and some of the frames he was working on. He even did a bit of welding to show me how it’s done. The bikes that he has built are all beautiful pieces. He came across to me as a perfectionist who loves making customers’ dream bikes turn from fantasy to reality. I’m delighted that taking that risk to move to the UK and follow his own dream has paid off for him.
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