In the early twentieth century, West Yorkshire was the textile manufacturing portal to the world, and the city of Bradford, the global capital for wool. Kate Abnett travelled to West Yorkshire, to visit the remaining mills and find out if manufacturing on home turf is a viable option for independent fashion designers (spoiler: it absolutely is)…
Textile mills were once the lifeblood of West Yorkshire’s communities. These hard blackened buildings were an inseparable part of the landscape, looming over its villages like dark protectors, and offering thousands of Yorkshiremen and women security and stable incomes, in exchange for damned hard work.
Today, though the buildings still loom, most are empty. There are less than six working mills here, where there once were hundreds. When high street clothing boomed in late twentieth century, textile production leaked out of the UK to China and India, where the ability to produce vast quantities of fabric and cheaper labour beckoned.
Three years ago, Woolmark – the international quality standard for wool – launched a project to introduce young designers to the manufacturing facilities and their doorstep. Each year, the ‘Loom to London’ initiative takes an up-and-coming British design talent to visit select UK mills, to improve their understanding of textiles production, and their relationships with sourcing contacts in the UK.
This year, UK label Teatum Jones took part, following in the footsteps of Lou Dalton and Agi & Sam, and marking the first year a womenswear brand has made the trip. I headed up north with Catherine Teatum and Rob Jones, the designers behind the label, to see British manufacturing first-hand.
Textiles and Tea
Visiting Stanley Mills textile mill in Bradford feels like going back in time. Pint bottles of milk with foil lids wait expectantly on the building’s front step, and inside, the workmen’s tables are spread with mugs of tea and copies of the Daily Star. A can of tinned prunes conspicuously sits by the staff microwave.
We walk by machines that dispense earplugs like sweets, to the main mill, where vicious looking looms loaded with spools of wool judder, and emerge in a room where a team of middle aged women introduced to us as ‘The Menders’ are pulling huge lengths of fabric over white tables, looking and feeling for impurities; the walls behind them a backdrop of family photos and Nile Rodgers posters torn from tabloids.
It’s a far cry from the catwalk, but don’t be fooled by the quaintness of the setting. Stanley Mills makes some of the finest textiles in the world, for clients including Prada, Armani, Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton. 700 years of textile tradition runs in the blood of this place, and some of the fabrics they produce – we see swatches of a complex fine jacquard – cannot be manufactured anywhere else.
David Gallimore is the Managing Director of Luxury Fabrics Ltd, a merchant supplier that works with Stanley Mills. “When I started in the late 1980s, the company that I joined employed 900 people,” he says. “It’s massively decreased. The industry’s shrunk and what you have now are the specialists. They are the people who can commercially take on the rest of the world and produce fabrics that compete on quality design and class. And that’s where we are.”
The UK’s Upper Hand
Despite the bargain price of overseas manufacturing, there are clear advantages to sourcing fabrics in the UK. “We’ve always been very passionate about developing and working in the UK. It’s something we’ve very proud of,” says designer Rob Jones, who notes the practical advantages of having Teatum Jones’ factory just outside of London – if there is a problem, he can get the train there in under an hour.
The transit time that it takes to import materials from China makes it very tricky to make last minute changes to an order, and short of hopping on a long haul flight, designers have very limited input in their production when it’s overseas.
UK textile manufacturers are arguably more eco-friendly, working under much stricter legislation than factories in the developing world, where certain chemicals banned by EU law are still in use. The impact of such processes on the fabric is such that Yorkshire’s mills – where the soft water in the region means chemical processes can be kept to a minimum – are often approached by clients to do corrective work on fabric that comes back from abroad.
The biggest advantage UK mills offer independent designers is their willingness to do ‘small business’. While overseas factories demand minimum orders as high as 10,000 metres, UK mills are more open to processing small quantities of fabric.
“We’d love to have a minimum of 100,000 metres, but it doesn’t work like that, does it,” laughs Nigel Birch, Product Development Manager at WT Johnson & Sons, a finishing mill in Huddersfield where fabrics are cleaned, dyed and treated, ready to be made into clothes. “For our loyal customers we regularly process material that’s five metres long. One of the things that works for us is that we are accommodating. We try to say yes to everyone.”
A Return to the Glory Days?
Since the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, when a garment factory collapsed, killing 1,133 people, there has been a considerable amount of press proposing that manufacturing will reshore to the developed world. With many brands expending PR miles to promote their ‘locally made’ credentials, and customers more aware of the ethics of their purchases, it would seem that the UK is on the cusp of a clothing manufacturing resurgence.
David Gallimore is not convinced. “The big problem is, once you take manufacturing out, you can’t just put it back in,” he counsels. “It’s not just a question of ‘let’s start a factory’; it’s a question of spending millions of pounds to start a factory and employ the staff. And that just doesn’t happen very easily.”
Government support for the textiles sector is scarce, and an attempt to open a garment factory in Castleford is currently struggling to get off the ground due to lack of funding. “Governments who are just about to be re-elected aren’t willing invest in a long-term plan, that might help thousands of families in the Yorkshire area – but in ten years time,” says Marcia Jennings, Sales Director at Luxury Fabrics Ltd.
Despite their firm grounding in tradition, Yorkshire’s mills are keen to work with designers in innovative ways; WT Johnson’s textile conquests include weaving 24 carat gold into material for a £700,000 suit, finishing textiles for Japanese clients with microscopic particles of precious jade, and working with a Scottish customer to lace their fabrics with whiskey.
The real problem is that most young designers – and fashion students – don’t even know these places exist. Many outsource production, assuming the UK wouldn’t be a viable option for manufacturing – but the mills themselves are keen to work with young talent. “You’ve got to promote, assist and help them to become an integral part of the fashion industry,” says David at Stanley Mills. “They’re not all going to be the next big thing, but you never know.”
Nigel Birch encourages young designers to approach the mills – these companies pride themselves on having personal relationships with their clients – they want talk them through the facilities, discuss their sourcing needs and work out how to accommodate them – in person, not via email.
“The theory that we work on is you never know where they’re going to end up,” he says. “They could be the next big thing, and create a lot of business for us. And hopefully, we give them a tour round, we impress them, and they turn around and say, ‘the only place we finish fabrics is WT Johnson.’ That’s the aim.”