Heritage weaving at Armley Mills

Bringing It All Back Home

17th October 2014

Deborah Mulhearn examines the resurgence of Britain’s textile industry

In the 19th century, Britain was the textile capital of the world. The soft water of Yorkshire was perfect for washing and scouring wool, while the damp valleys of Lancashire made ideal conditions for the spinning and weaving of cotton.

The inventions and the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution drove the industry, which was the first to be fully mechanised. And many of the surviving looms and processes are still relevant today. Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, now a National Trust property and the setting for the Channel 4 drama series The Mill, dates from 1784, for example, but cloth made on both its power and hand-spinning looms can still be bought in its on-site shop.

Most of the mills and looms, however, fell silent decades ago. The volume end of textile manufacturing was moved to the Far East where labour was cheap and shipping and energy costs low.

But there are signs that textile manufacturing on a wider scale is coming home. Customers – both here and abroad – are demanding more choice and replacing clothes more quickly, so designers need to create more and more lines that, once sold, are not replaced in the shops. It’s known as fast fashion.

“Fast fashion has radically changed the industry,” says Lorna Fitzsimons, former MP for Rochdale and director of the Alliance Project, a not-for-profit organisation set up in Manchester to look at the potential for repatriating textile manufacture in the UK. “Yes, the internet is leading the market but it’s more than that. It is now essential to offer smaller runs at shorter notice, and this benefits onshore manufacturing,” she explains.

Government-commissioned research by the Alliance Project discovered that £9bn worth of textiles is already manufactured in the UK annually, from fibres to finished products, and covering everything from luxury clothing to cutting edge technical textiles, such as airbags for the automotive industry, anti-counterfeiting products, woven coffins and body armour. “Our companies are developing clothes that can tell if a child with diabetes needs an insulin injection,” says Fitzsimons.

And this is all set to increase, because the Made in Britain tag has never been more desirable. The UK is the 15th largest producer of textiles in the world and there is huge growth domestically as well as abroad. Britain is now exporting its high-quality textiles all over the world, and especially to the Far East. Some of the UK-based processes include spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing, pattern cutting, sewing, embroidery and CMT (cut, make, trim).

“Repatriation, or onshoring, is here to stay," says Fitzsimons. “Think of interior textile products, such as cushions, throws and bedding. This sector has been thoroughly invaded by fashion and sales have exploded. We now consume more textiles per head than at any time in the history of the world.” Moreover, energy, labour and shipping costs are rising in the Far East. And British firms are set to benefit.

John Spencer Textiles, a family firm that has managed to survive the upheavals in the industry, has been based in the now historic Weavers’ Triangle in Burnley, Lancashire, since the 1860s. It’s essentially a traditional Lancashire cotton mill that produces everything from furnishing fabrics and fashion to belting and filtration products for heavy industry. The company also produces simple, basic furnishing fabrics with 100% natural, organic fibres under the brand name Ian Mankin.

British made bedding from Ian Mankin

The firm has downsized radically from the days when Marks & Spencer bought a 33% stake in the business to guarantee its share of the company’s fine shirting poplin. There was a huge shortage of textile manufacturing after WW2, and the Made in Britain label was crucial for the retailer’s branding.

“These were all made by shirt-makers in the UK, but these skills were lost when all these family textile manufacturing firms were swallowed up,” says David Collinge, MD and great-great-great grandson of the founder.

Onshoring makes sense, says Collinge, not just at the luxury end of the market, but where the complex chain of agents, importers and distributors can be cut out, so that British manufacturers can sell at the same price as imported fabrics.

“It’s about logistics as much as quality,” he explains. “The smallest shipping container, for example, holds around 20,000m of cloth, so if a customer wants 5,000m it becomes very expensive to ship it here from overseas. So we concentrate on a more bespoke service that can mean anything from small runs of cloth to specialist fibres or weaves with a particular design element.”

“You’ve got to know where you fit in to what is a very large and complex industry,” adds Collinge. “You have to do what you do best. We recognise we won’t get the big orders any more. The volume end became unviable in the 1960s and while attempts at repatriation are laudable, there are still challenges to address, such as the lack of skilled machinists. Repatriation needs to be done in reverse order to how and when the different parts of the industry were lost.”

At The Textile Centre of Excellence in Huddersfield, technological advances that could revolutionise the textile processing industry are being researched and developed. TCE is a not-for-profit organisation with over 80 members, the vast majority based in Yorkshire but increasingly from around the country. The Centre represents everyone from couture fashion house weavers to contract upholstery for the transport industry, and from woven Formula One tyres to anti-counterfeiting products.

Multiplex Laser Surface Enhancement (MLSE) means that textiles can be finished with a dry process instead of using expensive fluorocarbons, which use a lot of energy and are also potentially damaging to the environment. MLSE is a dry process that uses light instead of chemicals to make textiles fire retardant or waterproof.

“It’s the biggest advance in 200 years,” says Bill Macbeth, managing director of TCE. “These new products are going to be green, clean and cheap. We are working with manufacturers to bring many of these innovations to market and it’s very exciting. It could create up to 200,000 new jobs over the next five years.”

Lost skills and an ageing workforce, along with the failure to invest in training, are some of the problems, however, for companies seeking to reshore. Engaging young people with the textile industry is key, says Suzy Shepherd, co-founder of Leeds Fashion Works, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2009 to promote textiles designed and made in Yorkshire.

“Heritage skills are fundamental to cloths made in Yorkshire,” she says. Shepherd and partner Carolyn Lord work with local colleges, heritage organisations and businesses to showcase the skills.

“In Italy cloth-making is seen as an artisan craft industry, and we want people to appreciate that woollen fabric woven, designed and finished here, should be valued in the same way. There’s been a big resurgence, not just in fine worsteds made here, but in British wool knitting yarns and soft doeskin, which is wool given a sheen from a specialist finishing process.”

Leeds Fashion Works runs projects such as the Armley Mills Cloth, wool made from British sheep and woven on a 1921 Hattersley Standard Loom at Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills.

“We want to show that the industry is much more than men’s suits, that the beauty, heritage and end products are much sought after around the world,”adds Shepherd.

One effect of factory closures in the 1960s and 70s was that not only were machinists’ jobs lost, but home dressmaking skills also stopped being passed down from generation to generation. Local drapers and market stalls selling offcuts and roll ends disappeared, so the incentive to make clothes was lost too.

There’s no reason why all this can’t return in time, believes Alice Grant, owner of online fabric retailer ClothSpot. “There’s a bottom up drive to re-establish the industry and recover skills, right through from the professional sector to domestic dressmaking, and it’s being helped along by the rising standards of living in the Far East.”

“I would love to source more British-made fabric,” she says. “It’s partly about the heritage, and partly about the British quality. As an online retailer, the more description about the provenance and composition of the fabric I can give, the better. And if I can say it’s British, it gives customers confidence and compensates for it being online, where you can’t feel the fabric, and may have to wait a couple of days for samples.”

Grant, who is based in Lincolnshire but has customers all over the world including Australia and New Zealand, the United States and even the Falklands, where she recently sent several bolts of British wool, is optimistic for the industry’s future.

“I am developing more direct relationships with the manufacturers as I grow,” she says. “I regularly buy 50m bolts or shorter, and more manufacturers are starting to offer these, and a wider colour range. It’s a finely tuned cost/benefit balance that has to be constantly re-evaluated, but there has to be a tipping point where it’s more economical for everyone in the chain to have British-made fabric.”

Twisting an old phrase to suit a new purpose, she laughs: "It’s now more a case of don't just mind the width, feel the quality too…"

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