Interview 8: Tom Burke of United Overalls

by | August 20, 2021 | Interviews, Makers

United Overalls

The story of how I’ve come to know Tom Burke, founder, and owner of United Overalls, a 100% milled and made selvedge denim brand based in North London, actually begins 16 years earlier. Thanksgiving weekend 2005 marked a significant shift in my life and worldview. I boarded a plane to leave the country for the first time on the 23rd and flew solo to the United Kingdom, forgoing the family holiday pursuing an ill-fated relationship. 

While it didn’t work out with the girl, a fate I’m happy to report, what emerged from my trip was an itch to wander the globe, a love for English tailoring, and a noticeable change in my speaking patterns. Ultimately, I spent nearly the entirety of my 20s living and working in London and Southern England, with the longest stretch spanning seven years.

In that time, much changed for me. Politics and all that aside, the most outwardly noticeable difference in my life was how I dressed. Not yet passionate about denim the way I am today, my style definitely shifted. The cut of my suits for work, shoes and boots, casualwear, just about everything in my wardrobe became heavily influenced by English tailoring and design. What’s interesting is, upon returning home in 2014, I didn’t shift back to my old ways. 

Now jump ahead to this summer; back in my Instagram K-hole and editing this blog, I stumble United Overalls. Three things catch my eye: English-milled slevedge denim, single-needle stitching that is absolutely stunning, and the words Blackhorse Lane Ateliers. I’ll dive deeper into those things in my review of the ED-1s from United Overalls, but ultimately those details lead me to a conversation with owner Tom Burke.

This story is actually one, in two parts. First, we begin by getting to know Tom and his company, and second, we will deep dive into United Overalls ED-1 Selvedge jeans.

TOM BURKE: United Overalls

United Overalls

The Arcuate: Mr. Burke, man, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you participate in an interview for The Arcuate. I’m really grateful for your time. I tend to start these things the same way. Tell me a little about yourself, United Overalls, and your life in London, especially in a semi-post-apocalyptic version of the world?

Tom Burke: My name is Thomas Simon Burke. I am 28 years old and the owner/designer/model/beer drinker of United Overalls Co. I live in New Eltham (saaarf Londaan) with my girlfriend Charlotte and spend any time not thinking about denim playing PC games, collecting Warhammer 40000, and enjoying rum-based beverages! I also enjoy going on walks and tutting at people’s non selvedge jeans with turn-ups.

Lockdown life has been a bit of a rollercoaster, to be honest! I started working in retail, so I furloughed for a while and became the model house husband. It did mean I could get some good fading going on my jeans while cleaning the house on my hands and knees. I got a lot of my other hobbies done as well, such as gaming and model painting, managed to paint up a whole army in lockdown which is useful!

Then once I had got bored of that, I started a new job at Octopus Energy and was able to work from home, which was a much better use of my time. So, it has been a bit of a mix, but I did appreciate all the spare time I had at the start. The only thing I did miss at that time was going to the pub to meet friends, both school friends, and denim friends. Nothing beats a fresh pint from a tap with mates!

TA: Tom, what’s your selvedge denim origin story? Acceptable answers may include fabricated stories about radioactive indigo-infused spiders and vengeance for the murder of loved ones in robberies gone wrong by assailants in pre-distressed stretch denim. I’m really hoping for one of these stories someday.

TB: I would love it if I had some kind of hero-level origin story about how I started with denim but unfortunately, nothing so elaborate or epic! My first real experience with decent denim was on my 18th birthday when my Mum asked me what I wanted as a gift, it being quite a momentous one.

In typical teenager fashion, I mumbled, “hmhmhmdunno,” so she suggested buying me a nice pair of jeans which I agreed to. So, we went down to our local Levi’s store in Bromley, and my Mum asked the nice tattooed gentlemen whether they do any “cardboard” jeans like she used to wear when she was younger.

