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Home Made: UK shirt manufacturers roll up their sleeves

Despite a skills shortage, premium shirt manufacturing is still a strength among a select few firms.

Jermyn Street in London’s Mayfair has long been “the shirtmakers’ street” but many so-called British names based there manufacture abroad, either in near-shore locations like Turkey or further afield in Asia.

Even genuinely British shirtmakers have to look overseas for their fabric as the once-huge cotton industry at home has all but disappeared.

Premium brands now look mainly to Italy, especially the Bergamo-based Albini Group, which sells under the Cotonificio Albini, Thomas Mason, David & John Anderson and Albiate 1830 brands. Swiss and Japanese mills also supply high-quality shirting.  

However, despite the discount culture at home, much higher production costs and a well-publicised technical skills gap, a committed few still thrive making premium-level shirts in the UK.

Probably the largest is Turnbull & Asser, which was established in 1885. The brand, which holds a royal warrant from the Prince of Wales and turned over just north of £12m last year, operates a large store on Jermyn Street and a bespoke-only shop next door on Bury Street. In August it added a third central London unit on Davies Street, north of Berkley Square, selling its ready-to-wear, bespoke and exclusive pieces. It also has an international outpost in Manhattan.

This is in addition to a well-developed wholesale business with stockists including Selfridges in the UK and El Corte Inglés in Spain. Wholesale prices for ready-to-wear shirts range from £75 to £120, translating to between £175 and £295 at retail.  

Ali Fayed, younger brother of Mohamed Fayed, former owner of Harrods, bought T&A, as it is universally known, in 1986 and since then has invested heavily in the business. With more than 100 people employed at its modern factory in Quedgeley, Gloucestershire, T&A produces 70,000 shirts a year (50,000 ready-to-wear, 16,000 bespoke and 4,000 made-to-measure), as well as making sleepwear and underwear. Managing director Nigel Blow says making in England is in the DNA of the brand, which recently added 12 people to its factory workforce and invested in new machinery, which helped increase output by 15% to 20%: “Of course, it is difficult. There are ever-increasing costs, and business rates and minimum wage increases go only one way. This is an expensive country to produce in. It’s not easy, hence there are not many of us left. Recruitment is a headache, particularly of machinists, but this year we partnered with the London College of Fashion around its bespoke tailoring course to find the best talent.”

Turnbull and Asser

Turnbull & Asser employs over 100 people at its factory in Quedgeley in Gloucestershire and produces 70000 shirts a year.

Predictably, Blow maintains it is important to keep the skills alive in the UK: “We are 130 years old this year. As a business we have built such a huge amount of experience and knowledge. Our factory manager in Gloucester has 51 years’ experience making shirts. This naturally translates into an extremely well-made, consistent, hand-made product that is impossible to recreate in a mass-produced, machine-only environment. British innovation and craftsmanship is rightfully respected all around the world.”

T&A shirting fabrics come mainly from Italy – Albini is a major supplier – with smaller amounts coming from Switzerland.

T&A’s Jermyn Street neighbour and competitor Hilditch & Key was founded in 1899. Owned by Michael Booth since the mid-1970s, the business employs about 30 people in its production unit in Glenrothes, Fife. Using Italian and Swiss fabrics, it produces about 350 shirts a week. Wholesale prices from £42 to £70 convert to £155 for ready-to-wear and a starting price of £225 for bespoke. 

H&K has eight international wholesale accounts, including Bloomingdale’s in New York and Le Bon Marché in Paris. Chief executive Steve Miller says manufacturing in the UK is important but difficult: “It can open doors for you, but because of our minimum wage costs and exchange rates, (the resulting price) can be a hindrance.”

Across the industry, production systems vary. Some makers employ people in specific roles, while at others one machinist can see a product through from start to finish. A high-quality shirt usually consists of between 15 and 25 pieces and the manufacturing process typically involves measuring, pattern-making, cutting, sewing, finishing and pressing. Whatever the method, Miller confirms that finding the candidates to fulfil these roles is hard. Recent recruits in the industry are often from Eastern Europe.

Hilditch and Key

Hilditch & Key chief executive Steve Miller says finding skilled workers is a challenge.

Miller has been heading Hilditch & Key since June 2013, having previously spent eight years as the managing director of Turnbull & Asser. Since taking the reins he has sought to rejuvenate H&K, refitting the Jermyn Street store at the end of last year and investing in a fully integrated SAP stock control, merchandising and accounting system and a new website. It plans to refurbish its Paris store on Rue de Rivoli at the end of this year.

Its bespoke offer was launched in tandem with the Jermyn Street refit and now accounts for 20% of the business, a figure Miller says is slowly growing.

The brand is performing steadily, with turnover of £5m this year, up 15% on last year. “We are going in the right direction, but it is a slow burn,” he says.

A newer arrival in British shirtmaking is Emma Willis, who established her eponymous business in 1989. Originally selling via mail order, she opened her store on Jermyn Street in 2000 and has been selling through luxury menswear etailer Mr Porter since 2012. This year she forecasts the business will turn over £1.5m, up from £1.3m the year before. 

Willis employs 26 at her factory in Gloucester, with 24 in pattern-making, cutting, sewing and embroidery, and two in management. The factory also produces ties and socks, with two staff using a hand-operated sock loom. Ready-to-wear shirts retail at £200 to £280, while bespoke runs from £300 to £450; output is about 7,000 shirts a year. The Swiss mill Alumo is a major shirting supplier, alongside companies from Italy and Canada.

