An air of busy calm greets me as I walk onto the top floor of Bristol’s Cameron Balloon factory. Cameron Balloons is the largest manufacturer of hot air balloons in the world, my novice expectations of behemoth machinery raging back and forth in huge production lines are somewhat undone by the sight of six women sitting at industrial sewing machines, dotted around the farthest edges of the vast room, quietly stitching. No cacophony of machinery, just the steady thrumming of needle through fabric, bobbins spinning, the occasional tut as unwieldy material is hefted further in from the huge mounds stretched out before each machinist.
“Every balloon made here is hand-stitched,” Hannah Cameron, the director of the company and daughter of the founder, tells me as we wander through the swathes of material. “It’s one of the key ways we can ensure quality.” And quality in the aeronautical industry means safety, as the phrase “coming apart at the seams” is not what you want to hear when you’re 50 feet up.
With days to go before the city hosts its 37th annual International Balloon fiesta, this is the busiest season for the 44-year-old company. Cameron Balloons have to contend not only with the demands of the fiesta, but also their international market, for which they export around 85 percent of everything they make. Ballooning isn’t just an idiosyncrasy of the British, apparently. The USA and Burma (of all places) do a roaring trade.
There’s something very reassuring in the knowledge that these balloons are made by sturdy human hands and not machines. The initial checks of the seamstresses are just the first of around 200 which take place before the completed structures are inflated on the factory’s inspection floor (sideways, which looks both hilarious and awesome), rigged up with control lines and ropes, and then checked again. Only at this point can the balloon earn its own individual licence plate.
“Every balloon has a team working on it,” Hannah explains as we walk down to the main factory floor. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re stuck doing the same thing over and over so we move them about and train them to know how to do a bit of everything.” This is illustrated as we move from floor to floor, and I spot the same young employee at one moment on a sewing machine, then later at a computer busily mouse-clicking, and even later still she pops up in the cutting room, flitting here and there with a blue-print clutched in her hand. A seamstress and aeronautical engineer, it seems.
An amazing smell of straw, grass, polish and propane greets my nose as we reach the basket area. Hannah’s nose is too attuned to notice it anymore, but I find myself sniffing at the magnificent wicker constructions like a judge at a bake-off. The frames are designed and built in the factory, then sent away to traditional weavers in the West Country to be woven. When they return they have the finishing touches added and the bespoke burners and engines which are also designed and made on site, just across the room in fact (hence that essence of propane).
With basket and engine and licence plate installed, it’s off to their traditional testing ground in the serene parklands of nearby Ashton Court, not only as host to the balloon fiesta, but also because of the happenstance that walkers might suddenly find themselves under the nose of an enormous inflatable T. Rex, or witness one of Cameron Balloons’ tech team shooting over the treetops like a missile as they test-run a prototype engine.
“We do try very hard not to scare the deer,” says Hannah. “It’s actually dogs that seem to sense when a balloon is coming. Whether we burn a yellow flame [as in quiet mode] or no flame at all, dogs still seem to be able to hear a different frequency and start barking. Curiously though, the moment dogs actually see the balloon, they stop.”
I am almost relieved when I do finally meet a behemoth machine. I knew there must be one in here somewhere. The enormous 10-foot fabric printer, used for creating what the company describe as the “specials”, was purchased only a few years ago to respond to the massive demand for balloons of a more unusual nature. “Have you ever had an email where you’ve looked at the specs and thought, ‘What on earth?’” I ask. “We’ve certainly had some weird ones,” says Hannah.
“Weird ones” can vary from a 25-foot one-eyed Minion for Universal Pictures, to an enormous “Sky Whale” for the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini. “It had ten boobs,” grins Hannah. And it’s not just balloons this factory produces. Last year they provided the nylon and know-how to create artist Luke Jerram’s 295ft water slide down Bristol’s notoriously steep Park Street and, as I look, a seamstress is struggling with a mountain of harsh black material which will eventually be filled with soil and used to baulk up Britain’s eroding coastal defences.
As we come back to the beginning of our journey through the factory, I wish Hannah luck with the fiesta and tell her I’ll be popping along see the evening’s famous night-glow. Think of a circle of 10 balloons letting off their burners in synchrony with classical and pop music tracks booming through picturesque parkland, surrounded by the inebriated population of Bristol. Oh and fire cannons.
“You could stick a band in a balloon”, I jest.
“Done it” says Hannah