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Home Made: Bumps along the silk road

Rising silk yarn prices and shorter lead times are growing challenges for the silk industry.

Vanners silk

Vanners silk

In 2012, the most recent figures available from the government, the UK produced £11.5m worth of woven silk compared with £10.9m in 2010. Total silk exports in 2012 totalled £24.8m compared with £29.3m in 2010 and imports reached £30.9m in 2012, less than the £34.3m two years previously.

In the traditional centre for silk weaving, Macclesfield in Cheshire, at its peak in the 1800s there were more than 70 silk mills. Today, however, Vanners based in Sudbury in Suffolk is one of only two silk weavers remaining in operation in the UK. Stephen Walters, also based in Sudbury, is the other. Founded in 1740, Vanners had a turnover of £10m in 2014 and supplies international luxury designers and retailers with finished accessories, although the business declined to name specific brands or retailers.

The silk weaving business is facing increased pricing pressure, says Vanners managing director Richard Stevenson. A square metre of UK-made silk in 2012 cost £21.30, up from £19.96 in 2010. The average price for Vanners’ finest quality silk cloth is £30 per square metre.

“Overall demand for silk products in the UK and abroad remains strong but the sustained high price of silk yarn is making volume increases challenging,” says Stevenson. “In some areas of our business we are finding demand for silk combined with other luxury or natural fibres such as superfine wool, mercerised cotton and linen because it’s cheaper.”

Silk distributor James Hare in Leeds sources fabrics in India, China and France, which is less expensive than UK woven silk. Sales director Saffron Hare agrees retailers are increasingly looking for cheaper products: “Eighty per cent of the world’s silk yarn comes from China and labour costs there have increased. [Yarn prices increased from £15.40 a kilo two years ago in China to £33.40.] It’s harder to find people who want to work on the farms and the weather for the last few seasons has been terrible so there has been less yarn. Price is a big challenge so increasingly mixed fibres are being used as they are cheaper.”

Hare, who mainly supplies for bridalwear designers, adds: “Firms are using a lot of polyester and viscose mixes to make silk more affordable and washable. There is a substantial difference in price. If it’s a designer showing at London Fashion Week and selling on Net-a-Porter, price isn’t an issue and they are happy to use UK-made fabric, but if it’s a supermarket, a couple of pence can make a big difference.”

David Burke, sales director at silk supplier Henry Bertrand in London, which sources from the UK, Italy, France and China, says shorter lead times have become a bigger issue for the business. “Timing is our biggest challenge as customers are leaving it to the last minute before ordering. Getting people to make decisions quickly is difficult. Sourcing closer to home reduces that timescale. Our first port of call is the UK, then France or Italy.”

Although Henry Bertrand sources some silk from the UK, Burke says there is a lot of demand for Italian silk as the mills there have “more creativity” compared to the “more traditional and conservative” UK market.

However the silk printing industry is experiencing a rise in demand in the UK, according to Kate Hills, founder of British manufacturing trade show Make it British. “I’ve seen a big increase in demand recently from designers wishing to print silk in the UK, both for garments and accessories. Silk printers were one of the most requested services at our Meet the Manufacturer event this year. There are now quite a few silk printers in the UK taking advantage of digital printing technology and this has been particularly good for smaller companies wishing to print shorter runs of fabric.”

Printing mill R A Smart, in Macclesfield, which supplies premium retailers and designers, has experienced an uptick in sales. “We have had customers migrating back to the UK for both their printing and manufacturing as they want a UK label on their products,” says Alison Smart, manager of the digital print department. “It’s a real selling tool for them as their customers are willing to pay more for products that are supporting industry in the UK.”

British luxury menswear brand Turnbull & Asser sources all its silk from the UK. “We have a handful of very long-standing relationships with UK silk suppliers,” says managing director Nigel Blow, “and it is fundamental for us to continue to work with UK silk weavers and printers. Being close to our partners from a design and quality standpoint is hugely important.”

While the silk industry has experienced some success from the Made in Britain revival, it appears to be lagging behind other sectors. At Henry Bertrand Burke says the British manufacturing industry is not doing enough to publicise and support young designers: “In the European fashion houses a lot of the biggest designers are British or Irish. We need to try something different in the UK to keep them here. We don’t exploit our talent.”

The silk worm

Raw silk is mainly produced by silkworms farmed in China, Japan and India. The silkworm feeds on mulberry leaves and forms a cocoon of silk. The threads from cocoons are unwound to form a single strand of raw silk and this fine thread is the basic component of all silk yarn and fabric.

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