News & Views

Textiles entrepreneur moves to masks to combat virus threat

Above: Employees in Lancashire Textiles' Burnley plant are working flat out to meet soaring demand. Photo by Asadour Guzelian

While the coronavirus crisis has dealt a hammer blow to many manufacturers, for Joe McBride it has brought an opportunity. After switching much of his textile production from pillows and related household goods to face masks, his company has seen a huge spike in orders and is working flat-out to meet demand.

Joe McBride (pictured at his factory before the health crisis) has withstood relentless pressure in textiles and believes the sector has a future in the UK

“We have the capacity to make 1,200 masks a day but to match the demand we’d need to make five times more,” says McBride. “If I could find more sewing machinists, I’d hire them immediately.” In recent weeks he has added six people to his workforce, which numbers 41.

The spurt in output has come after a long battle by the 52-year-old McBride – helped in recent years by co-director Joanna Mulawka – to establish a footing in a UK textiles industry that over the past 25 years has been hard hit by the rapid rise of competitors from countries such as China.

Even though Lancashire Textiles, near Manchester, is decidedly low-tech, McBride has targeted the quality end of the industry while embracing the internet rather than conventional retail outlets as his main sales channel. The story underlines how tenacity, imagination and strategic thinking can lead to success in even the most unpromising industrial sectors.

A key influence has been Mulawka, a 34-year-old graduate in English and American literature from Poland who joined the company in 2012 as a part-time administrator and is now in charge of finance and accounting.

McBride says: “If I’d not found Joanna, I’d have struggled. While I can do practical things, accounts and administration are a blind spot. Joanna’s got an amazing ability to learn. She is key to the business having a future.”

Wajid Khan, Burnley’s deputy mayor, says: “It’s great to see a local business that’s adapted to difficult circumstances and is contributing to the economy and employment.” While Lancashire Textiles’ job count does not sound high, Keith Prytharch, general manager at British Velvets, another Burnley textiles business, says: “Given the problems the industry has faced, if you’re employing more than 40 people you’ve got a good business.”

Joanna Mulawka - pictured last year - says the Lancashire Textiles' factory is a "beautiful, amazing place"

After leaving school at 15 with no qualifications and starting out as a factory labourer, McBride says a “life changer” was when Smith & Nephew – the industrial group for which he worked in the 1980s - sent him on a one- year part-time course to learn about cotton processes such as carding and spinning. “I’d always been mechanically minded. The course opened my eyes to acquiring knowledge. It made me think I could make a future in textiles.”

After a range of jobs, McBride started Lancashire Textiles in 2001 in a disused mill in Burnley, built in the 1890s when the town was at the heart of Lancashire’s thriving cotton industry.

While the mill would look ordinary to most people, Mulawka says it is a “beautiful, amazing place”. She adds: “Joe and his company have given me a passion for making things and a belief that the concept of ‘Made in Britain’ is viable. In my earlier years I had been looking for something to put my heart and soul into and I ’ve found it here.”

It was Mulawka – who became a director in 2015 and now owns 10pc of the company with McBride owning the rest – who came up with the idea of making masks.

This was in March, before the real impact of Covid-19 became apparent to most British people. At the time, unlike many people in eastern Europe and Asia, few in Britain thought wearing cloth-based masks in the street or while shopping was a useful way to limit their risk of exposure to the virus.

“After talking to people in Poland, Joanna suggested we started making masks as there seemed a good chance people would want to buy them here as well,” McBride says.

“At first I wasn’t keen. But then we spoke to one of our machinists and she came up with the design. We started making the products, people seemed to like them and now we’re inundated with orders.”

The company would hire more skilled machinists immediately - if it could find them. Photo by Asadour Guzelian

The masks – made from two layers of fabric - are of a type that have become more popular in the UK as concerns have mounted about the escalating effects of the pandemic, even though they are far from the sophistication needed for hospital workers (see accompanying story).

Lancashire Textiles sells its masks online at £9.99 each, with discounts available on some styles. Out of every sale of the main product, £1 is given to the National Health Service.

