Helping our elite athletes win gold is a job that suits textile creator
THE textile industry in Derbyshire might be a shadow of its former self but hidden in that shadow there is a small business playing a big part on the world stage.
Unless you are a hermit, over the past couple of months, you will have seen the fruit of Sally Cowan's labour on the likes of cyclists Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott and gold medal-winning canoeist Ed McKeever, known as the Usain Bolt of the water.
Following the Olympics, British Cycling supremo Dave Brailsford sent Sally a text to thank her for her contribution.
However, unless you are either an elite athlete or interested in the rarefied world of specialist performance textiles, you are unlikely to recognise her name.
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At Belper's East Mill, where she has her studio, there is not even a buzzer, bell or nameplate announcing the existence of the business.
Though she puts this down to an oversight, it nevertheless adds a bit to the aura of mystery around what she does.
Her work with UK Sport is shrouded in secrecy and she cheerfully declines to discuss the technological advantages of the London 2012 kit over the kit worn in Beijing four years ago.
In recent years, she has been working in tandem with Adidas to help ensure British cyclists remain on top of the world.
In her office, sitting perched on a filing cabinet, is the severed bottom half of Jason Queally, track cycling gold medallist at the Sydney Olympics.
Sally said: "The model was used as the tunnel rat to test aerodynamics but the legs broke off and so I said they could come and live with me."
She also works with Team Sky and is one of the few outsiders who have been allowed on its bus to measure up the riders.
"It was how I'd always imagined being on Concorde would be like. There was absolutely every mod con available," she said.
"They are incredibly dedicated and really appreciate any help they get, so I was treated really well.
"When you measure them up for their outfits, most of them are really chatty and friendly.
"Bradley Wiggins is so, so cool and Cav was really excited talking about his new baby.
"The road cyclists spend most of their time training and competing in Europe so I have to fly out to catch up with them."
Visiting the track cyclists is more straightforward as they do most of their training in Manchester.
"Laura Trott is really giggly, really loves what she's doing, and the whole of the women's pursuit team are really nice."
The Sun newspaper put on a £5,000 price tag when they produced an information graphic of how much our Olympic cyclists' kit costs.
Sally says they got it wrong but is coy about the actual figure.
"After the competition, most of the suits are supposed to be shredded, although I'm not sure whether that actually happens," said Sally.
While celebrated designer Stella McCartney was responsible for the look of the kit, for the sports in which she was involved, Sally was responsible for the performance of the clothing, alongside the aerodynamicists and carbon-fibre experts.
Hanging up around the office are a number of outfits developed for Beijing, London or the winter Olympics.
One was worn by Amy Williams in the skeleton bob in Vancouver where she won Britain's first winter Olympics individual gold for three decades.
"UK Sport invests heavily but only in sports where we stand a real chance of getting medals and so sports in which we do well will get the most funding," she said.
That means that Sally's work with dominant British cyclists is likely to continue long into the future and working with Sky's professional cycling team is becoming a significant offshoot for the business.
Sally even flew out to the headquarters of Ferrari when the F1 racing team wanted protective clothing for its mechanics.
Not bad for a small business in Belper that boasts only eight machines at East Mill.
This is clearly not a factory set up to produce large volumes of garments.
For the London Olympics, about 200 outfits were made, and even then only what Sally describes as the "clever or sensitive bits" were done in Belper.
Working with Sally there is a handful of people from different backgrounds, including expert machinists and an engineer, valued for his accurate cutting skills.
The first big coup for Sally in the world of sport was researching fabric for the England football kit.
One of the members of the marketing department knew her from her time at Coats Viyella and got in touch.
"Umbro wanted the ultimate moisture-wicking fabric to absorb sweat and draw it away from the skin," said Sally. "There were various materials available but each manufacturer had their own method for testing the fabric so I took what looked like the top 10 to Loughborough University's sports science team, who devised a protocol.
"They had someone on a treadmill for 45 minutes to simulate the intensity of a football match and used thermal imaging cameras to work out which was the most effective material."
England footballers all put on fresh shirts at half time so a full 90 minutes was unnecessary.
This work kick-started a close relationship with the university and Sally went on to look into producing a garment that would help athletes increase their lung capacity.
"They went on Dragons' Den with the idea to see whether there was any interest in the market rather than get any investment because they had a prototype but didn't know how to mass-manufacture it, so they called me," said Sally.
This particular product ended up as a kind of band for athletes to wear rather than a garment but the work at Loughborough brought Sally into contact with UK Sport, flush with Lottery cash designed to produce Olympic gold medals.
"At Loughborough they asked if they could give my name to UK Sport, where there was an innovations department," said Sally.
Slightly reluctant at first and wondering what she was getting herself into, she agreed and later got a call to work with the British archery team preparing for the Beijing Olympics.
Sally said: "The shirts were not fit for purpose and the archers didn't like them because they were uncomfortable and there were only a few sizes to fit people that were very different sizes.
"We designed a new shirt, got them made and it was dead simple."
Having come up with an effective and pragmatic solution for archers, Sally was asked to look at problems that the taekwondo team were having.
"They were getting a lot of injuries in training as they were getting stronger and stronger. This was forcing them to miss competitions," said Sally.
"I developed impact protection guards for training that helped protect them but also allowed them to know how the blows felt."
When one of Team GB's potential sailing champions was suffering from recurring back injuries, Sally redesigned her harness to fit correctly, dangling the future Olympian from the wall of East Mill.
By 2007, it became clear that Sally's expertise was in short supply across the globe when she got a call from US firm Dow Corning.
"They make silicon breast implants, among other things, and had an idea to put silicon into impact protection products for sportswear," said Sally.
"I was surprised to get a call from the US and thought that there must be people doing the same as me there but they said they couldn't find anyone.
"It seems that when the textiles industry moved overseas the research and development went as well and now there are very few of us around."
As well as human athletes, Sally has been involved in a project to produce compression garments to help dogs recover faster from injury.
"Most human athletes are good at giving your feedback but dogs are different," said Sally.
"Fortunately, my dad has a sheepdog called Meg who was good-natured enough to go through hours of fittings."
Dogs come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, though, and she had to try the product out on a lot of dogs, sourced via friends and family.
"I got bitten once. It was a Yorkshire terrier who looked to be in a bad mood from the word go."
The originators of the product believe it could find a lucrative market with owners of greyhounds and that it could be adapted for racehorses.
In Belper, Sally is more concerned with human athletic prowess. In the corner of the office is a box full of outfits ready to be sent to the Team GB's Paralympians.
"They get the same kit as the able-bodied competitors, although I've done some specialist work for a couple of our elite wheelchair athletes," said Sally.
"It has been frantic getting everything ready for London 2012 but once everything gets sent out I can take a break."
Though the days when the mills dotted along the Derwent Valley produced the fabric that dressed the world are over, it is comforting to know that the county continues to produce textiles that can perform on the world stage.
When she gets back, she will start work on outfits for Team GB's winter Olympians.
"I've already had the call," said Sally.