News & Views

Fashion sets the tone for a resurgent textile sector

Faster introductions of new clothing designs and a focus on specialist products could boost the sector’s prospects

In the UK textile sector, a field that more than any other fuelled the Industrial Revolution a little more than 200 years ago, the impetus behind reshoring is starting to build momentum. A series of studies has shown that the economic case for investing in UK fabric and clothing production – and so substituting for at least some of the huge volume of imported textiles – is becoming stronger.

A recent study financed by Lord Alliance, the Iran-born textiles magnate, and a group of local authorities in the North-West, found large opportunities for textiles manufacturers to increase UK production. The study team pointed to changing perceptions among domestic retailers, which “are increasingly realising that the benefits of [re-] shoring, such as reduced ‘margin erosion’ and inventory risk, can offset additional unit production costs”. Furthermore “the costs of discounting bulk-bought stock from overseas can exceed premiums paid for faster, smaller runs from UK manufacturers”.

Large clothing stores and fashion brands that are starting to move in this direction, the report says, include John Lewis, River Island, ASOS and Marks & Spencer.  All these businesses are starting to re-invest in local production and are looking for suppliers that can meet their needs. Meanwhile, “increasing costs in competing countries [in Asia, for example] and currency fluctuations are reinforcing these trends”.

Up to 20,000 new textiles jobs could be created
in the next 20 years

According to some projections, opportunities exist to create between 5,000 and 20,000 jobs in textiles production in the next few years. On present estimates, Britain has around 90,000 jobs in textiles production – of which about a sixth are in the industry’s former heartlands around Manchester.

It is a far cry from the 600,000 people employed in this sector in the North-West – mainly spinning and weaving cotton – when the industry was a world leader early last century. If the industry is going to rebound over the next few years, it will probably do so on the back of an expansion by the many mid-sized companies based in this part of the country that excel in specific niches.

Examples include Tibbard, which specialises in “workwear” for chefs; Sigmatex, which makes engineering parts by weaving carbon fibre; James Dewhurst, a world leader in laminated or woven mats used in construction; and Panaz, which produces fabrics containing fire-retardants or “microbial shields”. These are used in products such as curtains and upholstered furniture, either to resist the spread of fires, or reduce risks of infection in hospitals, for example.

Hopes are also high for the emergence of new businesses in higher-volume areas of textiles – such as women’s clothing – that could spring up to meet the requirements of some of the top UK based fashion brands. But the big challenge is what Lord Alliance’s study calls “market failure in the UK due to decades of off-shoring”. The report says: “One of the most urgent failures government and industry need to address is an ageing workforce with a lack of skills provision and [a negative] image of the industry which is prohibitive to new recruits.”

If the UK is to prosper once again in volume textiles production, the industry and its supporters in government need some vibrant and visible local producers to act as “role models”. These companies would need to prove they can attract recruits, train them to work with modern equipment and offer them good careers. That might start to show that an industry that so many have written off can once again enter a “virtuous circle” of rising investment and employment.