In a new series examining the resurgent UK and Ireland textile and garment industries, we follow the production process from source to sale. Part one sizes up the industry and asks how it can flourish.
After at least four decades of decline, during which thousands of jobs across the UK and Ireland’s textiles and clothing industries disappeared, those businesses that have survived are seeing a revival while new companies are springing up to capitalise on the groundswell in demand.
While the industry has always been diverse, as it gathers renewed strength this is becoming ever-more apparent. Larger players, such as Huddersfield-based spinners Z Hinchliffe & Sons and London-made outerwear brand Grenfell, which have traded for decades and are synonymous with British heritage and quality, are now rubbing shoulders with new, smaller entrants like leather label Grace Gordon and activewear brand No Jiggle, both in London, and manufacturer AMA (Apparel Manufacturing Academy) Group.
Last March, Julie Price and Paul Watts founded AMA in Peterlee, County Durham. In July it secured a contract with Tesco clothing brand F&F to produce 48,000 vests and pocketed T-shirts.
For Price the launch “made absolute sense” since the manufacturing skills were still available in the area and because “we felt both retailers’ and consumers’ attitudes were changing” with an increased focus on Made in Britain product.
No Jiggle founder Hannah Statman, who launched the brand in August, says: “As a premium British brand it was important for us to stay close to our roots and manufacture in the UK, mainly because we wanted to be hands-on with the manufacturing process - something we felt couldn’t be done if the collection was made abroad.”
And to support these green shoots of recovery and growth, last week two of the industry’s manufacturing hot spots received a welcome shot in the arm from the government.
The Textile Growth Programme, which is led by The Alliance Project, an initiative from Lord Alliance, chairman of N Brown Group, was granted around £19.5m in the sixth round of the Regional Growth Fund. Its second tranche after receiving £12.8m in 2013, it will be used to further help textile businesses in the Northwest and now also the East Midlands to expand, improve training, buy equipment and develop research and development projects.
Among the 94 companies to have benefitted from the first funding injection are weaver Hainsworth in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, which upgraded equipment and created an archive to showcase its 230-year history, and Salford-based outerwear manufacturer Cooper & Stollbrand, which bought new machinery to meet increased demand. Ambitiously, The Alliance Project believes that if investment and the trend for repatriating manufacturing both continue, there is potential to create up to a staggering 20,000 new jobs across the wider textile industry in the next five to 10 years. It claims that 5,000 have been created between 2012-13 and 1,625 through its own projects in the Northwest just last year.
The sheer diversity of the Made in Britain industry and its composition from thousands of small businesses - only 4% of textiles firms employ more than 50 people - means many are unaware of what is made on these shores and where, while the industry as a whole is hard to accurately quantify.
The textiles industry is estimated to employ 90,000 to 100,000 right across the UK, and within that those involved in clothing equate to around 40,000. However, this figure does not include those making yarns, fabrics and trimmings that could go into clothing assembled abroad.
The Repatriation of UK Textiles Manufacture report by The Alliance Project, published last week, stated the UK textiles sector has a total production value of £9bn each year, rising to more than £11bn if sole traders, the self-employed, textile services and wholesale are included. Of the £9bn, around 30% to 40% of turnover is estimated to be in the clothing industry.
To further boost this, the report called for a national database to help domestic and foreign buyers source here; greater government and trade body support for businesses at trade fairs to help them meet buyers; a focus on changing outdated perceptions of the industry in schools and colleges to attract younger workers; support for product and process innovation; and steps to address the issue of late payments for suppliers.
Meanwhile, the UK is one of the top 10 wool producers in the world, with a growing proportion going into clothing. According to the British Wool Marketing Board, 60% of the 30,000 tonnes of wool sheared each year by about 45,000 sheep farmers goes into carpets, while 25% is exported as greasy wool to be made into various products including knitwear, carpet and cloth overseas. This leaves 10% for knitting and 5% that is deemed as ‘other uses’ but can comprise cloth and insulation.
