Kate Hills, founder of Make it British and Meet the Manufacturer, takes a look at the current state of the UK textile manufacturing scene and what the future holds for it.
It seems that not a week goes by at the moment without reading something about manufacturing returning to the UK.
In July, footwear retailer Clarks announced that it was opening a factory in Somerset in order to start making its iconic desert boot in the UK again. This follows hot on the heels of a brand new, state-of-the-art cotton spinning plant in Greater Manchester, which will be the first time that cotton has been spun in the UK for decades.
There have been several factors that have contributed to the rise in demand for UK-made textiles – the increasing costs of overseas production due to exchange rates and wage inflation; a concern about the sustainability of using overseas factories with poor safety and welfare rights following the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2012; a trend for heritage-look product, which suits the fine knitwear, tweeds, worsted woollens and Goodyear welted footwear that Britain traditionally makes so well, and a media focus on products that tell a story – and there is certainly no better story to be told than that of textiles being made in mills situated in the land where the Industrial Revolution began.
According to the UK Fashion & Textile Association, the UK produces £9bn worth of textiles annually, and staff employed within the garment manufacturing sector has grown by 9% since 2011.
Part of this growth has been fuelled by exports, with HM Customs and Excise reporting a 25% increase in British-made clothing going overseas over the last five years. The ‘made in Britain’ label is seen as a mark of quality by many, particularly overseas markets, and customers are often willing to pay more for something that is made here. A survey carried out by Barclays a few years ago found that UK-made product could command up to 8% more if it carried a ‘made in Britain’ label.
Geographically speaking the makeup of textile manufacturers across the UK is one of specialists in each region. London has become the area for high end garment production catering to many of the designers at London Fashion Week, while Leicestershire holds bigger manufacturing units that predominantly make for the high street retailers. In terms of cloth, the vast majority of manufacturers are located in the traditional textile industrial heartland of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, and it is Northamptonshire that is still the centre of production for some of the best men’s footwear in the world.
Thousands in the UK
While the UK textile manufacturing sector still remains a very fragmented space after decades of decline, there are still thousands of garment factories in the UK, with more opening all the time. Most textile businesses in the UK are micro businesses employing less than 10 people each, serving smaller brands and designers who are willing to pay a higher price for the lower minimum order quantities and the flexibility of making closer to home that UK production affords.
More recently, larger brands and retailers have started to integrate UK manufacturing into their sourcing strategy too. Online retailer ASOS has invested over £1m into a clothing factory in North London, and BooHoo.com says that over 50% of their suppliers are in the UK. At our Meet the Manufacturer trade show, held yearly in London, nearly every high street retailer had a member of their buying and sourcing team in attendance – all of them looking for factories in the UK to make their products.
Now one of the only remaining barriers to growth for the UK textile industry is the lack of skilled staff in the sector. While apprenticeship programmes have helped to bring young people into the industry, with Brexit looming there is a real risk that many of the skilled foreign workers coming into the UK garment manufacturing sector may be lost. Organisations like the UKFT are working closely with the government to ensure that jobs within the textile sector are seen as important for the UK economy as those of doctors and architects, because without skilled machinists coming to work in Britain the UK garment manufacturing sector may be set back decades.
Whilst Brexit may offer challenges in terms of staffing, the fall in the value of the pound has made British goods cheaper overseas, and many brands are seeing an upsurge in sales to American and Asian customers because of this. We’ve seen more than double the amount of visitors to the Make it British website from overseas visitors in the last year – all of them searching for British-made products with heritage and provenance.
Whatever the future may hold, there is no doubt that the UK textile industry is enjoying a renaissance right now, and long may it continue.