Naturally, I didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about (why would jeans be made of cardboard?), but the assistant pulled out a pair of raw 511 jeans for me to try on, and oh boy, was I hooked. I wore those bad boys nonstop for near on 3 months (before knowing this was the cool thing to do) before my exasperated mother stole them from my bedroom so she could wash out the teenage stank from them. So, I guess that is kind of like a loved one being murdered?

After this, I got a job in the same Levi’s store and learned Levi’s history as dictated by the company. I’m somewhat of a history buff, so I got engrossed in the different eras of the 501 and how they changed over the years. Then, after some research into where to get jeans like they used to, I got a job at the world-renowned Son of a Stag, which really opened my eyes to the Japanese and American denim scenes, and I learned all the other details and fabrics that were coming from these companies.

United Overalls

TA:  What about this part of your denim history drove you to want to pursue denim as a career?

TB:  As I started to learn about all these other denim brands, I started writing up a checklist of details that I liked. For example, from Oni, I loved the laurel wreath buttons. I loved the fit of more tapered jeans from brands like Edwin and Tellason, and I loved the single needle stitch details from Stevenson Overalls.

The most important requirement that I would want from a pair of jeans is for the fabric to be sourced from the same country where the construction occurs, much like the brands mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, there were no English equivalents to these brands as no selvage denim was woven in the UK.

All of these ideas were stewing in my brain while selling jeans to customers and noticing patterns in brands that they liked and details that they cared about. These stewing ideas eventually coalesced into an outline for a brand I wanted to start, modeled around my desired specifications.

TA:  In your “About Us,”  section of the United Overalls website, you talk about starting on this path by working in denim shops. It’s a bit of a leap to jump from denim retailer to denim artisan and brand. What has prepared you for that undertaking, and what did that process look like? Were there any setbacks, expected or otherwise?

TB: During my time at Son of a Stag, I became good friends with the guys at Blackhorse Lane Ateliers and attended one of their jeans-making workshops hosted by Mohsin of Endtime. Here I learned about all that went into making a pair of jeans and the process from start to finish.

You were allowed to put your own details on the jeans at this workshop, so I toyed with some ideas on the jeans I made, almost like an initial prototype. The trouble was I knew nothing about fashion design, pattern making, or running a business.

I did have the list of specifications I drew up, a keen skill of googling how to source materials for making the jeans, and connections to people such as Blackhorse Lane. At this time, I also came across Hewitt Heritage Fabrics and reached out to ask about the selvedge denim, as this was the last piece of the puzzle for the perfect pair of jeans I had drawn up in my mind.

So, with this final piece, I approached Blackhorse Lane Ateliers and asked them what they would need from me to get started and then spent many, many, many hours learning photoshop to produce a technical drawing of my design. This involved lots of YouTube tutorials, crying into the keyboard of the computer, and ordering lots more equipment for my pc.

I quickly learned that the process takes a long time (two years in total) and that designing garments means your initial designs have to go through several iterations before getting them right. It was a steep learning curve, but I am glad I had to go through it to come to the final product we put out.

TA: Let’s discuss the name United Overalls, and the back pocket arcuate for a moment. What’s the origin story behind them both? 

TB: As the idea for the brand came about, I wanted to highlight the uniqueness of British denim and manufacturing. One of my favourite little design details is the British Broad Arrows put on anything made for the British Ministry of Defense. This includes uniforms, armaments, medical kits, etc. So, I wanted a way of having that in the arcuate design while not using a double-needle arcuate as I always think they look super lazy.

As for the name United Overalls, many turn-of-the-century brands were named “The So and So Overall Company.” I didn’t want to be pretentious and call it the “Burke Overall Company.” The logical thing, for me, was to just go to United (from the United Kingdom), and there we had “United Overalls!”

United Overalls Arcuate

TA: It’s evident that being 100% English milled and made was vital to you and the United Overalls brand. There are plenty of British denim companies, but they tend to outsource denim and then put Made in Britain on the label. Why was it essential for United Overalls to be 100% milled and made in England, especially for your debut?