The Irish industry is much smaller. According to figures from the Central Statistics Office in Ireland, the country had 522 textile and clothing manufacturing businesses in 2012 employing 2,917 people.
The reasons behind the repatriation of the UK textile and clothing industry are clear. Consumer demand for more trend-led, fast fashion is forcing retailers and brands to seek shorter lead times from design to the shop floor and UK manufacturing can dramatically cut lead times to three to four weeks. Domestic manufacturing also affords tighter control over what is being produced, how it is produced and the quality.
UK-made clothing is also in high demand abroad, with British production seen as a mark of quality. A report by Barclays shows the Made in Britain label triggers a willingness among customers in emerging markets to pay on average up to 7% more than for products without a declared country of origin.
But it remains more costly to produce in the UK. Even though wages, energy and property costs are rising in the Far East as economies develop,
they remain far below those in the UK, meaning it still often makes economic sense for retailers requiring critical mass to look beyond these shores.
That said, following the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, a small minority of shoppers are now taking greater notice of where their clothes are made.
Against this backdrop, a small but noticeable element of mainstream and premium British retailers are reshoring elements of their production, including Marks & Spencer, River Island, George, F&F and Jaeger, helping domestic manufacturers and suppliers invest further in their workforces
and growth plans.
But key issues such as skills and the promotion of an accurate image of the sector to attract a new, younger workforce still need to be addressed.
Secretary of state for business, innovation and skills
Business secretary Vince Cable is calling for more British retailers to engage with the domestic textiles and clothing manufacturing industry to strengthen its resurgence.
Speaking to Drapers at his office in Westminster, he says the government “are getting strongly behind the textiles and garment industry, which is going through a very welcome revival”, but adds much of its future potential for growth requires retailers to “grasp that opportunity” and use more British manufacturers which might involve “an act of faith in some cases”.
“There are two things,” he says. “To build up your industry you’ve first got to export and a lot of our people are exporters and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) does give support.
Importsubstitution, producing at home and reshoring is the other route and that’s something British retailers can help with.
“You can’t push water uphill. There’s basic economics in this industry, they’re not going to do things that cause them to make big losses. The more imaginative realise there are economic advantages to reshoring and having British supply chains so it just requires them to grasp that opportunity. And some leading firms like M&S and Topshop are starting to do British supply.”
He adds there is “a chicken and egg problem”, as retailers say they would manufacture in Britain if they knew the companies were there, so the focus has to be on breaking the circle by ensuring innovative British firms are launched and sustained, and have a solid skills base.
Cable explains: “You can’t protect [the industry] from competition and we don’t want to, but we can help it to become more innovative and to get the skills they need.”
To do this, the government has injected £32.3m into the industry via the Regional Growth Fund over the past three years - including the second tranche last week of around £19.5m for the Textiles Growth Programme, this time targeting the Northwest and East Midlands to help businesses expand, improve training, buy new equipment and fund research and development.
“It’s a really big injection of funds and alongside private investment it will be multiplied several times in terms of total investment. We estimate it will create or safeguard over 2,000 jobs,” says Cable.
The RGF is focused on rebalancing the UK economy and as such prioritises regional business investments over those in London.
Alongside this the government is running the Employer Ownership of Skills pilot, which gave the Huddersfield Textile Centre of Excellence £2.3m in 2012, enabling it to offer local employers funding to improve training programmes and helping to replace skills being lost from the industry as older generations retire. Over the last three years 586 start-up loans have been offered to textiles and fashion companies, amounting to £5.9m.
“These training schemes, apprenticeship pilots and the Regional Growth Fund are designed to invest in getting a new generation with the necessary skills.
“The old idea of cheap labour, mass-manufacturing, that’s gone for good, so the industry we now have is high-tech, high-skilled and highly innovative.”
But Cable also insists retailers need “to be honest” about where their product is made. “We do need British retailers to be honest about this. There are some that claim to be using British stuff and there’s only a tiny British component to it. We need the genuine article.”
- Watch the interview with Vince Cable at Drapersonline.com/vincecable