Lancashire leads new British textile manufacturing revival
After decades of decline Lancashire's once-dominant textile industry is experiencing a new revival and proving it can successfully compete with overseas suppliers.
One hundred years ago, the Lancashire cotton industry reached its exporting peak, producing seven billion square yards of cloth in 1913.
From then on, a long decline set in - the result of rising foreign competition, tariffs and protectionism, and Britain's high cost base.
But some industry survivors managed to hang on - and the tide is now turning as their business begins to grow again.
Bill Collins, originally from Scotland, is a serial textile entrepreneur and is now the owner of Thornber Home and Leisure in Clitheroe, Lancashire.
A family business for over a century, Mr Collins bought the company in 2010.
It is now one of the largest weavers in Europe, capable of producing 60,000 metres of fabric a week.
"Our order books remain healthy, though profit margins are tight as they are pegged against Turkey and the Chinese," Mr Collins tells Radio 4's In Business programme.
Finding a new niche
The new currency in the textile industry is ideas and the Thornber design team is at the heart of the company's success as it creates contemporary designs inspired by both traditional sources and their own creativity.
Re-invention is what keeps the looms whirring. The same is true for Leigh Spinners, which has diversified away from making domestic carpets, to artificial grass.
John Morrison is the first managing director of Leigh Spinners not to come from the Horrocks family, who started the firm in 1913. He may not be family, but he has worked in the business since 1985.
When he started there were 250 employees - now there are only 50, but they are still in business.
"About three years ago we decided to convert to tuft grass, artificial grass," explains Mr Morrison. "We make 150,000 square metres a year. There is big demand, for school playing fields, and so on."
And who decided on this change?
"The tufted carpet market decided," Mr Morrison says. "We became less competitive. We had to survive, and grass was the alternative."
Diversification to survive is what David Collinge's company John Spencer Textiles in Blackburn also had to do.
He is the sixth generation in his family to run what was originally a fine shirting business.
"Marks & Spencer bought a third of the company after the Second World War," he explains.
However, when the family decided not to reinvest in 1970, Marks & Spencer bought its shirt materials from abroad instead.
"We were then left with a massive contraction and became a very niche business," says Mr Collinge.
The company had to shrink drastically - from 650 staff to 40 - and find a new market.
"We made fabrics for the Ministry of Defence, for combat clothing, artillery uses, parachutes. Orders came in small quantities, but the profit margins were good," he said.
"The technical know-how that was needed at the time was not easily available elsewhere."
John Spencer Textiles survived, and more recently, they have pursued a different strategy to future-proof their business.
"We developed our own brand with furnishings and home textiles so we are no longer dependent on other people coming to us for business, we can generate our own," said Mr Collinge.
"This was a dramatic move, but it was the only way to go, to make a name for ourselves."
Lance Mitchell, of Mitchell Interflex in east Lancashire, remains optimistic about the future of the textiles industry.
"Modern fibres are being developed all the time - McLaren cars are based on a woven product, and the next generation of aircraft, they say, will be woven. The industrial side of fabrics is fascinating," he said.
In the town of Nelson, only one of 60 cotton weaving plants remains - S Dawes Weaving, now owned by Stephen Shepherd, who bought it in 2005.
At first things went well, but then the recession hit the business hard, and only 15 of the 25 staff remain. They are surviving by making exclusive and expensive fabrics, often in small runs.
Joanna Brockbank, S Dawes Weaving's designer, is at the sharp end of the way the remaining British textile industry now responds to its customers' demands.
It is her job to create the designs that S Dawes makes into fabrics.
She is at the heart of a new sort of ingenious, flexible, stylish textile industry, no longer concerned with size and scale alone.
"We need our own products to show customers what we can do, and then they say 'I'd like this artwork, on that quality of fabric' and then we design it for them," she said.
For example, she has designed a trapper jacket for an American client, which was a replica of a vintage piece.
"This was originally a museum piece, with one arm chewed up by a bear. We wove the wool, redrew it, worked out how to do the colours, made a sample, and it worked."
The final product will cost between £1,000 and £2,000 ($1,500-$3,000) - but can S Dawes produce these upmarket pieces at a similar price to factories in the Far East?
"Yes we can," says Joanna Brockbank, "because of the difference in transportation costs and taxes."
Competing with the Far East
Another company which is surviving the increased competition coming from countries such as China and Turkey is Tony Caldeira's cushion-making factory in Knowsley.
The company employs 50 staff, where they hand-finish cushions. It's labour intensive work, but the company's success is based on a global supply network.
"Ten years ago we were leading the market, but it was apparent that with China about to join the World Trade Association, it could sell products more cheaply than we could make them," said Mr Caldeira.
"We had a choice - go to China, or go bust."
The company closed one of its two sewing factories in England, and opened a new one in China instead.
The company's business has grown 50% year-on-year since splitting production between Lancashire and China and it now has an annual turnover of around £20m - but it is now the UK side which is proving more productive.
"Due to inflation and rising labour costs in China, and exchange rate differences with the yuan, the Chinese plant is becoming less competitive than the British manufacturing plant," says Mr Caldeira.
"It is as cost-effective to make them here, so at the moment we're losing capacity in China, and gaining it here."
Mr Caldeira thinks that it is not only his company which is fighting the long-term trend of British manufacturers losing out to cheaper, emerging economies.
"The tide is starting to turn. There is a rebalancing that's starting," he said.
"Chinese costs are rising faster than British costs, so anyone who is fending off competition from the Far East is finding that it's getting easier."
Hear the full report on Radio 4's In Business on Thursday, 26 April at 20:30 BST and Sunday, 29 April at 21:30 BST.