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A new dawn for the UK textile industry?

Business secretary Vince Cable promises government support to breathe new life into UK textile manufacturing as study reveals cost gap with Asia is narrowing.

As a new report claims that manufacturing textiles and clothing in the UK is once again commercially viable, the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills Vince Cable has lent his support to the UK textile manufacturing sector, saying he believes there is huge potential for the industry.

Speaking to delegates at a conference entitled A New Dawn – Rebuilding UK Textile Manufacturing, held at London’s Clothworkers Hall on November 2, Cable threw his weight behind a revival of UK textile manufacturing, saying the Government would support the industry by encouraging both advancements in innovation and help with training.

“There is scope for a manufacturing revival,” said Cable. “I sense that coming back, and we must encourage young people to visit factories to see it is not like their perceptions and realise they could build a career in manufacturing.”

The conference was organised by three City livery companies – The Clothworkers’ Company, The Worshipful Company of Dyers and The Worshipful Company of Weavers – in response to a report by Lord Alliance and put together by researchers at Manchester University.

The report considered the real cost of manufacturing clothing and found that manufacturing in the UK is no longer a lot more expensive than the likes of Bangladesh and India.

Presenting the findings of the report, Professor Chris Carr, professor of textile technology at the University of Manchester, compared costs between manufacturing in the UK, Bangladesh, India and Turkey across all price points in the fashion industry.

The report found that for mid-priced to relatively expensive fashion items such as shirts and jeans, it can be just as profitable to manufacture in the UK. “Although labour cost disadvantages are still a major factor, these can be offset by the quick response and other supply chain factors,” he said.

According to Carr, buying and importing goods at fixed prices from suppliers further afield often creates hidden costs for retailers. Longer lead times can mean product needs to be discounted due to changes in trends or weather when the goods finally arrive.

The cost to a retailer of buying a UK-manufactured tailored shirt is, according to the report, about £19.14, while one from Asia would cost £14.42.

However, the report makes allowances for discount adjustment and assumes, because of the longer lead times with garments produced in Asia, that only 10% of product made in the UK is sold at a 40% discount, while 50% of product made in Asia ends up being sold at a 40% discount. When this is taken into account, it appears that manufacturing a tailored shirt in the UK is more profitable for retailers.

UK factories have the advantage of being able to respond quicker to new designs, there are no import costs and in recent years the costs of both labour and transport in Asia have increased.

While the report highlights that manufacturing in the UK is economically viable, several factors need to be addressed to increase the manufacturing base in this country.

The conference aimed to tackle some of these issues and consider ways in which the UK textile industry can work together to aid recovery.

One of the main barriers discussed was that of skills, something Drapers has highlighted before with its Save Our Skills (SOS) campaign.

Cable spoke about the need to encourage young people to sign up for apprenticeships, to give them the skills to work in textile manufacturing.

“One initiative that is particularly relevant to this sector,” he said, “is that we are now trying to change the basis on which apprenticeships are funded, and by letting them be driven by the employers rather than by the providers.

“Traditionally, government poured lots of money into further education colleges, which trained people, and businesses could take it or leave it. We are now trying to turn that the other way round and channel money through the employers so they can go out and buy the skill training they need for their business. For the first step we have introduced a series of employer pilots.”

Addressing the skills gap is something that Victoria Stapleton, creative director of cashmere brand Brora, which manufactures about 90% of its products in the UK, believes is crucial to increasing output in this country.

“The factories I am dealing with are slowly taking people on,” she says. “But the problem is they all had their fingers burnt 30 years ago, when things declined here, and they are cautious about taking on too many people and then having the rug pulled out from under them again.”

Stapleton believes it is up to brands and retailers to give UK manufacturers more confidence by handing them enough work so they can begin to gradually take more and more people on and train them.

However, James Sugden, director of cashmere manufacturer Johnstons of Elgin in Scotland, warns: “This isn’t going to happen overnight. This is a task of a generation, and it is going to take time.

“The Government supports us, but they’re not just going to be able to give us a load of money to build a new mill. Instead, it is a case of existing firms gradually increasing production, and they need to have the confidence and the skills available to be able to do this.

“We, as an industry, need to be able to show 20-year-olds that this is a good industry to be in.”

The other factor, which delegates and speakers at the conference agreed will help boost production, is the appeal of Made in Britain abroad.

Richard Craig, managing director of designer lifestyle brand Margaret Howell, which bases 56% of its production in the UK, says having product that is made in Britain can be a key selling point and prove profitable for many brands, particularly for those with a strong presence in Asia.

He says: “We make 5,000 shirts a year at our factory in Edmonton in north London, and that generates about 10% of our gross profit.”

Joe Dixon, senior vice-president of production and technical services at US tailoring retailer Brooks Brothers, adds: “People in China and India don’t want product made in their own backyard. What they want is the real thing, the authentic article.”

Judging by the turnout at the conference, and the attitude of both the speakers and delegates, it is obvious there is a real determination to revive the UK textile manufacturing industry and build on some of the work already being done.

“Today is the first step,” says Johnstons of Elgin’s Sugden. “We need to make sure we keep the momentum going and all work together.”

Story in Numbers

£43.9bn - Estimated amount spent on clothing in the UK in 2011

£8.1bn - Estimated value of UK-manufactured clothing and textiles in the UK in 2011 

£7.3bn - Estimated overall export value of UK clothing and textiles

Source: UK Fashion & Textile Association

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