Drapers speaks to UK textile mills about what they are doing to stay ahead, the future of the industry and the impact of Britain’s looming departure from the European Union.
Based: Stanningley, Yorkshire
AW Hainsworth has a long heritage to draw upon, as well as some friends in high places. The Yorkshire mill created the scarlet cloth used to make the uniforms of British soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo, and its cloth is still worn by the Queen’s Guard outside Buckingham Palace today. It is also used to make the military uniforms worn by the royal family during state occasions.
But it is by focusing on the next generation of fashion talent that AW Hainsworth is securing its future. The mill often collaborates with students, many of whom – such as Christopher Raeburn and Joshua Kane – have gone on to become established designers. Most recently, it worked with Central Saint Martins graduate Alex Mullins on a bespoke blanket fabric for his catwalk show at the autumn 19 edition of London Fashion Week Men’s in January.
“Lots of mills don’t like working with students – they roll their eyes when students approach them at textile trade shows,” marketing manager Julie Greenough tells Drapers. “We started working with Christopher Raeburn and Alex Mullins when they were both still studying. If you start working with designers at that age, they gain an understanding of quality products and continue to use them throughout their careers. That’s how you hook designers in. They find it very difficult to turn to lower-quality products once they’ve used good cloth as a student.”
AW Hainsworth is also focusing on its fashion offer, particularly internationally, to drive growth. It has expanded its sales team to include international roles concentrating on new business in the US and Japan.
Diversifying into new markets should help buffer AW Hainsworth from the challenges presented to the UK textile’s market by Britain’s upcoming departure from the European Union.
“Brexit is challenge because of the level of uncertainty,” Greenough adds. “There are some orders that would have been placed by now that are still a little bit questionable because people are holding back until they’ve got to grips with what’s going to happen. Our fleece comes in from Australia and New Zealand, but we export a lot to mainland Europe, so duties and tariffs are an issue.
“Our prices are high, and customers are willing to pay because of the quality and the brand heritage, but we’ve got to maintain that balance, and we don’t want higher costs to push us out of customers’ remits.”
She adds, however, that the future is looking positive for UK textiles even if Brexit puts a few bumps in the road ahead: “All the mills are in the same boat, and there has been a massive swing towards customers buying their cloth from the UK over the past few years. Most of our markets shouldn’t be too badly affected, and diversifying means we have our fingers in many pies.”
Johnstons of Elgin
Based: Elgin, Scotland
Specialisms: Cashmere, wool
As well as working with its private clients – which include Chanel and Burberry – cashmere specialist Johnstons of Elgin is continuing to build its own brand, to help future-proof the business. Underpinning this is an ongoing investment in equipment.
“Over the last year, we’ve invested significantly more than we ever have before,” says chief executive Simon Cotton. “We’ve invested in new equipment that can create a finer-gauge knit and a finer jacquard in the woven side of the business, as well as in our finishing. We’re trying to stretch our tech capabilities both to help broaden the seasonality of our offer for our private-label clients, as our customers have different requirements, and to build the Johnstons brand.”
In Edinburgh this spring, the mill will open its second Johnstons of Elgin store, which Cotton hopes will attract well-heeled international clientele who will spread the label’s message around the world.
Developing its own brand has helped Johnstons to manage production fluctuations and further improved its reputation among private clients, he adds: “We have the best private-label clients in the world, and that’s fantastic, but the business fluctuates and can be seasonal. When you’re making your own brand, you can make it when you want it, which helps from a production point of view. Building a brand known for beautiful products also fits well with the private label arm, because their customers are increasingly concerned with where the products are made.”
Cotton is relatively sanguine about the challenges posed to UK textiles by Brexit, noting that although the mill “would be foolish not to be thinking about it”, Johnstons has survived two world wars and three floods in the area.
A bigger issue for the industry as a whole, he says, is finding new talent: “The industry is enjoying a period of growth, but the biggest challenge remains getting skilled people and training them quickly enough. We’re at the forefront of that by creating hundreds of modern apprenticeships but we still need more people, more quickly.”
