There's a lot of duty rumours, gossip and sometimes downright bad-mouthing about various companies that produce military kit and the quality of that kit. The classics are:
"They order it in on the cheap from China so it's going to fall apart."
"They're a paintballing company, they don't know what they're doing."
So it was with this in mind that we decided to take a look at one of the best kept secrets of the military kit world to find out what goes on behind the scenes.
Time for a Closer Look At:
DC exists in two locations in the UK. The first is the true Dixies Corner which is a spot on the map on the Brecon Beacons where squaddies tend to spend a lot of time running to, taking a bearing to somewhere else, then running off again.
The second Dixies Corner is, conveniently, only a mile or so from the original DC and is also a place where squaddies tend to spend a lot of time running to, often devastated to find out that their GPS has lied to them or that Google Maps has instead taken them to a military kit shop and equine store instead of the wriggly huts they were expecting to find. It's also known as Llwynon Saddlery, the sister business dealing with all matters horsey.
This is often when most of them break down in tears and the owner, proprietor and if you listen to his staff, slave driver, Graham offers them a nice cup of tea to help cheer them up.
Having enjoyed their cuppa they can then decide to keep on running or, once they've got past the riding crops and bondage-esque saddlery kit that shares half the building, take a look at some of the extensive kit for sale in the military side. With brand names, random kit and custom built home-made gear, Dixies has plenty on offer for every taste.
Renowned for building and customising almost any type of PLCE you can think of, from bergens to assault vests to manbags to belt kits to pouches and bags and anything else that has stitches and fabric, Dixies is more than just an off-the-shelf store, it's very much like walking into a tailors shop and being fitted out for just the right size of suit.
Graham fits the bill perfectly as your attentive if somewhat slightly manic tailor, having been in Kings Troop as Master Saddler many moons ago. Finding his talents worthy of more attention he decided to go into business himself and started working out of a small workshop in St. Albans in 1983 before moving with his wife Lynn to Wales after she fell in love with a derelict old farm with no electricity, no running water and most of the house falling down in possibly the worst climate zone in the entirety of the UK!
What followed next sounded like an episode of Grand Designs with much building, tearing up of this, ripping down of that and trying to get it all done properly and to a high standard. Once business began to grow Graham decided that they needed another barn to cope with the number of horses they expected to have and asked a local builder if he could help put up a shed.
Having agreed to do so the builder arrived to discover that a shed was actually a huge barn which needed to be fully founded and built from the ground up. A few complaints were passed and the builder left for the day, leaving behind his JCB..... and keys.
Graham, being unperturbed by the builders lack of drive and having a typical squaddie mentality, waited until he was gone, jumped in the JCB and promptly dug the foundations himself at twice the required depth and size. It's been rumoured that in case of nuclear attack the barn at Dixies is the emergency location for the heads of shed at Main Building Whitehall due to the survivability of the structure!
Having setup shop in the horsey world it wasn't long before a local wife of one of Them asked if Graham could fix a strap on her husband's Bergen whilst he was away on course. Padwives being the worst gossip and news chains in the world, it wasn't long before word had got round that Graham was quite handy with fixing up kit.
As more work came his way and more and more broken kit, damaged kit or poorly conceived kit came through his doors to be fixed by himself, he realised there was a market and requirement for well designed, thought through and reliable kit in the British Army.
So it was that Dixies Corner was born.
Focussing at first on building custom webbing and kit alterations it wasn't long before the shop as it is today had started to take form and brand names and other related products started to appear on the shelves with his core market always being his bespoke tailoring services for military PLCE and clothing kit.
Being in Brecon Dixies found themselves in the position of having a very unique customer base, not just with the amount of through-traffic of soldiers on their way to indulge in some hard training but also due to the nearby presence of Them who like to experiment not only with black'n'nasty and each other, but also kit.
From sources such as mentioned, suggestions were put forward for kit that could be of use to soldiers in the field as well as possible modifications to existing equipment. Graham would take a suggestion or request and find out what the purpose of it was and with that he'd run off and knock up a prototype which he'd inevitably tweak and refine until a workable finished product was created.
