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Is it time for a resurgence in UK Textile Manufacturing?

Posted by: Elena Craigie

Textile production in the UK peaked in 1926, with the business model that had carried Britain through the industrial revolution changing rapidly, and the invention of a wide variety of new materials affecting production. After the outbreak of WWI, exports dropped and countries further afield began to open their own factories – countries where labour costs were lower, including China and India.

One problem, which contributes to holding back the UK’s textile manufacturing industry, is a lack of skills. Britain was once the global leader in textile manufacturing: 851,000 people were employed in 1979; the figure in 2013 stood at 85,000 (ONS, 17th October 2014). Of course, some of this is accountable to mechanisation and productivity increases, but output has fallen by around 65% during this time period, too. To really bring back textile manufacturing in any way that would have a real impact on supply chains, serious funding (and marketing!) into replacing the skills that have been lost would be needed; but, why should we bring manufacturing back to the UK when labour is so much cheaper overseas?

Even within the UK manufacturing sector, wages are lower in textiles than in many other areas.

But within recent years some have found that within mid-priced clothing it can be just as profitable to manufacture in the UK, where higher wages are offset by supply chain efficiencies. What’s more, wages in the East are rising, and consumers are beginning to demand transparency where environmental considerations and workers' rights are concerned, in particular in response to the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy, in which 1,129 Bangladeshi garment workers were killed after structurally unsafe cracks were negligibly ignored in a factory in Dhaka, which subsequently collapsed. 

Manufacturing here in the UK is essential for our long term economic growth; we cannot depend solely on service industry exports if we want to continue to be a global economic leader – and with initiatives such as Let’s Make It Here gaining traction in the market, is it finally time to return textile manufacturing on a large scale?


Drapers, 10 November 2012
Cara and Westley, 10 April 2012
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