Emma Willis dark line shirts

Emma Willis manufactures all of her shirts in the UK, employing 26 at a factory in Gloucester.

Unlike other makers, Willis has not had trouble finding skilled staff. “It was a challenge to move my manufacturing to Gloucester, because originally it was in London. But actually I find incredibly good skills in Gloucester. I just took an ad in the local newspaper and various cutters and machinists emerged.”  

She believes claims of a skills gap can be used as an excuse not to manufacture here: “The quality of people coming out of fashion schools is high. We tend to recruit from Bath, Bournemouth and Falmouth [universities], where sewing skills are strong.”

This year, sponsored by Vogue publisher Condé Nast, she set up the Emma Willis Sewing School. Annually it will take on two college leaver apprentices, which should lead to permanent jobs. A waiting list of candidates has been opened due to high demand. “People can learn if you have good people training them. I have an excellent core team of experienced machinists, and that helps,” she maintains.

Willis points out that the entry price to setting up a shirt manufacturing unit is high. A machine to create button holes is £3,000, one to attach buttons can be £2,500 and a fusing machine that combines fabrics costs around £700.

Across the industry, the manufacturing cost structure varies from maker to maker. Fabric can be 30% to 40% of the total cost, labour (including trims, buttons and packaging) 55% to 65% and the balance in shipping.

Northern Ireland, especially Derry, was until the 1980s a major shirtmaking centre. Keeping the tradition alive is Smyth & Gibson, which was established in the city in 1993 by husband-and-wife team Richard and Selena Gibson. Occupying a former railway station building, their factory employs 70 people who produce 1,000 ready-to-wear and 100 bespoke shirts a week. Richard explains that the high proportion of handwork, which is reflected in the price, has meant that finding the right skills has been difficult: “The detail is in the craft. We do everything by hand. We lay by hand. We cut by hand. We construct our patterns all by hand. That is a real skill. Maintaining that skillset over the past 15 years and then moving it from maintenance to a growing situation has been complicated.”

The business has hired people and trained them up. In the UK its 35 stockists include premium mini-chain and, internationally, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong is among the customers. Smyth & Gibson also makes bespoke shirts for brands including JW Anderson, Thomas Pink and Victoria Beckham.

In 2013 the business received substantial investment from local fashion entrepreneur Sam Morrison, who used to own the Clockwork Orange young fashion stores in Northern Ireland. This injection has helped propel the business forward, and in August Smyth & Gibson doubled the size of its factory to 30,000 sq ft, allowing a more efficient layout of its production line.

Gibson underlines that labour costs ensure the UK shirtmaking sector must be focused on the premium end of the market. “There is a very British way of making a shirt, even if you make it in a contemporary manner,” he says. “It’s very different to an Italian construction. It has to be at the premium end. Wages are £7 an hour. You won’t make a shirt in less than an hour, it’s more like three. So straight away you have £21 of labour costs.”

Wholesale prices run from £43 to £100, while retail prices on the S&G website range from £80 to £140. Fabric shirtings primarily are from Italy, Switzerland and Japan.

British premium shirtmaking received another injection last year when accessories brand Drake’s bought the former Chard shirt brand’s factory in Chard, Somerset, which employs about 25 people. Founded in 1977 by ex-Aquascutum executive Michael Drake, Drake’s was acquired in 2010 by Mark Cho, co-founder of Hong Kong luxury menswear independent The Armoury, which stocked the brand.

Using shirtings sourced from Italy and Switzerland, the Somerset factory produces CMT (cut, make and trim) shirts for third-party customers from £30, while its own brand wholesales from £60, retailing at up to to £175. With shops in Clifford Street, just off Savile Row, and its head office in Shoreditch, east London (where it also has its premium tie-making operation) and a global wholesale network, the business turns over £7.5m. Its 30 stockists include premium menswear independent Trunk Clothiers on Chiltern Street, Marylebone and Harrods. 

Creative director and shareholder Michael Hill says: “[The Chard project] has been a huge challenge but one we are very pleased we took on, both from the point of view of breathing new life into a wonderful but struggling factory as well as enabling us to add another crucial string to our bow. We always felt we had something to offer in shirts, but we also knew that we had to make the shirt ourselves if we were going to crack it in a meaningful way. While we are very much open for private-label business, the ultimate goal is to take the shirt directly from the factory to the final consumer, as we have managed to do with ties.”

“It’s fair to say that an English-made shirt is largely perceived to be a great formal dress shirt, but our shirt is an altogether softer, more comfortable aesthetic that is relevant for today. Our investment in English manufacturing is a long-term one that we believe, despite the costs, will deliver great product at excellent value to the customer.” 

Luxury and premium buyers Drapers spoke to say there is demand for Made in Britain shirts, which are respected internationally. Selfridges buying manager Luke Mountain says: “At Selfridges we stock Smyth & Gibson, as well as Turnbull & Asser. It’s important for a British brand like us to support the craftsmanship and cottage industries Britain was once famous for. Our customers understand the importance of quality, and have an appreciation for the level of craft that goes into creating garments here in Britain.”

Trunk Clothiers owner Mats Klingberg agrees: “There’s a general demand for garments made in the UK.”

At the luxury and premium levels, UK shirtmaking is thriving for those companies that are willing to invest to reap long-term rewards.

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