It's due to Grahams ability to take in a suggestion and turn it into a workable design that's won him so much accolade amongst a small but dedicated client base. From crazy inventions to having to press 3,000 studs into a piece of fabric for the Royal Marines, Graham and the folk at Dixies have seen it all.
When asked about what's been the most taxing bit of kit he's had to design from scratch or alter Graham says that generally anything requested by those at Hereford were always the most challenging. The most random request he's ever had was when someone wanted a pouch for a mars bar!
Over time as demand grew for his services Graham found he had to extend his staff and today he now sits at the head of a team of eight people, all skilled and experienced in their fields and able to add new perspectives and opinions to the kit he designs. Graham says that the benefits of having non-military staff means that when he designs something from a squaddies point of view, his team will look at it from a civvie point of view and point out aspects of it which he wouldn't have originally thought of or may have overlooked. With this amount of input per design Graham finds that he's able to create unique and well developed kit that covers all the bases.
The shop itself is split in half as mentioned before. When you walk in you'll find yourself in the Llwynon Saddlery section where you'll find all your horsey needs and if you're very lucky, maybe a girl strutting around in jodhpurs looking at whips (I didn't see any myself :( ). Passing through to the other side you'll enter into the world of the Green Machine and the impressive selection of custom kit as well as brand names on offer. With big names such as Blackhawk and Keela as well as dozens of other smaller brands available, Dixies ensures that every need is catered for.
One aspect of Dixies which I was extremely impressed with was that if you were to buy a piece of branded kit off the shelf and you weren't happy with something about it then Graham would offer to take it away and improve upon the format. For example, I grabbed myself a set of Blackhawk Neoprene kneepads and finding the velcro straps a touch on the short side Graham offered to take them away and lengthen them.
That's the kind of service you won't get anywhere else!
That brings us neatly on to possibly Dixies most popular service; modifications & alterations. Dixies offer extensive services for fixing, altering or inventing kit to your exact requirements. If you rock up to Dixies with a bit of kit that needs something done to it then Graham will do his utmost to get it done while you wait. With a small cafe on the premises it's no hardship to slump down in a comfy chair and sip a hot chocolate whilst the alterations get made.
Home to many an O Group!
You could be after a simple set of cuffs on a smock or you could be discussing a securing harness on the back of a Daysack for a helmet (Like I did.) and Graham will either go off and do it if it's a run of the mill job or sit with you and go over your design ideas.
The other benefit of Dixies is that you don't have to physically go there for kit modifications. You can post the item off with a detailed written or drawn description and speak to Graham on the phone and the job will get done just as well as if you'd stood in front of him. Graham does point out that buyer beware though when using this method as he does state he's not a mind reader and so will design what you tell him to. If you've got it wrong, he'll get it wrong!
When I arrived on scene Graham had a few modification projects on the go; a compass pocket mod and cuffs on the issue smock.
The one thing I found out about Graham is that he's a man with opinions! Topics such as bits of kit, how it's been made, how it's been used, what it should've been or how it should've been done are all subjects he'll happily get stuck in to without any prompting!
Listening to what he had to say though simply reinforced the fact that he knows his stuff. His skill at altering existing kit is second to none and it was a pleasure to watch him at work.
So it was that I put the spotlight on Graham and filmed him during his work to give a better idea of exactly what goes on behind the scenes. The following video is of a compass pocket alteration and you can see and hear Graham in full flow throughout.
Once he'd finished that it was straight on to a cuffs modification which I confess I ended up getting done as well, having always dithered on the subject. The difference in having a good pair of cuffs is immense and I highly recommend this basic and simple mod to anyone that's passing!
From there it was on to looking at how he makes his kit. As mentioned before there are misconceptions that kit is bought in pre-made from China. Whilst Graham actually defended the Chinese market saying that they've come on leaps and bounds and can afford due to cheap labour costs to make a really good product, he gets visibly annoyed when it's mentioned that people suggest that's where he gets his from.
So it was that I was shown both the stockroom where the fabric comes in on massive rolls for cutting down and the production line where it's assembled from scratch. Any lingering doubts were expelled immediately when you see how it's actually all done.
