John Spencer Textiles: A UK weaver with a forward-thinking approach
Burnley-based John Spencer Textiles has the technical expertise and flexible approach to weave almost any fibre, creating fabrics for a huge range of markets and applications.
The company, which has been operating in the Lancashire town for 150 years, serves a wide array of niche markets with woven fabrics for blankets, curtains and cushions, through to ballistic stab vests, firefighter suits, taekwondo suits, composite bearings, suiting, baby slings, prestige car seating and mattresses.
“Using our technical know-how and experience of the weaving process which has been built up over 150 years, we can create almost any woven fabric for any application,” explained chairman David Collinge, who is the sixth generation owner of the mill which was originally founded by his great great great grandfather. “We focus on the technical performance of fabrics and also the aesthetic attributes, producing here in the UK with real attention to detail and raw materials that have been sourced ethically.”
Sister company Ian Mankin specialises in a stock service of designer furnishing fabrics made in the UK with no minimums, which are all woven at John Spencer’s UK mill. The company is known for its stylish interpretations of natural and organic fabrics in a simple yet timeless palette of colours.
“During the weaving process we add no chemicals – so the only finishing treatment given is a wash in pure Pennine water,” said David. It was a move that has resonated with Ian Mankin’s customer base, which includes trade customers and the general public.
The home furnishings category experienced tremendous growth during the COVID-19 pandemic as consumers moved house or renovated their existing homes during the various lockdowns.
“Our online business at Ian Mankin grew by 250% during the pandemic and our trade customers increased their orders too,” said marketing manager Debbie Fish.
“Now our focus is on meeting that demand and securing raw materials at the right time and price,” said David. But the group is up for the challenge and prides itself on being flexible and adaptable to turn its hand to new opportunities.
“That’s what has kept us in business all these years,” he added.
The company also produces a range of throws and blankets for trade customers including independent boutiques, brands and retailers, in customers’ own designs or stock designs which can be customised. The range includes Merino lambswool and cotton blends, recycled cotton and recycled wool with a minimum order of just 25. The blankets are woven, sewn and finished in house.
John Spencer is the last weaving mill to be based in Burnley’s Weavers Triangle and has its origins in producing cotton base cloths used for printed apparel fabrics. At its peak, the town was home to 190 weaving mills which had more than 100,000 looms, of which John Spencer boasted 2,442. But as large retailers and customers began to take their orders offshore, the business was forced to diversify into new niche markets and applications.
Today the business has two warping machines and 28 looms (dobby and jacquard rapier), plus sewing capability for production of its throws and blankets. Fabrics can be woven up to a maximum width of 218cm with a maximum of six weft colours. The group has a workforce of 50 people, with production split across two shifts.
John Spencer was the first UK cotton weaving mill to be awarded Soil Association and Global Organic Textile Standard accreditation and can offer both natural coloured and yarn-dyed cotton textiles that are organic at every stage from farm to fabric.
In the mill when UKFT visited, the company was producing a wide range of fabrics designed for a dizzying set of end uses, from antistatic workwear for oil tanker drivers through to mattresses, luxury blankets, baby slings and more. The company works on a variety of R&D projects for customers and has gained a UK patent for a fabric designed to top mattresses featuring a cotton warp and wool weft, which passes all fire retardancy tests with no additional finishes.
John Spencer is continuing to invest in the business, with a new warping machine due to be installed later this month to upgrade and expand production. The company has recently acquired an additional loom and updated its air conditioning unit to provide optimum conditions for working with linen yarns.
Maintaining and enhancing the skills of the workforce is also a priority for John Spencer, which encourages a steady stream of new employees and apprentices working their way through the various roles in the mill. As the business works on so many different types of products, flexibility is key which means that while employees are highly skilled they can often turn their hands to a variety of roles too. There are multiple generations of employees working within the factory and it is encouraging to see so many young people in a mill.
“Now we are specialising in areas where we can provide a niche service for customers, mostly in the UK but also around the world,” said David. “We make fabrics that customers want, which are made to order for them. We try to produce in an environmentally-friendly way, offering customers the transparency of ethical UK production, using recycled materials as much as we can to back up the organic status we have.”
He added: “We’re never going to be the cheapest but we find that people will pay for quality and a product that exactly meets their requirements. We’re trying to encourage an ethos of buy well and buy once.”
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