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Home Made: Homegrown mills are weaving their magic

Blending authenticity and heritage with fashion forward style, the UK and Ireland has again become a centre for textile innovation

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the UK and Ireland led the world in textile innovation, producing vast volumes during the industrial revolution. These days are long gone, but today’s UK mills are reclaiming this reputation for innovation by creating high-end, premium cloth.

Among the new generation of young designers inspired by woven textiles is bespoke tailor Lee Marsh, who struck up a relationship with 232-year-old mill Hainsworth at the October 2014 edition of trade show Textile Forum in London. Marsh selected four cloths - light grey marble mélange, French navy broad cloth, rifle green barathea and Ren Field grey wool - to create a bomber jacket, suit, pea coat and blazer for his debut spring 15 ready-to-wear collection.

“The cloth is very soft and easy to wear, but also holds its structure,” says Marsh. “As a tailor it is important to build my brand on UK manufacturing, to maintain the quality and keep production close to home.”

Established in 1783, Hainsworth is a vertical mill, meaning each process from the delivery of raw fibre to spinning, weaving, dyeing and finishing is carried out on site in Pudsey, West Yorkshire. A hundred people work in the mill, including 30 weavers. There is already a waiting list for samples of Hainsworth’s autumn 16 100% merino heavyweight 700gsm overcoating, due for release in June.

On the high street, Marks & Spencer is backing UK production with its Best of British (BoB) range, launched for autumn 13. M&S has collaborated with 15 British fabric and garment manufacturers on the capsule collection, priced at £29.50 for a belt and going up to £699 for a suit. Highlights from the 32-piece spring 15 menswear collection include checked formalwear and tailored linen suits.

Celebrating its centenary in 2015, BoB supplier mill Alfred Brown is focusing on bright blues and indigo in micro designs, wool/mohair blends and plain weaves for its own spring 16 collection. “We also have iconic cloth, from our black barathea, worn by the household livery at Buckingham Palace, to the black herringbone cloth used for tailcoats,” says co-owner Ian Brown.

Alfred Brown employs 50 people in manufacturing at its mill in Bramley, Leeds, including in weaving and mending (checking for faults in the woven cloth), training all apprentices in-house.

The UK is a buoyant market for fellow West Yorkshire weaver Abraham Moon, which supplies M&S with menswear jacket and coat fabrics for the BoB range. “Our customers need to differentiate themselves and most of our orders are a result of bespoke designs,” says managing director John Walsh. “Some 75% to 80% of the added value of the cloth is entirely British. If we use British wool it can rise to 100%.” This can make the fabric more expensive because of the added weight of the finished cloth or due to the cost of having a short run.

Abraham Moon spins multicoloured component yarns in more than 200 shades to create complex weaves. For autumn 16 the mill is backing authentic British tweed, adding extra textured weave effects, Donegals and bouclés.

Speaking of Donegals, in Ireland the country’s weavers are known for their Donegal tweed and linen. They are sought after for their quality, authenticity and colours inspired by nature, says Louise Allen, head of innovation and development programmes at the Design & Crafts Council Ireland. “Irish weavers export a significant amount of fabric to Japan and the US market because they love the provenance of our cloth.”

A specialist in Donegal tweed, Molloy & Sons of Ardara, Donegal, typically incorporates three to six colours in its cloth with added nepps (spots of colour) characteristic of tweed texture.
Linen has been produced by Baird McNutt of Ballymena in Northern Ireland since 1912. Its head designer Peter McNutt creates patterns and shades inspired by the scenery of Ireland’s west coast.

In Wales, woven textile manufacturer Melin Tregwynt has been weaving double cloth in Haverfordwest on the Pembrokeshire coast for 103 years. It involves simultaneously weaving two pieces of plain cloth that cross to create the fabric structure, which lends itself to geometric retro designs. Aside from upholstery, the fabric is used for iPad covers (£12.80 wholesale), weekend bags (£110 wholesale) and women’s skirts, jackets and coats (£180 to £300 retail).

The sense of movement in the city and an overall feeling of energy is the inspiration for the autumn 16 collection from London-based tweed textile company and ready-to-wear brand Dashing Tweeds. “The colour is graphic - black and charcoals with accents of primary colour and some neutrals. I’m using small amounts of space-dyed yarn, merino and silk mixes,” explains creative director Kirsty McDougall. “We also have at least one Lumatwill (reflective tweed) in each collection.”

In her role as Royal College of Art senior tutor in woven textiles, McDougall is nurturing new talent, encouraging students to take risks with materials, technique, structure and finish. “Given that our lives are increasingly screen-based, many students are interested in the ‘touch’ value of cloth and the development of new yarns, handles and finishes,” she notes.

From tech accessories to bespoke tailoring to high street fashion, UK and Irish weavers are building on their rich heritage to create product as relevant to today’s consumer as ever.  


Weaving: key terms

Warp – the set of yarns running the length of the loom.

Weft – the yarn drawn through the warp yarn to create the cloth.

Worsted – cloth woven from long staple wool fibres of the same length. The cloth has a smooth surface, because the fibres are combed so they lie parallel to each other, removing any short fibres. These fabrics are commonly used for suit fabric.

Woollen – cloth woven from woollen spun yarn that has been carded rather than combed to produce a soft, light, stretchy yarn. The fabric surface is hairy as the short fibres have not been removed. This yarn is more likely to be chosen for knitwear.

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