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Textiles report: The national fabric

Four of the country’s most venerable mills tell us how they’ve been benefiting from the increase in demand for high-quality UK fabrics.

The British textiles industry may not be the powerhouse it was during its Industrial Revolution heyday, but there are promising signs of revival among the UK’s traditional cloth manufacturers.

Rising manufacturing costs in the Far East and growing consumer awareness of the provenance of fashion goods have given a welcome fillip to historic mills from across the country.

According to John Miln, chief executive of the UK Fashion & Textile Association, the British cloth and garment-making industry surged 20% in sales in the past three to four years, to £11.5bn. Textile manufacturing is thought to account for £3bn of that.

Miln says: “Customers are hungry for historical heritage. Made in Britain is hugely sought after, not just by UK brands but from overseas as well.”

However, he warns that retailers and brands must invest in the sector to prevent an erosion of crucial skills. Here, we profile some of the UK’s flourishing mills.

Abraham Moon & Sons

  • Mill Guiseley, West Yorkshire
  • Founded 1837
  • Makes Tweeds, plain weaves, twill and herringbone fabrics in wool
  • Managing director John Walsh
  • Owner The Walsh family
  • Staff 200, including six on-site fabric designers
  • Clients Premium high street and luxury brands such as Burberry, Paul Smith and Ralph Lauren

John Walsh

John Walsh

Abraham Moon managing director John Walsh, a fourth-generation member of the family that in 1920 succeeded the founding Moon dynasty, has noticed a substantial increase in demand for his fabrics: “There is a definite interest in the Union Jack. Customers are moving back from cheap sourcing, seeing distinct advantages from the better design and quality inherent in our fabrics.”

Even retailers and brands at lower price levels, including H&M, have begun using Abraham Moon cloth for their statement pieces.

Walsh believes this is not because of fashion trends but rather a long-term move back to buying British. He adds: “Price is no longer the only driver. In any case, the differential is eroding.”

As one of the last remaining vertical woollen mills in the UK, the entire fabric-making process at Abraham Moon takes place on-site, from dyeing the raw bales of wool through to blending, carding, spinning, warping, weaving, scouring, milling and finishing.

Most weavers buy in their yarn from the same pool of suppliers, but because Abraham Moon does this itself its yarn colours are unique and distinctive.

John Foster

  • Mill Queensbury, Bradford
  • Founded 1819
  • Makes Fine worsted wools, classic English suiting fabrics
  • Managing director David Gallimore
  • Owner SIL Holdings
  • Staff About 60
  • Clients High-end tailors and brands, including Hackett, Burberry, Gieves & Hawkes, Chester Barrie and Ede & Ravenscroft

David Gallimore

David Gallimore

The eponymous founder of John Foster was an innovator who won awards at The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Today, customers still turn to the worsted wool manufacturer for “something different”, explains managing director David Gallimore.

“We get a lot of interest from overseas. Italians, despite their own thriving clothing industry, love buying from us because it’s unique.”

He believes shoppers have become increasingly fed-up with inferior quality, resulting in a “marked effort to source more from the UK”. However, the trading environment is tough. “We are not seeing growth at the moment,” Gallimore says.

Fox Brothers

  • Mill Wellington, Somerset
  • Founded 1772
  • Makes Flannels, worsteds, woollens and cashmeres
  • Managing director Douglas Cordeaux
  • Owners Deborah Meaden and Douglas Cordeaux
  • Staff About 25
  • Clients Savile Row and labels including Louis Vuitton

Douglas Cordeaux

Douglas Cordeaux

Fox Brothers has supplied luxury woollen cloth to tailors, the military and fashion designers since 1772. It is credited with inventing flannel at its Tonedale Mill in Wellington, and supplied the grey chalk-stripe favoured by Winston Churchill for his suits.

However, managing director Douglas Cordeaux (right), who bought the company in 2009 with Dragons’ Den investor Deborah Meaden, is worried the recent interest in Made in Britain will be short-lived. “It has lasted longer than I thought, but I don’t want to see people jumping on it for the wrong reasons. It has to be long-sighted,” he says.

As the head of a company that has been spinning and weaving for almost 250 years on the same site, Cordeaux knows a thing or two about longevity: “Customers are coming to us and they always have done, but it is not just because we are made in the UK.

We weave our own cloth and have done since 1772. That is very difficult to replicate.”

Linton Tweeds

  • Mill Carlisle
  • Founded 1912
  • Makes Womenswear tweeds
  • Managing director Keith Walker
  • Owner The Walker family owns 93%, with the other 7% owned by Margaret Robinson, a descendant of the founding Linton family
  • Staff 80
  • Clients Luxury brands including Chanel and Burberry, and high street labels including Jaeger and Jigsaw

Keith Walker

Keith Walker

Keith Walker, owner and managing director of Linton Tweeds for the past two decades, has enjoyed a bumper two years of trading yet remains cautious about the longer-term prospects.

“We’re at maximum production,” he says. “I could do more business if I had higher capacity. Over the last two years I have gone from bumping along the bottom to doubling production.”

He explains that some of the increase has been fuelled by a demand for British-made fabric, but the main driver has been the trend for tweed. “We were out of fashion a few years ago. Tweed is a big thing right now. I think we have another couple of seasons and then we will be back to normal trade.”

Understanding the fickle fashion industry is in Walker’s blood. His father Leslie took over the running of the business from the Linton family in 1969, charged with reviving its fortunes.

Famous for supplying tweed to Chanel - the mill was the label’s original supplier and is still used by it today - the company’s historic values of manufacturing good-quality fabric with a strong British heritage appear to have put it in good stead with high street retailers too, with its client list including Jigsaw.

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