In the second part of our Save Our Skills series of factory visits, Drapers drops in on hosiery brand Pantherella in Leicester to hear about its hunt for skilled hand linkers.
You’d think with a client list boasting the cast of Mad Men, Daniel Craig and members of the royal family, hosiery brand Pantherella would have no trouble attracting some of fashion’s young stars to work in its Leicester factory. But like so many UK manufacturers, the brand is struggling with a skills shortage as a result of an ageing workforce.
Pantherella’s knitting manager retired after 35 years, its export sales administrator after 51 years. Design manager Carol Bielak is still running the department after 23 years and the average length of service is 15 years.
“Getting young people excited about [UK manufacturing] is hard,” says sales director David Attwood. “It’s not seen as a sexy industry. The workforce in knitting, in particular, is ageing.”
Where Pantherella faces its toughest challenge is in recruiting hand linkers - skilled workers who link the toe seam of a sock by hand. Between 60% and 70% of Pantherella’s collection is linked by hand and the business wants to retain that expertise as it offers a point of difference for high-end stockists such as Harrods. In addition, for thicker socks, it is difficult to achieve the same finish, precision, quality and comfort with a machine.
In the past year, Pantherella has trained 20 hand linkers but only two stayed on. And not always because they didn’t want to, but also because some did not reach the required level of skill to deliver the quality Pantherella demands. “If I could find 10 [hand linkers] tomorrow, I would take them on,” says managing director Andrew Cornish.
It’s not surprising that skilled workers in this field are hard to find. A tour of the factory floor quickly shows that the work requires an attention to detail and level of concentration that only the most patient can achieve. There are 200 stitches in the toe seam and workers need to match every stitch to the needle by hand (see pictures). If they make one mistake, the sock is rejected.
To help offset the recruitment problem, Pantherella invested in 10 new machines worth £30,000 each last year, and is considering buying a further six. “We’d go out of business if we hadn’t,” jokes Cornish, though you sense there’s some nervous laughter.
The frustration for both Cornish and Attwood is that Pantherella is exceeding sales expectations, but they are annoyed that the Government fails to support this growth. As a result, they worry their growth is not sustainable.
“In March, we had £1m worth of orders - our best ever,” says Cornish, adding that over the past year Pantherella has streamlined its range to make the company more “efficient”. Fine-gauge cashmere socks, which retail for £70, are a growing category. Harrods is the brand’s biggest customer, and there are more than 600 UK stockists. By the end of the next financial year, Pantherella expects a sales increase of 19% in the UK and US (which together make up 80% of sales in total), 49% in Europe and 27% in India and South Korea. Orders are up 25% overall and a transactional website, which will launch within two years, is expected to make up 15% of sales.
“If we grow any further, how can we support it?” asks Cornish. “We can’t get the [skilled workforce] so we need to buy machines, but there are no government grants, no trade body out there that recognises all this [and lobbies for us].”
Experts in short supply
The lack of support, they say, has spread to other parts of the manufacturing industry, with Pantherella struggling to find expertise across services like fabric dying, for example, in the UK.
The frustration goes even further. Not only do Cornish and Attwood believe the Government is failing to recognise the boost that Pantherella - and UK manufacturing - can give to the UK economy, but that it is ignoring a consumer appetite for Made in Britain products, both in the UK and abroad.
“Consumers don’t want 10 of one thing any more; they want one really good one,” says Cornish, while Attwood stresses that Made in Britain offers a quality and premium that is being driven by consumer demand. “Made in Britain is a sustainable [concept] for the foreseeable future,” he says. “And outside of the UK, the Asian market wants to look like the European market.”
Pantherella has been doing its bit to promote the industry. Last year, it took members of its team to Harrods as part of the department store’s Meet the Experts day, where one of Pantherella’s machinists demonstrated how a pair of socks was made. Not only did it help to raise awareness of the brand and the industry, it was also a morale boost for Pantherella staff, some of whom had never visited Harrods.
And it’s initiatives like this that are vital in encouraging people to join the industry. Businesses must also take responsibility for PR-ing themselves and the industry, and not simply put all the blame elsewhere.
After all, being able to boast that you - albeit indirectly - dressed Daniel Craig is not to be sniffed at.
1937 - Year Pantherella was set up
102 - Staff at Pantherella’s head office and factory
15 - Average length of service in years among staff
1.1m - Pairs of socks produced each year
1.8m - Pairs of socks expected to be made in Pantherella’s four-year plan