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Flying the flag

Demand for Made in Britain products means British mills are thriving. Drapers profiles three businesses that are reaping the rewards of this renewed interest in home-grown manufacturing.

Alfred Brown

Alfred Brown

Alfred Brown

“We did it, we hit our target,” Ian Brown, joint managing director of family-run worsted mill Alfred Brown, tells Drapers. That target was to achieve a 21% increase in turnover to £8.5m for 2011.

Rounding off a successful 2011, the mill in Bramley, Leeds, which Brown runs with his brother Nigel, added department store chain John Lewis and premium retailer Jaeger to its already impressive list of customers that includes Marks & Spencer, designer label Paul Smith, classic retailer Austin Reed and tailoring retailer Charles Tyrwhitt.

Alfred Brown is a business buoyed by a renewed interest in quality, British-made fabrics. Brown believes the faltering economy has helped people reassess the importance of home-grown industries, and expects the upcoming Olympics to thrust Made in Britain products into the spotlight once more.

“The retail trade has really backed it, and we’ve got a growing list of brands and retailers that want to run British-made collections. Our fabric is more robust than those produced by Italian mills, and it works well with the British look,” he says.

Renewed interest in Made in Britain has helped bring the UK textiles industry back from the brink, after it was left struggling when a 30-year-old quota limiting Chinese exports was scrapped in 2005. Alfred Brown invested £1.5m in new weaving machines last year, upping its manufacturing capacity by 15%.

Brown plans to grow the business by increasing its womenswear division and via its new wool fabrics for men’s formal overcoats, which Paul Smith and menswear brands Brook Taverner and Roderick Charles have already bought into. Meanwhile, Alfred Brown’s stock service, which carries 200 patterns available for quick delivery and accounts for 20% of the business, has strong demand from austerity-hit businesses reluctant to hold large inventories and keen to react to changes in the market.

However, fluctuations in raw material prices can make forward buying a nightmare. They have already eaten into margins across the supply chain, and could force retailers to take their business back offshore. “Price is always a challenge for us. However, the Made in Britain appeal of our product has been quite resilient, and I think that’s because price rises in all commodities have been global. I also think people realise that if you want a quality product you have to be prepared to pay for it,” says Brown.

Johnstons of Elgin

Johnstons of Elgin

Johnstons of Elgin

The fruits of increased demand for Made in Britain product are all too clear to see in the small Scottish Highlands town of Elgin. It is here at cashmere and woollen brand Johnstons of Elgin’s weaving mill, and at its knitting mill in the Scottish Borders town of Hawick, that the business’s 754 employees can be found, working to create the luxury product for which the brand is known.

Already a major employer in the area, the clamour for British-made product is such that Johnstons has had to increase its staff by 12% over the past two years. Its turnover soared 30% during the same period, to £50m for 2011.

Group managing director James Dracup expects the brand’s Made in Britain appeal to hold up in 2012, noting that consumers are more interested in the provenance of goods. “I also think that the Olympic Games will put an enormous spotlight on this country, what it stands for, its culture, and the products that we make,” he says.

One of the UK’s only two vertical mills, responsible for the entire production process, Johnstons comprises four business streams – cloth, accessories, knitwear, and its own UK-based retail business. Between 20% to 30% of the mills’ output is for its own-brand cashmere products, while the majority, 70% to 80%, is private label for other brands.

“One of the secrets of our success in the last two years is that we have aligned ourselves to luxury brands, which are intent on manufacturing product within Western Europe. The luxury sector is not immune to global economic crisis, but is more impervious to the vagaries of the global financial markets,” says Dracup.

In the past two years, the business grew its export sales significantly due to increased demand from overseas, with exports now comprising 30% of its total sales, with a focus on China.

“One interesting trend in the Chinese market is the emergence of domestic design-led brands. I think working with these emerging Chinese brands, which are looking to source quality British fabrics and then reinterpret them with their own design flare, will provide lots of opportunity,” says Dracup.

However, Johnstons’ knitwear business hasn’t been immune to competition from Asia, and last month the brand moved away from being a one-fibre mill and debuted a more affordable 90% merino wool and 10% cashmere blend menswear range, called James Johnston Merino ZQ, at trade show Pitti Uomo in Florence.

London Cloth Company

London Cloth Company

London Cloth Company

A hotbed for emerging London Fashion Week designers, east London is also home to Hackney-based micro-mill London Cloth Company.

It’s not hard to be won over by the mill’s charismatic founder Daniel Harris. Drapers arrives at the mill hot on the heels of a corporate group of German tourists who had visited as part of a historical tour of east London. Harris’s enthusiasm for what he does remains undiminished as he recounts the stories behind how he tracked down and restored the mill’s antique machinery – four power looms, a motorised bobbin winder and a warping mill, all at the age of just 29 in November 2010 when the mill opened.

Harris concedes that he is just starting out; however, in a short space of time the mill has stirred up interest and London-based designer John Lancaster, denim brand Fallow Denim, and menswear brand A Child of the Jago are already on board as customers.

Harris says the fact he manufactures in London has been a hit with potential fashion clients who want to buy into the city’s heritage, and for those who want to work more closely on the production process. “Manufacturing abroad may be cheaper, but you don’t have as much control over the design process and it can be a real headache if things don’t come out right. Whereas we can work much more closely with our customers and if they want us to change the design for them, then we can do that,” he says.

In December, Fallow Denim announced plans to work with The London Cloth Company to produce British-made selvage denim exclusively for the brand. While Britain isn’t widely known for its denim production, Harris remains adamant that there is a market for it. “England used to be one of the key cotton weaving markets in the world. There is that entire heritage there, so there is no reason why we can’t make denim in this country,” he says.

While letting Drapers loose to peddle a 1920s shuttle loom, Harris explains that he doesn’t want to take on numerous customers, instead maintaining the mill’s small-scale, exclusive nature. However, one thing is clear – this fledgling mill is definitely one to watch.

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