Creative concepts in UK textiles for a post-pandemic world
UK textile mills have been embracing new ways of working and developing new products while ensuring sustainability is at the forefront of business decisions, explained a panel of industry leaders at a roundtable as part of UKFT’s British Textile Week 21.
The global pandemic has driven most businesses and industries to do things differently but while the disruption to life as we know it has been challenging, resourceful UK textile companies have taken the opportunity to carve out new niches, streamline processes and explore new markets or applications for their products.
While most export-focused businesses are keen to get back to international travel once things settle down, a greater focus on stock-supported collections, brand story and digital communication tools are some of the changes that are likely to stay for the longer term.
Harnessing new technology
Johnstons of Elgin is a 224-year-old Scottish vertical knitting and weaving business, which supplies luxury brands around the world as well as selling under its own label. The company’s CEO Simon Cotton said: “The need to innovate and keep up with a very quickly changing market demand is very significant. We’ve seen more change in the products people are looking for than ever before.”
“We’ve invested in six jacquard looms over the last year and we’re seeing a massive shift in new knitting technology,” said Simon. “Homes are a much bigger category and there is a huge shift to comfort and leisurewear.”
Developing new products
Suffolk-based David Walters Fabrics specialises in the design and manufacture of high-quality jacquard fabrics for furnishing collections, with 10 generations of family history and 300 years of weaving innovation.
The company has developed a new stain-resistant and water-resistant range of fabrics for outdoors, created using a new yarn on its existing looms.
“This means we have our whole archive to use in this new technology,” said sales director Ceri Yates. “It was developed in response to people being at home more and increased demand for home furnishings.”
London-based bespoke embroidery specialist Hand & Lock, a 250-year-old company which typically supplies high-end fashion, interiors and military customers, found new opportunities in people wanting to learn new craft skills as they spent more time at home.
“A lot of our customers are B2C so we spent a lot of time teaching online classes, creating a new online platform for people to come and learn skills and really understand the process behind what we are making,” said production director Jessica Pile. “We have also developed a new range of embroidery kits which is a new area of the business for us. It has been interesting to know people want to learn more about how things are made and how they are sustainable.”
Focusing on innovation
Abraham Moon is a vertical woollen mill based in Guiseley, Yorkshire, which sells a wide variety of UK-manufactured apparel and furnishing fabrics and accessories all around the world.
Judith Coates, design director at the 184-year-old company, said: “We have recognised the need for more lighter weight fabrics and more luxury fabrics. We are innovating as much as we can. We’re trying to use the yarn types we have already but use them in a different way. We’re innovating all the time because we see that as the future. Our more core products can be stock supported. It’s essential to move forward.”
Sarah Munday, designer at Taylor and Lodge, agreed. “We’re doing a similar thing with established warps and trialling new wefts to create new products.”
Taylor and Lodge specialises in the manufacture of luxury fine worsted fabrics for tailored garments at its original Huddersfield mill in Yorkshire. Its four brands (Taylor and Lodge, Arthur Harrison, Edwin Woodhouse and HF Hartley) supply international tailors and fashion houses with seasonal and cut length collections.
MYB Textiles, meanwhile, is an internationally renowned weaver of madras and lace sheers, panels and blankets, based in Ayrshire, Scotland since 1900. “We have the largest looms in the world, with a Nottingham lace loom that is more than 12m wide and over 100 years old,” said design director Margo Graham.
“Most recently, we’ve been working with a few academic researchers on light-emitting fabrics for our contacts in the theatre industry.
“We are seeing new demand from a lot of movies being made in the UK at the moment,” she added. “We have set designers for both the UK and the US looking for Scottish textiles with a quick turnaround, which is a new area for us.”
Looking to new markets
UK textiles are sold all around the world and while the pandemic has paused many international sales trips and exhibitions, this has not stopped UK firms exploring new markets.
“China and South Korea are becoming more interesting markets for us in the last year or so,” explained Judith Coates of Abraham Moon. “They are particularly interested in the stock support fabrics that we have and immediate deliveries.”
Kari Stanley-Smith, head of sales and marketing at Taylor and Lodge added: “The Middle East is a very important market for our luxury worsted fabrics, selling to shops that sell fabric in cut lengths for dishdash. There is great demand for Made in England on the selvedge. Trips usually start in January to secure orders that will be manufactured in May/June/July to be despatched August and September.”
Flying the British flag
Laurent Garigue is the director of the London-based family run business Laurent Garigue Partnership, which has been operating since 1947.
“We supply haute couture and ready-to-wear designers in Paris and further afield, but convert most of our fabric in the UK,” he said. “We are very proud that when we send our fabrics to our agents all around the world, we are very much flying the British flag.”
Telling the story behind the brand
The pandemic has brought marketing and digital communication to the fore, as customers – both B2B and B2C – spent more time online. Many UK companies boast an incredible heritage but lack a strong digital presence, although this has been changing in recent years. Nevertheless, the last 18 months has created a new urgency for firms to tell their authentic story, engage with new customers online and embrace new digital platforms.
“We have realised how important it is to have a really strong message about what we do,” said Judith of Abraham Moon. “We’ve recently appointed a brand manager and it is amazing the difference it makes because it is holding together the marketing, design and production in a clear message. The pandemic has also pushed us to become more digital in our presentations because it is an absolute must. We have really fine-tuned these now and we’re going to carry on with it even when we start travelling again properly. It is just a back-up for all of our collections and a fantastic archive for us and our customers to look at.”