“I aim to make a profit of about £1 per mask which I don’t think is excessive,” McBride says. “My main aim in doing this is to keep my factory going, employ people and to make products that people find useful.”

As a result of the foray into masks, plus brisk demand in other product lines, Lancashire Textiles’ 2020 sales could reach about £7m, as opposed to the £4m or so McBride envisaged at the start of the year. “I’m struggling to cope [with demand],” he says.

McBride has resisted the temptation to push quality and prices downwards, arguing that aiming at higher quality is the best long-term strategy. All the pillows, cushions and related items the company makes use a special Taiwanese-made fibre - conjugate hollow fibre polyester - for the internal “fill” to provide extra springiness.

“The fibre costs up to twice as much as what’s used by competitors,” McBride says. “While this increases our prices, the extra quality gives us a better market position.”
Sales staff gain most of their orders through the internet (photo taken last year)

Growing internet sales have also been vital to the company’s success. Originally, Lancashire Textiles relied on mail-order companies and retailers for most of its revenues. But by 2019 the internet was responsible for 90 per cent of order volumes, roughly half of these coming via Amazon.

“If we didn’t have the internet I doubt if we’d be in business,” McBride says. “It gives us a direct contact with consumers and allows us to set prices.” But the policy comes with risks. “If you get a bad [online] review and fail to do anything about it you can be in trouble.”

McBride knows many challenges lie ahead, not least keeping his workforce fit and healthy at a time when many are worried about their own and their families’ well-being. He believes, however, that he has shown “textiles manufacturing in the UK can be viable - if you approach it in the right way”.

Mask confusion clouds Covid-19 response

Lancashire Textiles’ move into masks comes amidst a prolonged debate about the effectiveness of protective equipment for coronavirus, both for ordinary people and key workers in hospitals and care homes.

The basic cloth masks made the Burnley company are increasingly being used by people when going shopping or walking in the street.

While medical staff rely on high-quality protective masks, more people are turning to basic versions when walking in the street or going shopping

That is despite government advice that masks are unnecessary and may even be damaging in that they encourage people to believe they have greater protection than is the case and so take more risks.

The UK government’s stance follows the guidance of World Health Organisation, which says wearing rudimentary masks has little impact in reducing exposure to the pathogen.

However, the mayors of London and Liverpool have both called for simple non-medical masks to be made obligatory in public spaces, in line with strict regulations in countries including Austria, Poland, and Czech Republic.

There are three broad types of masks that people use in efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

The most basic type, such as those sold by Lancashire Textiles, are regarded as having only a limited effect in stopping the person wearing them from inhaling the virus or droplets containing it. There is no protection for the eyes – which is a route for the pathogen to enter the body.

However even extremely simple masks – such as an old tee shirt folded into sections – can offer a partial barrier to stop people who are carrying the virus, perhaps unwittingly, from breathing it out.

As a result, rudimentary masks have been touted by some experts as a worthwhile investment for whole populations, not so much to protect the wearer as to safeguard others with whom they may come into contact.

A sewing machinist making cloth masks in Lancashire Textiles' factory - a timely move for the Burnley company. Photo by Asadour Guzelian

At the next level of sophistication are surgical masks, which are closer-fitting and made from better materials. These are designed to be used by medical staff, often in conjunction with other protective gear such as visors and specialised water-repellent gowns.

The third type are respirator masks, which are more sturdily designed and contain filters to prevent tiny particles from entering a person’s respiratory system.

Two of the most common respirator masks are N-95 masks and N-99 masks, which, when used correctly, prevent 95 percent and 99 percent, respectively, of airborne particles from entering a person’s mouth or nose.

Such masks require careful fitting, if they are to work properly, and are generally reserved for medical staff and others in extremely exposed environments, such as when treating Covid-19 patients in intensive care units.

The two more sophisticated types of mask have been the subject of headlines concerning shortages of protective equipment for health and social care workers.

These shortages are made more acute by the fact that very few of these high-spec masks are made in the UK, so huge international demand has limited the supplies available.

In contrast, basic cloth masks should be easy to produce for anyone with a sewing machine. However, ready-made versions are also in short supply, at least in Britain, which explains the rush of orders that Lancashire Textiles has received.