With work under way to create the UK’s first cotton-spinning mill since the early 2000s, Drapers hears why the reawakening of a once-dormant industry could boost British garment producers.
Cotton-based manufacturing in the UK has experienced a resurgence during the last few years on the back of growing demand for Made in Britain product, but the missing piece of the jigsaw has been cotton yarn spinning. That is, until now, as the launch of English Fine Cottons looks set to complete the picture.
The northwest was historically a cotton manufacturing heartland with hotspots including Manchester, Blackburn, Burnley, Oldham and Stockport. Some 100 years ago, cotton yarn spinning employed 624,000 people in the UK but by the 1950s the total had plummeted to 185,000. The decline continued as cheaper overseas alternatives became more readily available and by 1958 the UK had become a net importer of cotton cloth.
The following two decades saw cotton mills closing at a rate of almost one a week. The last cotton-spinning mills are finally thought to have shut in the early 2000s.
The barren period came to an end when technical textile spinner Culimeta-Saveguard, which currently spins yarns for the automotive industry and protective fabrics, announced in December the creation of a new business called English Fine Cottons. The move will reintroduce UK cotton spinning at an old red brick mill, called Tower Mill, adjacent to the company’s existing technical yarns mill in Tame Valley.
Culimeta-Saveguard believes it operates the only remaining traditional cotton yarn-spinning machines in the UK. These date from the 1980s and have been modified to spin materials such a Kevlar and fibreglass. This means the company has retained the skills needed to spin cotton, which can be passed on to the estimated 130 recruits that could now be brought in to staff the new mill over the next three and a half years.
The 100,000 sq ft Tower Mill factory will house £2.3m worth of new cotton-spinning machines due to be delivered in April. Full production will start in July with the aim of processing 100 tonnes of yarn a month.
The revival was made possible following a £5.8m cash injection, with £2.8m coming from Culimeta-Saveguard, a £2m loan from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s investment fund and £1m from the government’s Textiles Growth Programme.
“You can’t buy good-quality [UK-made cotton] fabric, as no one is providing the quality of yarn needed to do it,” says Andy Ogden, general manager at Culimeta-Saveguard. “At the moment, the [parts of the] UK industry that want to use UK cotton can’t – they have to buy from China, Italy, Spain etcetera. So this business is the foundation for that industry.
“We will be more productive than spinners in Europe and lower cost, as we will have more up-to-date machines and new end-to-end production.
“Speed of response is very important. Companies are tying up capital in inventory that’s bobbing up and down on the sea, which doesn’t help anyone. The whole on-shoring process is really important but to do that we have to have a reliable supply chain.”
English Fine Cottons is unable to provide an estimate for the cost of the yarns it will produce, saying this is dependent on the type requested by customers and volumes, but they “will be internationally competitive”.
Ogden adds: “We will provide direct lineage to the field where the cotton will come from, should retailers and brands want that. We want to bring back that pride in English quality cotton.”
new cotton spinning factory being redeveloped
To do this, he reveals he is working on a registered trademark that can be used across the UK industry to demonstrate that an entire product is made with UK-processed cotton.
The business is now sourcing cotton suppliers for the luxury Sea Island Cotton from Barbados, which will comprise up to 10% of the yarn to be produced, as well as US Supima cotton, Giza cotton from Egypt and Suvin cotton from India.
Tracy Hawkins, vice-president of sales and marketing at English Fine Cottons, adds that she is in discussion with potential weavers, knitters, dyers, finishers, retailers and brands, both in the UK and overseas, to use the cotton yarn, with hopes of working with higher-end companies like Burberry, Sunspel and John Smedley, as well as high street giants like Marks & Spencer.
But Hawkins also believes English Fine Cottons has the potential to set up its own on-site weaving or garment manufacturing for items, such as shirts, in the future if there is demand. “There’s no business plan to weave or be a retailer but whatever needs to be done within the cotton industry for this to be a success, we are willing to invest in it to make it work. We could also invest in [existing] cotton weavers and garment makers to help support them.”
Kate Hills, founder of industry lobby group Make it British trade show Meet the Manufacturer, adds: “The UK textile-manufacturing supply chain is quite fragmented and there are a few broken links that make the end-to-end supply of garments exclusively from British suppliers impossible; one of those is cotton spinning. With the launch of English Fine Cottons, this part of the broken supply chain will now be fixed, allowing for 100% British cotton garments (bar actually growing the cotton) to be produced in the UK again. I think this will also encourage other companies to follow suit and have the confidence to invest in the industry.”
For British shirtmaker Emma Willis, the move could help her reshore cotton sourcing. “We are almost vertical as a company and the only thing we don’t buy in the UK is cotton, which I would very much like to do. We buy the cotton for our shirts from a supplier in Switzerland. Potentially, the English Fine Cottons project means we could buy this quality of cotton here at home.”
With English Fine Cottons gearing up to fit the final piece in the domestic cotton manufacturing puzzle, the business will need the backing of UK retailers and brands to succeed but it must also ensure its yarn is competitively priced, as speed to market, heritage and social responsibility alone are not enough in today’s market.