TB: Personally, I find brands that say “Made in Britain” but using fabric woven overseas are just flat out lying to the consumer. You are ignoring a large portion of the making process for the garment and washing over the tremendous environmental impact that the garment has on the world. One of the (many) reasons why I got so into the raw denim scene was the fact that it was meant to be a more environmentally friendly option to buying off the high street.

The emissions produced from shipping heavy fabrics halfway around the world can be cut out of the fabric’s carbon footprint if made in the same country as production. I can sympathize if a particular product or trim isn’t available in the country you produce in, but if it is, then you should be trying to use that domestic product as much as possible.

My apologies if I’m starting to sound preachy, but garment manufacturing is the third biggest polluting industry globally. If we can reduce that in any way possible, I will embrace it as much as possible!

TA:  The denim on the ED-1 from Hewitt Heritage is remarkable. In all honesty, I have not experienced raw denim this soft and comfortable right off the rack. First, tell me more about the denim itself, how you came up with the properties you wanted it to have, and then, if you can divulge, how the hell is it so soft?

TB: The denim is one of the offerings from Hewitt Heritage Fabrics. It is 14oz and isn’t incredibly starched, so it doesn’t feel like cardboard from the get-go. As much as I like wearing crazy thick and starchy jeans (I rocked Samurai S710xx24oz for a good while), it is also nice to just be in some comfortable jeans without the environmental impact of washing them!

TA: United Overalls uses denim milled by Hewitt Heritage on 1950’s Blackburn Northrop looms, and Blackhorse Lane Ateliers assembles the jeans. There’s a remarkable amount of fine details in your first offering. Clearly, you had a specific image for your brand and these jeans; tell us about the vision and why you chose such particular things.

TB: Again, this goes back to my experience with Japanese and American brands and cherry-picking details that I felt were the best from every brand/model. I wanted to learn much further about early styles as opposed to models from the 1950s onwards.

After this period, I have always felt that jeans lose the detailing and construction methods that make them so interesting. They essentially get cheaper and cheaper after this period, with as many corners cut as possible. I like to think of the 1870s–1930s as the “Golden Age of Denim,” with the most innovation occurring in this period.

So, even though our jeans aren’t necessarily an exact reproduction and not a vintage fit, they have all the specs that you would expect from this time. That’s why we went for so much single needle detailing on the jeans as well. It helps tie it all together even though the production time increases a crazy amount!

United Overalls

TA: I like that you chose heavyweight pocket bags and a large fifth pocket and rear pockets. My meat shovel hands definitely appreciate the more oversized pockets in general. Also, as someone who always has a blade on them, the heavier front pocket bags give me greater confidence that blowout/through is likely to be delayed throughout the lifespan of the jeans. Talk to me about these designs. Are heavy pocket bags and a larger fifth pocket considered traditional, or was that a modern take? 

TB: Early denim overalls came with denim pocket bags but were replaced with cheaper canvas to save costs. In my experience, the modern pair of jeans have a much more important job of holding onto our valuable smartphones and house keys, etc., so the pocket bags should hold up to these needs.

I have had many pairs of high-end Japanese jeans made with great denim that I could probably wear for years and years, but they become unwearable once the pocket bags rip to shreds. I have massive hands as well, so I always found it annoying that jeans had such teeny front pockets and a coin pocket that is just there for decoration.

On our jeans, all the pocket openings are made much larger, and the coin pocket is more oversized, so it can actually hold something in it. At the end of the day, jeans are meant to be utilitarian, so if you can’t even fit your hands in, then what is the point?

TA:  How has United Overalls been received? I know you’ve shipped globally and are even stocked in some brick-and-mortar shops. In terms of your own goals and expectations, where do you think the business currently lands?

TB: It has been really positive so far. People who understand the raw denim scene have fallen in love with the product as soon as they receive it. The quality and the craftsmanship really shine through on our jeans, and the added extras you get really make it a one-of-a-kind experience.