I have numerous bits of kit that I use day in, day out and have no idea how it was actually made. Finally having the opportunity to see a pouch for example, made from start to finish and the process it goes through was fantastic.
Starting with a sheet of paper, Graham will do sketches and drawings, working out the sizes required to make the product work.
Once he's happy with his workings, he'll make a card template to scale and start to cut down the required fabric. This might be a multicam pouch with an inner liner for extra strength for example, so it'll all be cut down and checked off against the template.
From there it's a case of sewing everything together, ensuring he has enough runs of stitching to make it survive without over-engineering too much.
There you have it, one piece of bespoke, custom kit designed to a set standard perfected by Graham but with the option to customise or alter it however you like during the construction process. As Graham says, he can make whatever you want, you just have to give him clear instructions on exactly what it is you want and what you want it for.
Whilst I was there a few shoppers rocked up who were on exercise in the area and had decided to treat themselves.
Standing back and watching Graham spring into action was brilliant. Whenever a piece of kit was picked up Graham could offer an opinion on it.
Suits you Sir!
You can also tell he was a squaddie as one of the girls that was looking at the custom webbing was told by Graham;
"We also have a cut designed for the girls to help get the back of it up off your big arses."
Graham discussing tops and bondage gear
I had to stiffle my laughter and walk away as she was obviously not impressed with the comment but it was a true statement of fact and nothing else, but when you walk into a shop, any shop, you're not used to being spoken to in a frank and honest way.
Well if you come to Dixies, you better come prepared for that!
Suffice to say, even with the affront caused, she still ended up buying a set although I never did find out if she bought the 'ladies cut' version!
Speaking to the shoppers I asked them if they had any previous experience of Dixies. Two of them had, having visited a while back and making various purchases. They had all found out about Dixies by word of mouth and that's how it tends to be. Dixies limit their advertising because as Graham rightly points out, if you advertise you have to recoup the money. Recouping the money means increasing prices and Graham is more than content with the business that comes through his door. He says it's one of two ways; either dead quiet or four BombMe buses tip up with a Regiment onboard prior to a massive exercise.
Dealing with a rush of bodies and multitasking appears to be Grahams forte though. If ever you're short of a FIBUA instructor I highly recommend giving Graham a shout as when things started kicking off with horses in the yard, shoppers in the store, mods to be done and telephones ringing Graham was storming around the building in a way that'd put troops charging an enemy compound to shame!
I even witnessed one customer come in and enquire to one of the staff about getting his Bergen strap fixed as it had snapped and having adjustments made to his webbing as it was rubbing his back. Graham, in the midst of a thousand and one tasks as he jogged past, stopped, asked what was wrong, grabbed the offending items, ran upstairs and came back down six minutes and twenty seconds later with a new strap in place and adjustments made to the rear of the webbing. If that's not customer service, I don't know what is.
However when things do start getting busy then Graham can always rely on his staff for support and I had the opportunity to meet his lovely wife Lynn, Sarah who we couldn't really figure out a job title for but she did mention that secretly she runs the entire show and Jackie, a talented seamstress and somewhat camera shy!
Sarah's been working at Dixies now for over three years and although she has no military background she's picked up a fair bit of the lingo, although she confesses most times she just smiles and nods when squaddies are throwing abbreviations all over the place.
You can discuss modifications with her to various bits of kit and she'll be able to understand what you're after as well as offer suggestions or recommendations.
Whilst Graham is busy working like ten men or telling a squaddie how his idea for a bivvy bag sewn into a pouch wont work Sarah acts as the friendly face at the desk ready to help out any confused or inquisitive soldiers.
Lynn, having put up with Graham since time began tends to take care more of the equine side of the firm and tends not to get involved too much in the military aspect apart from ensuring I drank more brews in a day than I do in a whole year!
Upstairs in the production room there was Jackie who spent most of the day glued to the sewing machine working on Spider yokes. This is where I was able to see the different input that Graham has at his disposal for whilst Jackie has no military experience she was still able to comment on various designs and give feedback on how something is being done. I had hoped to get a video of the Spider yoke being worked on by Jackie but as I mentioned before, camera shy, bless!
