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Skills gap is holding back UK manufacturing, designers tell House of Lords

The lack of skilled manufacturing staff in the UK is holding back the UK textiles industry, designers and manufacturers have told the House of Lords.   

Dawne Stubbs, head of design and creative director at luxury knitwear brand John Smedley, said yesterday at an All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion that investment in UK manufacturing had helped build John Smedley overseas but that there needed to be a culture change before UK-made product would get the same recognition at home.

“Being made in England and made in Britain has been essential to our export trade, but it is not as important to UK consumers, who are more seduced by price and brand popularity,” she said.

Stubbs added that John Smedley, which employs 439 staff and has a relatively good retention rate, found it hard to find new staff. “We have increased capacity through technical investment [but] unfortunately, due to the decline in manufacturing [in the UK] we have had to work hard to sustain the labour force.”

Also speaking at the session, organised by lobbying organisation the Centre for Sustainable Fashion Events and Baroness Lola Young, womenswear designer Christopher Raeburn said: “The big issue for me is scalability. It’s very difficult to find skilled machinists in the UK. That’s why we set up in London…we have an opportunity as young designers and creatives to be design led, but also to influence bigger companies.”

He likened designers to “sucker fish” which attach themselves to sharks and establish a mutually beneficial relationship whereby the sucker fish feeds off the shark by cleaning it. “We can’t stop the shark but we can have an impact,” Raeburn said.

Kirsty McDougall, managing director of Dashing Tweeds, which produces fabrics for designers including Henry Holland and Alexander McQueen and Savile Row suitors Gieves & Hawkes, added: “We have seen a rise in the number of clients asking for UK production and about the provenance of the fabric. We are still working on finding the right production partners in the UK. We are finding it very difficult to find people who can produce to the standard and quality that we want. “

McDougall added that when it came to sourcing yarn and fabric, “the mills are still there but they just need a bit of love and attention. People assume there is no industry left but there is still some.”

Bob Ryan, co-founder of Ardalanish Isle of Mull Weavers added that he has been forced to recruit all his interns and apprentices from countries such as Sweden, France and Canada because he cannot find any UK applicants sufficiently interested to spend time learning the crafts.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion will assemble twice a year. The next session will be held in October in conjunction with campaign group Made By.

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