Eric Musgrave

Since 1980, menswear & fashion retail commentator, opinionated thought-leader,
event host & all-round top bloke. Contact me to discuss working together.

British manufacturing: use it or lose it

This is a blog I wrote early in 2016 for the lovely folk at Stewart Christie, Scotland’s oldest bespoke tailor. Talk about supporting UK manufacturers is nice. Actual consistent support and orders for them is better.

Ask many consumers how much clothing and textiles is made in the UK and a large percentage might guess at “nothing at all”. Ask industry people in the know and the likely answer is “more than people think, but not as much as we’d like”.

Despite the received wisdom that everything we wear is made in China or Bangladesh, or Turkey or Italy if you are going upmarket, the British Isles is dotted with companies employing highly skilled, creative and passionate folk who produce cloth, clothing, footwear, accessories, components and all manner of esoteric bits and bobs that most of us take for granted in our wardrobe. Statistics are dodgy, but there may be as many as 100,000 people still working in the clothing and textile trades. They deserve our support.

A huge problem is that most consumers are not aware of what’s still made here and the businesses themselves are not all that brilliant at promoting themselves. Let’s be kind and put it down to natural British reserve. We don’t like to boast. We don’t like to shout about our expertise and achievements. But what is produced on our islands is lauded and revered across the world: Japan, the USA and Europe are vital export markets for British producers.

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in what is made here. Websites like makeitbritish.co.uk and bestofbritannia.com and their related events are providing long-overdue publicity to the hundreds of makers who produce desirable, useful, lovely things here in the UK.

I salute the attitude of retailers like Stewart Christie, which are providing a platform for British products. This is not a sad exercise in nostalgia, or a desire to see us all dress like 1930s fashion plates. It is a realisation that home-made quality products abound across the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic if you take the time to look and are not driven by a crazy imperative to get something for next to nothing.

Scotland is particularly blessed in this regard, whether you consider the Harris Tweed weavers on Lewis, premium cashmere knitters in Hawick and the Borders, leathergoods specialists or tartan producers. A video I fronted for the national promotional body Textile Scotland gives an insight to the amazing work being done in the land of the saltire.

For those of us, like me, who believe in supporting, nurturing and promoting British manufacturing, recent months have not been very uplifting. Robert Noble, the Peebles-based woollen mill, has closed. It had been on its March Street site since 1884 but could trace its lineage back to 1666. The order book has been acquired by Magee, a family-owned weaver in Donegal, Ireland, which is pleasing, but the jobs in the Borders have gone.

Hawick Knitwear, a cashmere specialist, is in administration and most of its 180 employees have been let go. And on Lewis, the Carloway Mill, the smallest of the three main producers of Harris Tweed, is on the brink of financial collapse, despite having had investment from a Chinese concern a couple of years ago. Some 27 jobs are at risk here.

Oddly enough, these depressing stories are helpful in that they shine a spotlight on British, or specifically Scottish, manufacturers. They remind us of what we have and what we have to lose. The sad reality is that once a factory or a mill closes, it is destined never to re-open. The jobs, the skills, the knowledge and the community of employees is dispersed and dissolved.

There is no silver bullet, no grand plan to preserve British manufacturing. It requires a lot of people doing a little bit – consistently – to preserve what we have. Stewart Christie is doing its part by sourcing as much of its wares as possible from the UK. Additionally, it is stimulating and challenging the next generation via a competition for Year 1 HND Textiles students at Edinburgh College to design a waistcoat appropriate to be sold through the shop.

This is a worthy and relevant attempt to encourage the young folk to embrace the craft tradition of their predecessors, to work with British cloths on a quintessential British garment. Those of us who care about our industry know that we cannot expect any hand-outs or particular interest from government in Holyrood or Westminster. Anything we want to achieve, we will have to do it ourselves.

So, if the Made in Scotland or Made in UK label means something to you, look out for it, do your research, and be considerate about what you buy, and from whom. The pictures below was taken at the Caerlee Mills factory in Innerleithen, Scotland that closed in 2013. Better known by its previous name of Ballantyne, it specialised in intricate hand intarsia production. The mill had existed in some form since 1788. A sad loss. If enough of us don’t use our skilled makers, we will lose them. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.

Caerlee_ 43Caerlee_ 33Caerlee_ 28Caerlee_ 14

 

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