English Fine Cottons
Based: Dukinfield, Greater Manchester
Interest in British textiles is growing among high street retailers, but price remains a barrier for the cost-conscious larger players, says Andy Ogden, director and general manager of Manchester-based cotton mill English Fine Cottons.
Textile company Culimeta-Saveguard embarked on an ambitious project to bring cotton spinning back to Manchester when it launched English Fine Cottons in 2015. The mill began test production in July 2016, and opened for business in December 2017.
“The interest [in UK-made textiles] is definitely growing, but whether the demand is there yet is a more complicated question,” Ogden tells Drapers. “There is appetite and enthusiasm for sustainability, particularly among younger customers. However, the high street is still driven extensively by cost and price. But the conversations are starting, whether that’s been driven by consumers or Brexit or myriad other factors.”
English Fine Cottons has gone from manufacturing 12 hours a day, five days a week when it opened in 2016, to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The mill will also launch a range of off-the-peg shirts with an as-yet-unnamed high street retailer later this spring. Marks & Spencer already offers customers the chance to choose English Fine Cottons fabrics in its custom shirting offer.
Ogden says the current market for UK textiles presents both opportunities and challenges: “On the one hand, there’s no doubt that consumers are starting to look at labels more often and ask question about sustainability. Interest in heritage and provenance is good for us. But on the other, these are challenging times when it comes to importing and exporting raw materials because of countries not understanding what the UK’s position is around Brexit. There could well be export challenges ahead.”
Abraham Moon & Sons
A focus on the fashion apparel industry and ongoing investment in machinery are at the cornerstone of vertical woollen mill Abraham Moon & Sons’ strategy. Over the past year, the mill has invested in more spinning frames, new carding machines and new looms that can weave 10% faster than the previous machines
“Our philosophy is that if you’re not investing, you’re standing still,” marketing manager Martin Ellis tells Drapers. “As a mill, you have to be at the top of your game or risk being overtaken. The human element is extremely important – we have a total of 250 staff at our mill and our three retail stores – but machinery is key. We travel the world trying to find the best solutions.”
Demand from the fashion industry is booming, Ellis adds: “We’ve seen a great increase in orders from British brands, including Boden and Hobbs, as well from Japan and South Korea. The high street is interested in provenance and quality and the Far East just loves British textiles.”
Like many others in the UK textile industry, Ellis points to imports and exports as being the biggest concern surrounding Brexit: “We’ve made a concerted effort to build stocks in the event of no deal, and ordered more raw wool than we would normally would to ensure we continue working with our partners. The big thing on the horizon is trade tariffs. However, we are in quite a fortunate position in that we have a short supply chain and import only one raw product – wool. But even that has been affected by the weaker pound and currency swings, because everyone buys wool in dollars.”
Specialisms: Worsted, mohair
The team at Bradford-based John Foster will be raising a class of champagne this year to celebrate its 200th anniversary. The mill has been a leading supplier of worsteds and mohair since textile tycoon John Foster started the business in 1819.
Two centuries on and trade remains strong, says managing director David Gallimore: “The market [for UK textiles] is very buoyant at the moment, despite raw material increases – the price of wool has gone up astronomically over the past 18 months – and all the uncertainty around Brexit. We should be heading into a difficult time but, actually, the orders are flowing in, and when I speak to my competitors, they say the same thing – it’s a busy time for the trade.”
Japan and the Middle East are two key markets for John Foster, and the mill prides itself on building strong relationships in the two regions.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and dedication on those two markets,” Gallimore adds. “We’ve spent more than 60 years visiting Japan, and you can’t beat that kind of relationship.”
John Foster has also been investing in machinery, including purchasing five new weaving machines over the past 12 months.
However, Gallimore echoes his peers in stressing that mills must invest in their people: “We have one of the largest and strongest design teams on the trade and we spent a lot of time travelling the world, sitting down with customers to find out what the market really wants from us. That kind of experience and expertise is vital.”
Cut from different cloth: UK textile mills up their game