Fred Tongue visited English Fine Cottons in Manchester, a firm looking to re-establish the North West as a cotton spinning colossus.
The first cotton mills in Britain were established in the 1740s, powered by animals or water.
Over the next few decades, an astonishing burst of innovation in mill technology helped the UK become a leading light in the production of cotton, and the North West was the jewel in the cotton crown.
Britain’s pre-eminent global position as a cotton-producing nation started to fray soon after the turn of the 20th century. World war and a disruption in the import of raw cotton forced manufacturers to shift their production overseas.
For the grand cotton mills that did so much to epitomise Britain’s industrial might, this spelled the beginning of the end.
In 1860 there were 2,650 cotton mills in Lancashire employing 440,000 people, but by the 1930s the number of mills had fallen by 800 and some 345,000 workers had left the industry. By the 1970s, the industry was virtually dead.
Enter English Fine Cottons
English Fine Cottons (EFC) aims to revive the industry in a grand and ambitious fashion, because Culimeta- Saveguard Ltd, EFC’s parent company, is bringing cotton spinning back to the North West.
For more than 20 years, the firm has operated from Tame Valley Mill, where it has an existing cotton ring spinning system inherited from the mill’s previous owners.
In 2013, it acquired the mill next door, Tower Mill, which was built in 1885 and set about renovating the building to become a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.
“The mill was derelict,” Andy Ogden, general manager at English Fine Cottons told TM. “It is a Grade II listed building and was on the ‘At Risk’ register. Not only did the owners, who were a local business, want to realise their asset, but the local authority wanted an occupant that would look after the mill and bring it back to its former glory.”
The project required £5.8m of investment, which restored the factory and purchased new equipment. The mill will have a capacity of roughly 1,000 tonnes a year and will look to supply luxury brands in the UK.
“Although not yet fully up and running, the cotton produced will go into shirting, outerwear, whether that’s in trench coats or whatever, socks and really just fashion apparel,” Ogden said.
The building has been completely transformed and is a world away from the dark, satanic and fundamentally unsafe mills of the Victorian period.
The working space is extremely large and very bright, with new floors and ceilings to bring the building in line with modern standards.
Ogden said the firm is ahead of schedule and has been inundated with enquiries, “We are talking to a number of luxury brands that we hope to supply to.”
Ogden acknowledged that although this represents a resurgence in the industry, its absence for so many years has had a detrimental impact on the skills in the sector.
When the MD joined Culimeta-Saveguard Ltd, the only person who still knew how to spin cotton was 72 and as he put it, “She has probably forgotten more than we’ll ever know.”
Since then, training at the firm has been revolutionised. “We partnered staff with her to learn and document her expertise. We analysed the key proficiencies and determined the learning curves for those skills.”
All of the roles within the business have metrics to measure their progress and competence in the job.
The mill is surrounded by a residential area, a throwback to a time when the residents would work in the factory. Since the re-opening of the mill, the local community has responded very positively and passed on messages of encouragement.
“Most people in the community understand that the area was predominantly cotton spinning. The goodwill, good luck, and even offers of assistance have been phenomenal,” Ogden noted.
English Fine Cottons is a fine example of a firm re-establishing a trade that was once the heartbeat of a community.
British manufacturing of cotton is no longer restricted to the history books as a relic of a bygone era. Thanks to the hard work and vision of English Fine Cottons, the industry has a real chance of making a comeback.
The firm has trained its staff to spin cotton, invested in cutting-edge equipment and restored a derelict piece of history to its former glory.