From left to right: Lynn, Sarah, Jackie and Graham center
Chatting about the biggest problems he's faced in his years of military kit production and involvement in the industry, Graham says the biggest issue they've had to date has been the pattern changeover to MTP. With desert and temperate DPM rapidly going out of fashion Graham says that a lot of people are holding off on any serious kit purchases until they change over onto MTP, and that's understandable enough. In Dixies as with almost any other kit store there was heavy discounting on desert DPM kit as it's more or less out of circulation now apart from for use as OPFOR on exercise. Thankfully for Dixies though their stock of desert kit is relatively small in comparison to some companies so it's not a big hit for them.
One aspect of Dixies which Graham keeps on top of is what gear they stock. If you're ever unsure about how useful or good a piece of kit is, the easiest and quickest way to find out is to call Dixies and ask if they stock it. If they do, it's a good bit of kit! Graham is a firm believer in listening to customer feedback and adjusting what he sells accordingly. If someone gives a bad report about an item he'll look into it, often calling the manufacturers and debating the points raised with them. Sometimes this has seen companies take the points on board and alter their product, other times he's simply pulled the item from his shelves and got rid of it. The biggest concern with Dixies Corner as Graham puts it, is not to make money, it's to ensure that what he sells does a job and does the job well. If it doesn't then his customers will simply go somewhere else; for a firm that survives by word of mouth he has a lot at stake.
To that extent then Dixies Corner have a very reasonable returns process for anything you purchase from them; be that a modification or a branded item.
If you buy something from them and it's a product failure then if you get it back to them by post of person it's your standard rights as a consumer but as an added bonus, if it's a branded product and it has genuinely failed you can bet your left bollock that Graham will be on the phone to them before the day's out demanding answers.
If it's a piece of custom kit such as webbing then again, it'll be replaced outright or repaired to an 'As New' standard provided it's been a genuine product fail and not a soldier trying to bluff it as Graham has encountered before.
For anything else that's been damaged through fair use and wear & tear then Dixies only charge the cost of the part being replaced, such as a pouch. Labour costs aren't included as Graham is again believes that by coming to Dixies you've already paid for the labour costs in kind by simply choosing to bring your custom to them instead of anywhere else.
All of this points to a very intelligently run business that thrives on the constant flow of input, feedback and suggestions from its client base, being as they are the most qualified people to speak out about what they've bought. This brings it back round to the lack of advertising. It reinforces the statement that he'd rather make happy customers than lots of money and when you watch Graham at work it very much reinforces the fact that it's not just a job for him, but it's a hobby and a passion.
So if you've never found yourself wandering through the doors of Dixies Corner and you're ever in Brecon then really, you've got no excuse not to go.
I also highly recommend calling ahead to tie in your visit with Graham being on the property as really, getting him into a conversation about any piece of kit you can imagine is the highlight of the trip! Plus you'll walk away that little bit smarter once he's shown you something new or different or explained how something is actually meant to work.
If however you can't make it down to the sunny, fun and laughter filled place that is the Brecons then you can also visit Dixies online at: http://www.dixiescorner.co.uk/ and look through the services available there as well as the products. With full customisation options available with the online ordering of webbing and other kit you can still get a bespoke creation made without ever having to step outside of your room.
Dixies is a long way away from walking into a shop, looking at some off-the-shelf webbing made by a faceless international company and handing over an exorbitant amount of cash only to find it isn't what you really wanted and having it fall to pieces on you. With the amount of money the average soldier spends on his own kit over the length of his service it's good to know there's somewhere you can go that will give a bespoke service, excellent after-sales care and ensure that what they build, is built to last.
So Dixies Corner; from a roll of fabric through to a customised, bespoke tailored item, with friendly and helpful advice and suggestions, a great cup of tea and a tasty slice of cake, it truly is the ultimate in kit shopping experience where for once you feel like you're getting exactly what you want exactly how you want it.
Spread the word!