Textiles begin weaving their way home

Traditional centres of Britain's sewing industries are resurgent, reports Mark Leftly

Using the long silky hairs from the belly of the Arctic musk ox and fine wool from a rare South American camelid, Yorkshire-based textiles firms helped create the world's most expensive suit. With 5,000 individual stitches and nine 18-carat gold and diamond buttons, the £70,000 garment meant that entrepreneur Alexander Amosu cut quite the dash as he strutted around London.

Pennine Weaving, located just outside Bradford, and Huddersfield's W T Johnson & Sons respectively wove and dyed the suit in 2009, in what now looks like an early sign of a textiles boom that has breathed life into an industry that had been stumbling for decades.

This winter, J D Williams, a plus-size clothing group that is owned by the FTSE 250 group N Brown, will have more than 100 of its clothing lines, be they trousers or suits, made in the UK. Although still a small percentage of the 4,000-strong range, this is still 10 times the number that was produced in Britain just two years ago.

J D Williams's director of buying and merchandising, Paul Short, says that a near trebling of cotton prices meant the company "started sourcing closer to home", which in N Brown's case is Manchester. Costs in textile hotbeds, particularly China, which were once so cheap, soared with commodity and utility price rises, so the firm asked UK weavers and dyers to come directly to it with alternative suggestions.

Mr Short says: "We were quite surprised that there turned out to be a small but quite active supply base in the UK, particularly in London, Leicester and the North-west.

"Where we do think we benefit is that the country is fantastic at street design, and by making the lines here we can get them out quickly to the market to test them, saving four to six weeks in the supply chain when the clothes are being shipped over."

Bill Macbeth, managing director at the Textile Centre of Excellence which represents around 80 firms, says: "We're seeing a higher desire for repatriating high-quality work, such as the best wool in the world or technology like fire retardant fabric, particularly as the finance gap with China is narrowing. China is also more interested in serving its domestic market as its population becomes wealthier."

An example of the high-end technology that the industry is developing includes £6m of equipment that the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, will launch at the centre in November. This will allow textile firms to weave parts to be used in the construction of aeroplanes.

Most of the evidence that work is returning home is anecdotal – John Miln, chief executive at the UK Fashion & Textile Association claims that finding statistics to prove what is happening is "like nailing jelly to the wall" – but there are plenty of examples of factories opening up.

Mulberry is planning to expand its factories in Somerset, while the 262-year-old leather luggage and umbrella-maker Swaine Adeney Brigg has started manufacturing its wares out of the former Aquascutum factory in Corby.

There is a slight sting in the tale. David Wall, managing director at the Leicester-based lingerie firm Shadowline, argues that while the UK is a good place to find design and high-end fashion innovations, mass production will never return.

"In the Nineties, I had 300 sewing machinists; now we have a total of 10 in England," explains Mr Wall. "I'm not sure there is the desire among the British youth to go back to using sewing machines."

Weft of history

Victorian

The textiles industry is the nation’s biggest employer. Cheap imports gradually erode the UK’s dominance in a virtual mirror of the empire’s decline.

The Sixties

The industry is still relatively healthy, with some 1.5 million people still employed in textiles

The Eighties

Textiles suffer with the economy: in one 12-month period, some 200 mills close down.

The Nineties

Marks & Spencer essentially keep the industry alive, with 340,000 workers still active, largely as a result of the high street chain sticking with UK factories. However, when M&S start looking for cheaper alternatives overseas, there are no bulk retailers left to support what was once a hallmark of the UK economy.

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