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Careers: Technical Skills

A technical skills gap looms large over UK industry, but work is being done to fix it.

There are a lot of garment technologists in the marketplace now who have never actually worked in a factory,” says David Goodwin, head of technical services at Matalan. “For me, garment technologists who visit suppliers do their best work after they have visited the factory floor rather than offices and showrooms.”

An offshore manufacturing surge in the 1980s and 1990s has resulted in a significantly depleted skilled workforce, which lacks hands-on experience in fashion. Manufacturing output from the UK textile industry fell 64.7% between 1979 and 2013, and employee jobs dropped 90.1%, from 851,000 to 85,000 (according to figures from the Office for National Statistics). As a result, there is a dearth of technical skills in the British fashion industry, but work is underway to tackle this.

Many of those who were technically trained to meet demand two or three decades ago - such as pattern cutters, graders, garment technologists and technical managers - are now in the latter stages of their careers, with many approaching retirement. Courtaulds, which owns the UK-manufactured Pretty Polly hosiery label, relies heavily on technical managers with the skills to set the sizes on knitting machines and garments. “We have technical innovation on site here but we have acknowledged that in our technical roles in legwear, the average age is much older than we would like,” says Jane Gwyther, product and marketing director.

Courtaulds launched a three-year apprenticeship scheme in 2012 and has taken on four apprentices to date - three in textile mechanical engineering and one in textile electrical engineering - and will take on two more in 2015. But the company tries to retrain existing staff due to the complexity of the skills. “We need the skillset to understand machinery, but also identify product needs for the consumer,” says Gwyther. “It almost combines an engineering role with a product development role.”

Jacques Vert Group, the UK’s largest womenswear concession retailer with brands including Kaliko, Dash and Planet, has moved from a CMT (cut, make and trim) model to a fully factored model, in which the supplier takes care of all the production stages. However, group brand director Amanda Lester says the strong pattern cutting and machining skills honed during earlier years have stood the company in good stead. “These skills have proved invaluable when working on our designer ranges, such as Lorcan Mullany for our Jacques Vert brand, as we have gone back to a more traditional model of toiling and pattern cutting in-house to ensure we deliver his exacting requirements.”

The company does not currently have problems recruiting experienced technical managers, but Lester expects it to become more difficult. “We are developing a training workshop for all entry-level employees across the buying, design and technical areas, to ensure an understanding of garment construction, testing, fit and quality is maintained.”

For Goodwin, technical skills were learned early on when he began his career as a sewing machine engineer at Matalan. “It has given me very practical and useful skills. I hold seminars at suppliers on subjects such as how to reduce seam puckering and enhance seaming quality. The skills to both teach and do this are dying out. People in the UK who acquired that skillset first-hand are now mostly over 50.”

Matalan is addressing such knowledge gaps by sending its technical team out to factories overseas, following arrangements with a number of its suppliers. The company takes on an undergraduate intern every year, employing them for 12 months before they return to finish their degree. “For the last two years our interns have been given full-time positions here [on graduation] and the last one is now back at university finishing her degree, but I hope she will join us permanently too,” says Goodwin.

Goodwin is not the only one grappling with an ageing technical workforce. Andrey Savin, co-founder of Atelier StudioLab, a London-based sample-making studio whose customers include Karen Millen, says all the 12 technical staff he employs are over 40. “None is British. I haven’t seen a British seamstress in the five years since I started the business.” Most are from eastern Europe, where Savin says seamstresses are taught to put whole garments together from rolls of fabric to the final piece: “They understand garment making - they can build it from scratch. Those skills are hard to find here.”

Yet they are vital skills. Young fashion business SuperGroup employs around 40 people in its technical department in Cheltenham, and resourcing manager Simon Amesbury says a key part of their role is to “police” overseas suppliers - something which requires advanced technical knowledge. “If factories think they can get away with using slightly worse quality fabric or sew two rows of stitching when it needs three, they will try it on to maximise profits.” Working closely with them is crucial to maintain quality. “The tech team is very important,” says Amesbury. “They are out in India, Turkey and China working with factories to make sure these guys are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

The mass exodus of manufacturing to foreign climes has led to a reduced emphasis on the teaching of technical skills in the UK. Many in the industry believe current UK fashion courses are too design-oriented. Jenny Holloway, chief executive of social enterprise Fashion Enter, which last year launched the London-based Stitching Academy with backing from Asos.com, agrees that this changing focus has contributed to the skills shortage.

“I don’t believe the technical part of garment construction and quality control, or even production in factories, is taught at the level required. We have colleges coming to us and it is the first time designers have seen inside a factory - how can that be right?”

The Stitching Academy was born to address this, offering six-week courses in cutting, sewing and stitching, aimed at arming people with a ‘work-ready’ qualification in Level 1 Stitching Skills. “Our factory manufactures for Asos and M&S’s Best of British range, but we couldn’t find stitchers,” says Holloway. “We realised we desperately needed to do something, so we wrote the qualification.”

Bridalwear designer Sassi Holford, who created Autumn Kelly’s wedding gown for her marriage to Peter Phillips, grandson of the Queen, employs 50 people at her Somerset base, around 40 of whom are technically skilled. “Colleges focus more on design and I am often disappointed with [students’] level of technical knowledge.” In 2012 she launched an apprenticeship scheme in conjunction with nearby Bridgwater College, prompted by the lack of skilled talent available. She has employed all three qualified apprentices to date.

It seems that design has an appeal that technical aspects of fashion may lack, but as Matthew Vohs, co-founder of fashion retail recruitment specialist Vohs & Co says, the demand for technical skills is acute. “Our clients say they need decent pattern cutters, garment technologists and graders, but people want to go into buying and design instead. Yet pattern cutters can name their price.”

The Fashion Design course at Falmouth University in Cornwall includes pattern cutting, styling and fabric technology. Sarah Braddock Clarke, a senior lecturer in fashion who lectures internationally and has co-authored a number of books, says the emphasis is on preparing work-ready graduates. “The equipment here is very high-spec. It’s no good having domestic equipment if [graduates] then go into industry and it is completely different. What we have here is like a mini-factory: industrial sewing machines, overlocking machines, knitting machines, steam equipment, digital fabric equipment, as well as laser cutting and ultra-sonic welding. The feedback I have had is that because we teach students about finding the right materials for the job, they feel they have an advantage over those on other courses.”

It seems the tide is turning. Made in Britain is an important area of focus for retailers, including John Lewis and Marks & Spencer, while in 2012 Arcadia Group increased the number of British factories it works with by 20%. Last year Jaeger announced it was bringing 10% of its production back to the UK. In January 2015 Stitching Academy will open its Fashion Trading Academy, offering a Level 2 qualification, which will address every aspect of the garment lifecycle, including pressing skills, machine maintenance and quality control.

As Holloway says: “We should be breaking boundaries and we are not scared to do that.” The passion in this industry remains strong, and demand for technical skills is sky-high.

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