As consumers’ environmental awareness grows, designers are beginning to share the spotlight with those who make the clothes
On the factory floor at Pittards in Yeovil, Marta, Gabbie and Gabriella are working together on a new product. They fasten strengthening layers to the leather base of a cylindrical handbag, attach a shiny brass zip, and handpaint seams so that the raw edges of the hide match the lipstick-red surface.
Pittards employs more than 150 people and does brisk business in baseball gloves, dog leads and walking boots, but the bag being made today comes with a waiting list and a £350 price tag. The Somerset Love bag, designed by Alice Temperley and named for the county where it is made, represents a new movement in the British fashion industry. Designers and models are beginning to share the spotlight with the people who actually make the clothes, bags and shoes.
As consumer awareness grows around the environmental impact of fashion and the welfare of the world’s garment workers – the awareness that clothes do not appear in a puff of smoke, direct from a sketchpad and on to Kate Moss – scrutiny is shifting away from the designing of clothes and on to the making of them. Meanwhile, the benefits of shorter supply chains are challenging the centrifugal forces of globalisation, encouraging more fashion designers to switch to local manufacturing. The catwalk is so last season; the new era of British fashion is all about the factory.
Pittards, which began as a glove factory in 1826, is a solidly traditional establishment where desks with computers are outnumbered by those with ledgers and calculators. Diana on the front desk has worked for the company for 54 years.
“Working with Alice gives us visibility,” says Pittards’ chief executive, Reg Hankey. “There is a very real sense of ownership of what we make, and it’s nice for our staff to go home to their families and be able to show them the handbag they are making on Instagram.”
After 18 years of living and designing in London and outsourcing manufacturing to Italy, Temperley has moved manufacture of accessories and outerwear to Somerset with the aim of establishing “a more sustainable way of working, partnering with local factories and building a more efficient and more transparent supply chain.” Accessories, outerwear and wedding dress embroidery are now being produced at factories within a few miles of Temperley’s Ilminster headquarters, which houses her studio, a shop and a cocktail bar whose signature drinks are made with local cider brandy.
For decades the fashion industry chased the cheapest needle around the world, abandoning British manufacturing in the process. Supply chains see garments crisscross the globe. Linen grown in Europe is shipped to Asia to be dyed before returning to Europe to be made into shirts. Plastic buttons manufactured in China are transported to Italy to be wrapped in fabric before being sent to Portugal to be attached to clothes. The high carbon cost of such journeys is exacerbated by wastefulness when, due to a lengthy lead time, the finished product is out of date by the time the label is sewn on.
Complex and opaque supply chains have enabled abuse of the basic human rights of many of the world’s 85 million garment workers, by allowing the industry to evade responsibility. Brands outsource production to workplaces where they have little oversight, while consumers know little of where their clothes are made beyond a country name printed in a label. Last year, revelations of conditions in Leicester’s garment district, where employees were denied the minimum wage and faced unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, exposed the global scale of the scandal.
But consumer pressure, and increasing political heat in the wake of Keir Starmer’s pledge that a Labour government would “buy British”, are firing interest in responsible and transparent local manufacture. John Lewis, the high street giant and a bellwether of British public opinion, has recently begun selling menswear by Community Clothing, a social enterprise brand founded by the designer Patrick Grant. Community Clothing pieces are entirely made in the UK, providing employment in 31 factories around the country.
“Fifteen years ago I visited a fashion factory in Nicaragua which was guarded by a man with a machine gun,” recalls Deborah Bee, an ex-fashion editor and founder of the knitwear company Bee & Sons. “The women worked from 8am until 6pm and were only allowed a short lunch break and one toilet break.” When Bee launched her label, making cardigans in natural yarn designed to be fully recyclable, she partnered with Mansfield’s Corah Textiles factory, which employs about 20 people. “It is manufacturing, but on a craftsmanship scale. It’s important to me that I can turn up unannounced and have a chat and a relationship with the people making my clothes.”
Corah Textiles’ employees at work on their knitting machines are the stars of a video on the Bee & Sons website, while Temperley dreams of putting the Swiss Tulle factory in Chard, which she employs for wedding dress production, in the spotlight as a catwalk venue. “It feels like a magical place – like a fairytale. Wouldn’t this be an incredible location for a show?” Temperley asks, gesturing across a cavernous building where 180-year-old machines with the size and majesty of steam engines crank and whir.
