British cotton is once again being spun in Manchester following a multimillion-pound investment in a new mill. Drapers explores the opportunities and challenges facing textile reshoring.
Centuries before Manchester became a hub for fast fashion, it was the heart of Britain’s textile trade. Boohoo, Missguided and In The Style are just some of the etailers with Mancunian headquarters today, but at the time of the Industrial Revolution, the city’s red-brick buildings were home to cotton mills.
Mill after mill shut up shop for good in the later decades of the 20th century, as retailers found cheaper alternatives to British cotton in India and China. The last mills closed their doors in the early 1980’s, but after years of absence, cotton spinning has now returned to Manchester. Following a £5.8m investment – £2.8m of its own investment, £2m from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s investment fund and £1m from the government’s Textiles Growth Fund – technical textiles company Culimeta-Saveguard launched English Fine Cottons in 2015. Test production at its Dunkinfield mill started in July 2016 and in December last year, it opened for business.
“We didn’t set off on a mission to revive the UK textile industry – a lot of thought went into opening the mill and we thought it was a good investment because of changes in the market,” explains Tracy Hawkins, business development manager.
“The project came to fruition before Brexit, but that is another factor that can only really benefit us. Retailers are worrying about the cost of bringing in raw goods from overseas and the exchange rate is another concern. The exchange rate works in our favour when we’re selling abroad and there are a lot of international markets, particularly Japan, that are very interested in British heritage and quality.”
The launch comes as green shoots emerge for the wider UK textile manufacturing industry. Textile reshoring was described as “real and growing” by Sir Vince Cable, former secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, in April last year, following a report from the Textiles Growth Fund programme that found the industry has the potential to add £500m to the UK’s economy by 2020. The programme, which invests in areas with a history of textile manufacturing, including Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, has been hailed as one of the most successful Regional Growth Fund projects to date.
More good news for UK textile manufacturing came at the end of last year, when a report from campaign Make it British found average production was up 25% and half of the 100 fashion and textile manufacturers surveyed had seen turnover increase in 2017 compared to 2016. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union could provide a further boost.
Kate Hills, a former buyer for Marks & Spencer and Burberry and founder of Make it British, which supports UK manufacturing, agrees Brexit is an opportunity for textiles reshoring: “Locally sourced yarn means retailers aren’t at the mercy of currency fluctuations or economic disasters in cotton-sourcing countries, and everyone is looking for less trouble in their supply chains. However, the biggest challenge is still finding the right skills.”
Hawkins stresses that it is the quality of the mills’ cotton, rather than speed to market, that has proved the biggest draw for brands and retailers. As well as producing cotton yarn, the mill also produces woven fabrics and coloured yarns used in knitwear and underwear.
Retailers and brands are already on board. English Fine Cottons’ biggest customer, a luxury fashion brand, has asked to remain anonymous, but the mill provides Cavalry Twill shirting fabric for M&S’s made-to-measure menswear range. It has also worked premium menswear labels Private White VC – which is made in Manchester – and Sunspel.
“The country of origin [for cotton] doesn’t stand for anything unless the quality is superb,” explains Private White VC owner James Eden, which uses English Fine Cottons in its shirting, jersey and T-shirts. “You can make textiles in the UK but if the quality and the performance don’t stack up, you don’t have a scalable business you can grow. We worked with English Fine Cottons because of its provenance and the quality. We already use fabrics woven in the UK, but the thought of also using cotton spun in the UK resonated with us.”
However, he argues the opportunities for British-made textiles remain limited.
“I do believe that, on a national scale, textile reshoring will be niche and very, very small compared with what it used to be. First and foremost, that is just because of the cost of doing business here. Most consumers will be resistant to higher prices [in clothing.] Some customers can afford to buy into provenance and the charm of something crafted in the UK, but there’s a limit.”
Elsewhere in UK textiles, womenswear brand and manufacturer David Nieper, a long-time champion of British-made product, is in the early stages of developing its own fabric-printing facility at its Derbyshire base. Planning permission has been secured and, if the plans go ahead, it will be the first jersey-printing factory in the UK.
“The pendulum is starting to swing back to the UK a little bit,” explains managing director Christopher Nieper. “We’ve opened a knitwear plant and a cutting factory, and the next step for us is a fabric printing factory.
The pendulum is starting to swing back to the UK a little bit
Christopher Nieper, David Nieper
“It would give us more control: if we buy fabric from a mill in another country, you might have a minimum order of 600 metres but end up needing significantly more or less than that, creating a huge amount of waste.
“It will also protect us from currency fluctuations and mean we control the quality of the base cloth. I don’t think we need to go as far growing cotton or having sheep in the fields round here for our own wool, but this is a logical next step.”
Nieper urges more retailers to take their supply chains into their own hands: “All retailers should control their supply chains – it gives them the benefit of shorter lead times, a guarantee of ethical production and protection against currency swings.”
There are certainly opportunities ahead for British textiles, but there is still a long way to go before the scale of the industry can hold a candle to Manchester’s heyday. Currency swings and the opportunity to have a stronger grip on supply chains make UK textiles tempting for retailers, but higher prices, skills gaps and the industry’s small scale remain challenges. The sector must grasp the advantages offered by Brexit with both hands if it is to have a real future.
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