Customers just can’t get jeans that come with a piece of fabric for wash tests, and repairs which is mad as so much denim is thrown away in the cutting stage of production. Price-wise, we know we are at the higher end of the market. However, the amount of time put into the jeans helps customers understand that price-point and the value is driven home.

In my opinion, there aren’t many brands that put the same level of construction quality in their jeans. Look at any brands at a similar price point, and they will probably have overlocked seams all over the place!

United Overalls

TA: Ok, we have talked about overlock seams enough that it sent me on a quest to learn more…and I came up short. I couldn’t find anything that definitively says overlock seams are better or worse or even equivalent to flat-felled seams. So I took a look at my own collection, and only two brands had flat-felled seams, both artisan brands, Ruttloff Jeans and Choochai Indigo. SDA, Samurai, Full Count, Momotaro, Nama Denim, and N&F all used overlock seams. Tell me what you think about both approaches and why flat-felled is better. Do you think that production scale and efficiency dictate the use of overlock seams? Are they actually inferior to flat-felled seams, and if they are, why?

TB: It may be a point of debate, but generally, overlocked seams are a quicker and cheaper way to construct jeans. There are some arguments that there are fewer layers of denim to sew over when constructing with overlocked seams. Still, brands generally do it to fully imitate Levi’s jeans’ construction and make. 

If the stitching on the overlock wears out or breaks, though, the end of the fabric will start to fray. This leaves the inside of the jeans a bit of a mess. I have had several pairs of jeans from top Japanese brands where the overlock threads have worn out, and the fabric has started to fray. Felled seams make the construction on the inside as neat as the construction on the outside. 

It takes a lot longer than overlocking but does create a much cleaner end product. In addition, the selvedge line is used so there is a seam that won’t fray as part of the construction of the jeans. So, why then add seam constructions that will fray on the inside?

TA: Well, shit, that is a better explanation and argument than anything I found in my research. Ok, then, where do you go from here with United Overalls? What plans do you have to expand your cuts and lines of products? What does that timeline look like for those (ahem) ready to get their hands on new United Overalls products?

TB: This year, I want to go complete turn of the century overall style and make a loose, high rise, cinch back model. I have the sample made now, so it shouldn’t be too long before we go into production. We also have a British Denim Apron on the way, and we want to get some more colors of our wool socks done.

As a small brand, everything takes a bit of time to get done, and it doesn’t help that we are so exacting with the quality of the pieces we put out. After this, we want to start making lots of products to expand the brands offering: chore jackets and pleated blouses, t-shirts and henleys, pieces made with wool fabrics.

There are so many British industries we can tap into to create a wide variety of products. My favourite brainstorm is a pleated blouse/lee cowboy-style jacket done in a waxed canvas and wool lined with handwarmer pockets which I want to call “The Shires Jacket.” Hopefully, I can make that happen!

TA: Last two to bring us home, Tom: First, what’s the most embarrassing track on any playlist you currently listen to that you’d hate to admit that you love? 

TB: To be honest, I like to think that my music taste isn’t to many people’s liking, but probably my most embarrassing one right now is the Pokémon theme. I downloaded Pokémon Silver after a bout of nostalgia then had to listen to the theme, too. But, let’s be honest, the opening guitar in that song is fantastic and gets you pumped for anything!

TA:  Finally, If you could hang out with any IG denim …eh…personality, who would it be and why? 

TB: Oooh, that is a good one! I have already had the chance to hang out with Swiss Jeans Freak, which was fun (and smelly), and I managed to see many European denim heads during Amsterdam Denim Days. I would love to grab a beer with you, to be honest, as we have had interesting chats about denim just over social media!

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About the Author

Grant Schildhouse

Grant Schildhouse

Grant, our Editor in Chief, is a denim enthusiast and writer; The Arcuate is his attempt to combine these loves in one place. He wants to tell some of the stories behind those who make and wear denim with a passion. His journey into the world of denim continues, and he hopes you'll co-journey with him, allowing him to be your fireside storyteller.