British Textile Manufacturing – an industry almost extinct?

 Read this excellent article on how designers and textile professionals are becoming obsolete in Britain. This is very true for the new generation of young designers!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The decline of British textiles manufacturing and it’s implications on generational unemployment!


After a recent visit to my hometown, Lancaster, I have been reflecting on the differences between the South of England and the North in terms of employment rates, values, style choices, and attitudes towards work!I think I have got to the point where I have thought about it enough to form my own opinions and write a blog entry and what I have found!

A friend was recently talking to me about how the textiles industry was one of the main building blocks of the British empire and how the North West, where I’m originally from, played such a key role in this. 

Left: British textile mill, Right: Inside Standfast&Barracks.

Perhaps this is the reason for my recent interest in the decline of British textiles manufacture or possibly my previous employment in one of Britain’s few remaining textile’s factories (Standfast&Barracks) but working for a fashion supplier in London and seeing how competitive garment manufacture is has made me curious about how the British textiles industry got to its current state!

Throughout the 18th Century Britain was determined to lead the Textile industry and lead it did!The 18th century saw the development of machines like the Spinning Jenny (Hargreaves 1764), the power loom (Cartwright- 1785) and roller printing(1780’s), and with laws forbidding the export of English textiles machinery, including sketches, this suppressed textile machinery development in other countries. Britain was leading in textiles manufacture. 

Left to right: spinning jenny, power loom and roller printing.

The industrial revolution saw the British textiles manufacturing industry at its most successful, and the majority of the manufacture throughout this period was focused on Manchester and Lancashire.British manufacture peaked in the early 1900’s and if we look at this area of the country now, however, the only evidence of a booming textiles industry is found in the converted mill buildings.

Left to right: Houldsworth Mill Reddish, Manningham Mill Bradford and The Royal Mill in Manchester. All of which have been converted into Luxury apartments. 

During WW1(1914-18) Britain was unable to export cotton overseas and as a result of this countries that had before been dependent on the UK’s cotton manufacture began setting up their own factories. 
Japan is a perfect example of this, not only did it begin to produce its own cotton, it did so in a more inexpensive way than Britain. By 1933 Japan had become the world’s largest cotton manufacturer. Alongside this was the introduction of synthetic fibres to Britain- Rayon in 1910 and Nylon in 1935 this meant that there was less demand for the luxury fabrics Britain was renowned for. 

Between WW1 and WW2 around 800 UK mills closed as a result of the lack of demand for British cotton. In direct relation with this, employment figures dropped. I am not claiming that a decrease in UK textiles manufacturing is solely responsible for UK unemployment, the 1920’s also saw a decrease in the demand for coal mining, other issues obviously have to be taken into account but it definitely played a large role.

The 1960’s/70’s saw a further decline in UK textiles manufacture with mills closing across Lancashire at a rate of almost one every week! By the 1980’s the Textile industry in the North West had practically vanished, in correlation with this the 1980’s saw Britain’s highest ever rates of unemployment.

As a result of the recession; the dependence on the post war welfare state; the closures of traditional manufacturing industries in the 1980’s and the mass unemployment that followed, a permanent ‘underclass’ has evolved through generational unemployment. This group is largely accepted to be unemployable due to bad education and social background. 

It is this group that the disintegration of UK manufacture has affected most. This is not to say that everyone who works in a manufacturing industry belongs to this ‘underclass’, I myself have worked in a factory previous to my current job, nor to say that everyone in this new ‘underclass’ would fit well in a factory environment, but working in the manufacturing industry is inclusive regardless of education or background.

In an article I read recently on the daily mail website (, A N Wilson states:

” The truth is that…Britain has lost it’s work ethic. In fact, it has lost its working class in the literal sense of the expression…. welfare brought not well-being, but a dependancy culture which sapped the wills of the formerly hard-working people of this country. it brought boredom and, as a result, alcohol and drugs. for the first time in history, there was a lower class which was both idle, and rich enough, through benefits, to partake of narcotics such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin- in the past the preserve of decadent upper class bohemians.”

This seems to depict the new underclass perfectly but it is only learnt behaviour- if you are brought up with a strong work ethic this will stay with you throughout your life, the same can be said of people who are brought up without no work ethic. Generational unemployment, a result of outsourcing manufacturing industries, has led to mass unemployment and reliance on state benefits. This controversial topic has had a lot of media exposure recently (channel 4’s ‘skint’, BBC’s ‘we all pay your benefits’) exploiting the already existing tensions between the taxpayers and those reliant on government benefits. generally the taxpayers view this ‘underclass’ as having been:

” Pampered, hopelessly demoralized by doles, old age pensions, free education etc (this notion) is still widely held, it has merely been a little shaken perhaps, by the recent recognition that unemployment does exist.”


Left: ‘Skint’ Channel 4 series, Right: ‘We all pay your benefits’ BBC series.

In my opinion the only logical way for Britain to reduce unemployment rates is to introduce the ‘underclass’ back into the employment system and in order to create enough jobs to do this, Britain has to return to using British manufacture, particularly in the Textiles industry.

After working for a fashion supplier for 6 months I understand the implications of relying on UK manufacture: the quality of garments aren’t as strong as in China and the price doesn’t match production prices of Turkey and India. Despite this, UK factories can respond to new designs 3 times as fast as factories overseas and with the current nature of the fashion industry being so fast this is something they should use to their advantage. The British Textiles manufacturing industry needs to focus on training its workforce to be highly skilled and capable of producing the luxury fabrics/garments Britain once excelled in.

At the moment there is an increased awareness about UK textiles manufacture and the importance of bringing the textiles industry back to Britain. New emerging designers, House of Hackney for example who produce their fabric at Standfast&Barracks(where I used to work!) are turning to UK manufacture, hopefully this is the start of a textiles manufacture reformation in the UK. 

House of Hackney manufactures it’s quirky printed fabric in the UK. Stockists include: Selfridges, Liberty’s, Urban outfitters and ASOS.

I urge everyone who reads this to take into consideration where their new dress/trousers/bag was manufactured. If we are all willing to pay a little extra for a garment manufactured in the UK we could encourage the high street chains to produce their collections in Britain, encouraging factories to stay open and preventing any further job cuts. Maybe it isn’t too late to restore Britain’s proud, hard-working working class?


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