Ceri Yates of Stephen and David Walters said: “We do a lot of these things but sometimes forget to tell people what we’re doing. But when we do something, it is about having the pride in what we do and making sure we speak about it.”
Liz Harper, sales and marketing manager at County Brook mill, which weaves coloured wovens in natural fibres on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border, said: “The brand story and the passion of what we all do has never been more important.”
Embracing changing seasons and buying patterns
The fashion calendar was already under pressure before the pandemic added fresh disruption to the traditional buying seasons. Now buyers are typically looking to buy smaller runs, much closer to the season and many would argue this is a change that is here to stay. As such, UK apparel textile companies have been adjusting their production schedules to meet changing demand.
Abraham Moon’s Judith Coates said: “We used to just design for spring/summer and autumn/winter but we can’t rely on that now. We have to have pre-collections, which are probably more important than the main collections for both seasons, so we have to design so much earlier. The seasons are shorter now, our customers are selecting less bulk in each season and more items. That’s certainly something we have had to embrace and we can’t ignore.
Ruth Masson, marketing manager for Harris Tweed Hebrides, said: “We would agree with that too. Harris Tweed is very much a winter fabric and we haven’t moved into spring/summer so we have noticed that the season is a lot earlier than it used to be. People are expecting to see a pre-collection.”
Ruth explained that customers buying Harris Tweed mainly appreciate the longer lead times given it is a handwoven fabric but admits that managing expectations can be a challenge in newer markets such as China.
“We now have a stock support collection that is much larger than it ever used to be and it is important that we use that as a base,” added Judith from Abraham Moon. “Immediate deliveries are being asked for all the time and I don’t think it is just down to the Covid-19 situation with customers leaving it until the last minute to make decisions. I really think it is here to stay.”
Making real progress on sustainable initiatives
The UK’s longstanding textile industry is generally well positioned when it comes to ethical production and environmental impact, often using natural materials, local supply chains and skilled craftspeople. However, more recently companies are pursuing new initiatives to improve processes and measure impact in order to tell this story effectively.
“This is something we have really embraced over the last year,” said Simon Cotton of Johnstons of Elgin. “We’ve always tried to do business in the right way but over the last year, we have pushed that to the front of our agenda. Over this pandemic period, we have gone from sustainability being something that there were a small number of companies leaning into and making a difference, to being the first question we get asked about whenever you have a customer meeting. Some of our customers from the biggest fashion houses in the world don’t want to talk about product anymore, they want to talk about our sustainability initiatives and understand what is going into their products.”
He said there is a huge amount of greenwashing going on and it is difficult for consumers to cut through that.
“The challenge for us all is to avoid the temptation to say everything is perfect because we’re doing one thing. We need to be honest about it and to push it every single day and in every aspect of what we do.”
Championing responsible production
He added: “There are certain things now that we are asked to do anyway and gradually those requirements are increasing from our key customers but there are also things where you have to lean in and do it because you know it is required for the future. It’s not just altruistic, it is now a case of the business needs and the environmental needs are now aligned for the first time – certainly in that premium luxury end of the market. In the luxury market, the expectation from customers who are paying a lot of money for something is that they want to know that someone has put a lot of thought into how it is being made and they are doing it in the most responsible way they can.”
The Campaign for Wool is often used as a sounding board by consumers asking about wool and wool textiles, explained the campaign’s business development manager Marshall Allender.
“Consumers are becoming incredibly educated about the various issues and they are asking a lot of tough questions, wanting to know where the fibre is coming from,” he said. “We have had some people ask in the case of Merino wool, what is the station that it came from. As anyone in the textile industry knows, it is very hard to tell and if you can tell, it is incredibly expensive but I think this is only going to continue. As an industry we are going to have to think about this and tackle it together.”
Harris Tweed Hebrides is currently involved in a traceability trial which would trace the fibre back to a UK farm, explained marketing manager Ruth Masson. “Eventually we could provide a booklet or QR code that consumers could scan to find out all the details about that product.”
Meanwhile London-based bespoke embroidery specialist Hand & Lock has been working with a company to create a thread that is dyed as it goes through the embroidery machine to minimise waste thread.
“It’s been a really fun project for us to create a more sustainable process and not throw away thread when embroidering,” said Jessica Pile, production director at the 250-year old company, which offers bespoke embroidery for interiors, fashion and military.
Looking back to move forward
However others have been reviving old techniques for a new age, such as Yorkshire-based ‘iinouiio’ (acronym: it is never over until it is over) which will soon be offering a service to UK manufacturers for recycling wool and cashmere waste into fibres, yarns and fabrics from Autumn 2021.
iinouiio has recently installed the first wool and luxury fibre recycling line (for re-spinning) since the last one in the UK closed during 2000, explained director and co-founder Dr John Parkinson. It is located within the premises of A W Hainsworth & Sons Ltd, one of the UK’s oldest woollen manufacturers, dating back to 1783.
Paul Alger, director of International Business at UKFT, said: “The UK has a fantastic story to tell the world. Once mislabelled as a “twilight” industry by government, it is now at the forefront of a resurgent UK fashion and textile industry as it builds new commercial relationships around the world. In addition to ensuring that garments and products made in the UK qualify for UK origin and, therefore, “preference” under the UK’s new trade agreements, from the EU to Japan and from Canada to South Korea and many more, British textiles are a respected source of sustainability and ethical production, creating quality jobs throughout the UK. British and international designers and many of the world’s luxury houses look to the UK as the industry offers the highest quality of design and manufacture, inspired by our long heritage but looking very optimistically to the future.”