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The new champions of UK textiles

Now in its fifth year, the Prince’s Foundation’s Future Textiles initiative is ramping up efforts to attract a new generation into the British textile industry, while ensuring sustainable practices are embedded from the start.

Not a day goes by without a new headline pointing to the fashion industry’s role in the climate crisis. Designers, brands and retailers everywhere are scrambling to reduce their impact on the environment. The industry as a whole is waking up to the need for drastic reform. There is also a growing recognition that producing more locally could play an important role in addressing some of these issues – if only the UK manufacturing industry were not facing a critical skills gap.

A stately home in East Ayrshire may not be the first place one would expect to find solutions to these big problems, but it was here that 120 young people, designers and manufacturers from across Scotland and Germany gathered last month to share their ideas about building a more sustainable future for the industry.

Hrh the prince of wales meets nadja swarovski, christiane arp and inga griese

The Prince of Wales meets Nadja Swarovski, Christiane Arp and Inga Griese

They were joined by the Prince of Wales – whose Scottish title is the Duke of Rothesay – who launched the Future Textiles initiative in 2014 to breathe new life into the British industry and support skills such as sewing, weaving and cutting.

The textiles industry has suffered decades of under-investment and is a key area of focus for the Future Textiles programme. At Dumfries House and at Trinity Buoy Wharf in Tower Hamlets, east London, it offers free tuition in traditional craft skills to school-age students and adults considering a career in the industry.

The German Scottish Sustain Conference was held last month at Dumfries House – an 18th-century former residence set in 2,000 acres of land, which the prince saved for the nation in 2007. It is now a centre for education and training programmes that support learners of all ages with hands-on activities.

It’s important for us to educate our pupils on how long it takes to make something, so they can start to understand the costs involved

Jacqueline Farrell, Dumfries House education director 

The programme caught the attention of Fashion Council Germany, whose chief executive, Scott Lipinski, grew up close to Dumfries House in nearby Cumnock. The two organisations joined forces to host a conference for young people, emerging designers and manufacturers to discuss sustainability developments, trends and challenges.

“It’s vital that time and effort is put into educating young designers and consumers on sustainable fabrics and processes to ensure that design, and production of clothing and textiles has a sustainable future in the UK,” believes Ashleigh Douglas, manager of Future Textiles. “At the Prince’s Foundation, we strive to help the industry by inspiring people of all ages to consider careers in textiles by providing them with expert training and connections.”

Virtuous circle

Fashion designer Patrick Grant has been enlisted as co-chair of the Future Textiles steering group. He believes the industry should be working towards sustainability in the broadest sense of the term. He argues this means looking at the environmental impact of production but also the ethics.

Designer Patrick Grant and John Sugden, director of Highland tailor Campbell’s of Beauly and co-chair of Future Textiles

Designer Patrick Grant and John Sugden, director of Highland tailor Campbell’s of Beauly and co-chair of Future Textiles

He defines sustainability as “simply that production of the product can be sustained indefinitely. Thus, raw materials must be renewable, or circular, causing zero environmental harm, workers’ wage increases must be built in, and ideally goods are produced where they are consumed.”

This message is something that the programme has been trying to impart for the past five years in various ways, explains Dumfries House education director Jacqueline Farrell.

“We invite secondary school pupils to join in traditional skills workshops, where they can learn to hand-sew items such as rucksacks or pencil cases using materials donated by local mills and factories. This is a zero-waste approach that can be adopted by smaller producers, for example, but it can also be scaled up [for larger businesses].

We have a shortfall of skilled labour, which this project is trying to address

John Sugden, director of Highland tailor Campbell’s of Beauly and co-chair of Future Textiles

“It’s also really important for us to educate our pupils on how long it takes to make something, so they can start to understand the costs involved. These students are about to embark on careers and will also be consumers of the future.

Karen Mcfarlane of Dumfries House assists students from Doon Academy during a Future Textiles workshop

Karen Mcfarlane of Dumfries House assists students from Doon Academy during a Future Textiles workshop

“Young people are well aware of climate change and are concerned about the future, but they may not know a lot about the environmental and human cost of making garments.”

These are not always straightforward decisions or trade-offs, she says: “It is not necessarily simply a case of choosing an organic T-shirt, rather than a non-organic one, because of the water usage [that goes into both]. Similarly, we used to talk about things being biodegradable, but it could take 500 years to biodegrade, so now we’re more likely to talk about composting.”

Big names

The conference brought some of these big topics in industry to the students at Dumfries House. There were discussions on natural dye methods and heritage yarns through to 3D and circular knitting from speakers such as US Vogue critic Sarah Mower, Vogue Germany editor in chief Christiane Arp, Adidas’s senior director – advanced creation (apparel technologies) Walter Wählt and Nadja Swarovski, member of the executive board at Swarovski.

For Swarovski, who is also a member of the steering group of Fashion Council Germany, the event was about sharing the sustainable benefits of new technologies and older, perhaps almost forgotten, craft methods: “It is fascinating to see how much we can learn from the past to inform the future of design.”

Gracie Moseley of Doon Academy at Dumfries House's atelier

Gracie Moseley of Doon Academy at Dumfries House’s atelier

John Sugden, director of Highland tailor Campbell’s of Beauly and co-chair of Future Textiles, believes the event and wider project link textiles manufacturing to the more glamorous world of fashion, which can seem a long way away from areas of deprivation such as Ayrshire or Tower Hamlets.

“To have those industry names, plus the support of the Prince of Wales, goes a long way to addressing some of the image problems of our industry,” he says. “There has been a lack of investment in UK textile manufacturing after many retailers went offshore, so production capacity dwindled. We have a shortfall of skilled labour, which this project is trying to address.

We need to reverse years of making careers in manufacturing feel like second-class careers

Patrick Grant, designer

“We also need to change young people’s perception of the industry. We need to make them see it can be a creative and exciting industry, and that you can have a rewarding career.”

Grant agrees: “We need a complete rethink of educational pathways from school up. We need to excite the imaginations of less academic kids and give them a foundation from which to build a career in manufacturing upon.”

Local helpers

So far in its five years, more than 5,000 people, both young and old, have benefited from the Future Textiles project. Intiatives such as the Sewing Bee, where mixed-ability students can sew jackets or trousers, now regularly attract 27 attendees a week.

There is an eight-week programme delivered in the LVMH Textile Training Centre at Dumfries House, which focuses on the sewing skills required to support local and UK manufacturers. The programme includes a week-long work placement with local businesses that are keen to recruit machinists who can produce high-quality goods to a professional standard and in a timely manner.

Leather sewing workshop

Leather sewing workshop

Future Textiles opened at Trinity Buoy Wharf in March. It delivers sewing and garment construction sessions to school groups and adults in the local community in an open-plan studio. It can host 12 pupils a day and is working a lot with a large home-schooled community.

“It is a slightly different dynamic in Tower Hamlets,” Farrell says. “There is no gender divide, and you are as equally likely to see boys get involved as girls, which is really encouraging.”

Back at Dumfries House, a hand-knit development programme is due to start at the end of October, supported by Connolly, the British leather brand founded by the late Joseph Ettedgui – who also started the Joseph womenswear brand – which aims to help people turn their hobbies into a  career. It is all part of a broader movement to reinvigorate the UK manufacturing base and the careers within it.

“We need to reverse years of making careers in manufacturing feel like second-class careers,” says Grant.

“These are small steps now, but it is building momentum, so we are paving the way for the industry to thrive once again,” concludes Sugden.

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