The designer Lauren Grant’s S.A.R.K. silk shirts featuring ring pulls, fake nails and pill capsules in place of conventional buttons are all made in small London factories. “When I’ve got a new pattern I take pastries in to the team and we problem-solve together, working out how to minimise waste. Then once production has started I can try a shirt on to check the fit and make any adjustments. I like the practicality of that, and my customers appreciate the sustainability,” says Grant.
O Pioneers , a slow fashion label whose prairie-style dresses made from “deadstock” (fabric that has been unused, or unsold, from previous seasons) have been worn by Carrie Johnson, partners with small factories and individual seamstresses. “When we go to the factory to pick up our finished dresses, we take all the bits and pieces of fabric offcuts home and then we use them to make our patchwork dresses,” says the co-founder Clara Francis.
But not everyone agrees that local manufacturing is an automatic win for sustainability. Amy Powney, designer of the upmarket British brand Mother of Pearl and a prominent advocate for sustainable fashion, chooses to manufacture abroad, close to where her fabric is sourced. “My primary concern is the environment, and that is a global issue. Manufacturing in the UK has obvious benefits for jobs and industry and community, but not necessarily for the environment.”
The British climate is not warm enough to grow cotton, and the majority of British wool is destined for the carpet trade, being too coarse for consumer tastes. “In food there is a field-to-table supply chain that consumers can understand. If you buy a potato that has been grown in Britain, it hasn’t been abroad before it appeared in that shop. But the fashion supply chain is so much more complicated. You could buy a jumper that says “made in Scotland”, but the wool may have come from Australia and been sent to China to be woven into yarn before it got to Scotland.”
Most upscale “Scottish cashmere” companies import yarn from goats in Mongolia, which is then milled in Scotland. Merino sheep originated in Spain but in the 19th century, as meat production overtook the wool trade in importance and larger sheep became more profitable, the petite merino breed fell out of favour in Europe and was exported to Australia and New Zealand. These two countries now produce 80% of the world’s merino wool, prized for its softness.
Patrick Grant, a fashion designer and co-presenter of BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee, took over Blackburn’s Cookson & Clegg factory when it was at risk of closure five years ago. He is “a huge believer in factories as a force for good. My first job was in a factory, and I’ve loved them ever since. They provide jobs, but also purpose and support and friendship to people of all ages and backgrounds, irrespective of academic achievement levels.”
Grant believes that amplifying the status and visibility of fashion manufacture could also have a positive impact on consumer behaviour. “If we reconnect the customer with what manufacturing looks like, that could help make people value clothes again – a mindset that fast fashion has very successfully destroyed for its own gain.”
A simple crew-neck cotton T-shirt by Community Clothing – knitted in Leicester, cut and sewn in Blackburn – costs £22. But the high production costs and limited scale of British fashion manufacturing put off most affordable fashion brands from domestic manufacture. Decades of high-street price wars have left consumers expecting eye-catchingly low prices that are difficult to achieve using British factories.
At Albion Knitting, a knitting factory in London’s Haringey warehouse district, a skilled workforce of 50 produces about 7,000 garments a month for brands including Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and Chloe. On the factory floor, Sissy is wielding a latch needle with surgical precision, correcting minuscule errors in a semi-sheer pointelle knit panel whose tiny stitches make up an all-over pattern of Givenchy’s “G” logo. Ellie is linking a sleeve to the body of a sweater, hooking individual loops over tiny needles at speed to create a flat, seamless join.
“In a cheaply produced garment, that seam would be overlocked, and much more bulky,” explains Chris Murphy, who co-founded the factory in 2014 in response to demand from luxury brands looking to move production from Asia to the UK. The building, which had one power point when Murphy moved in, now houses more than £1m worth of knitting machinery. “LONDON” is spelled out in metal vintage fairground letters on one high wall, next to an openwork spiral staircase designed to resemble a ball of wool, with stair treads made from needle beds reclaimed from old knitting machines.
“We want this to be a nice place to work. I think some people imagine a dark satanic mill, but we’ve got a great workforce who are proud to work here,” says Murphy. A classic knitted Chanel cardigan jacket in navy with pale pink trim, an Alexander McQueen cream cashmere sweater with hand-embroidered metallic beading at the neckline and a Chloe sweater dress in recycled cashmere are among the samples hanging on rails, and business is “definitely on the uptick”, says Murphy.
One of the smaller brands on Albion’s client list is the boutique cashmere label Aethel, which was started last year by Tim Ewington, a co-founder of Stylist magazine. “I wanted to see if it was possible build a small, ethical, British luxury brand,” says Ewington. “Our customers care about their clothes, and caring about how they were made is part of that.” Aethel’s knits are produced at Albion using Italian cashmere yarn; orders within London are delivered by bicycle.
At Fortis Clothing near Axminster, where production ranges from leopard-print Alice Temperley jackets to outerwear for the Devon and Cornwall police, demand from brands looking to place orders has increased. “British manufacturing has been tough for a long time, but things are changing,” says the company director Oliver Massy-Birch. “In the last 12 to 18 months we’ve been getting 10 emails a week from brands asking us to produce for them.”
Sustainable credentials are a draw: Fortis Clothing recently bought woodland to aid carbon offsetting, with the aim of becoming the first carbon-negative clothing brand in Europe. Insulation in own-brand jackets is made from recycled ocean plastics.
Mulberry, the largest manufacturer of luxury goods in the UK, is about to increase production in its two Somerset factories, the Rookery and the Willows, which between them employ 450 people. “The factories and the people who work there are the centre of who we are,” says the supply chain director, Rob Billington. “They are fantastic places. There is so much knowledge there.
“When we start producing a new bag, the person in the factory who’s been working with us for 20 years pretty much knows whether it will be a success of not.” Mulberry proves that responsible British fashion manufacturing is possible, says Billington. “At Mulberry we compete with Louis Vuitton and Chanel and Gucci and we hold our own. But it would be great to have a government incentivising UK manufacturing beyond the big boys of the car industry.”
Factories making handbags and cardigans lack the hard-hat optics to entice politicians for photo opportunities. “When the government talks about manufacturing they talk about Rolls-Royce and Jaguar,” says Patrick Grant. “And people get excited about Savile Row tailors or by someone who sits in a shed for eight hours making a knife by hand. But fashion is an area in which Britain has historically punched above its weight and factories could be part of that, as they once were.”
At its height in the 1950s, 1.5 million people were employed in the UK textile industry. “We’re not going to get back to those numbers, but there could be 500,000 jobs – and many would be jobs in towns like Blackburn, towns which were decimated by factory closures and which don’t have much of a service industry.”
The most recent data from the industry news and data network Fashion United suggests that 39,000 people are employed in the manufacture of clothes and shoes in the UK. Last year Cookson & Clegg was one of many British factories that pivoted to producing PPE for health workers during lockdown, highlighting that government spending on uniforms and utility wear has largely been outsourced overseas.
Georgiana Huddart, a co-founder of the cult swimwear brand Hunza G, employs two London factories to make her distinctive crinkle-fabric swimsuits and bikinis. “British factories do tend to be slightly old fashioned,” she says. “They like a phone call and a handshake and to eat lunch with you. It’s lovely to have that relationship. At the beginning of this summer we sent each of the 35 workers in one of the factories a scrunchie and some hand cream, because we had so many orders and we knew they would be really busy. But it’s hard when you come to scale up. Our business is growing and it’s getting tricky to find UK manufacturing that works.”
While UK manufacturing is a boost for domestic jobs, Temperley is one of many British designers who also feel a responsibility to workers abroad who may be losing out. “I’ve been back to London maybe six times in the last year, and I don’t miss it at all,” she says. “But I do worry about some of the Indian embroidery workshops that I’ve had long relationships with. I’ve been trying to place orders with them as well, because I know they are in need of work.”
Shorter supply chains can reduce carbon emissions, but manufacturing and sustainability will always present a conflict of interest. “Consumers are looking for a green light to purchase without guilt, and the reality is that there is no such thing as a zero-impact clothing brand,” says Chris Murphy. “What we believe in is making high-quality clothes which people value and buy less of.”
While British production does not guarantee a higher standard, Patrick Grant believes it tips the odds in favour. “If you are spending more in order to have your jacket made in the UK, it doesn’t make sense to save 50p on buying a cheaper fabric, so the overall quality does tend to be a better product.”