Future Fashion Factory: Weaving a new future for a historic industry

One of Yorkshire’s most traditional industries, textiles and clothing, is joining the drive to digitalise, and in the process changing the way clothes are designed and made.

Fashion is one of the many touchpoints where manufacturing meets art, so it is hardly surprising that the Royal College of Art is partnering with the Universities of Leeds and Huddersfield, and the Textile Centre of Excellence in Yorkshire, to create the Future Fashion Factory – the vehicle for a programme of R&D grants to textile manufacturers and clothiers.

- image courtesy of Future Fashion Factory

This is, in turn, part of the Creative Industries Cluster, an £80m initiative led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Ultimately, funding comes from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the same source that is funding the Made Smarter programme.

To give an idea of scope, the projects range from developing a way for someone in a remote location to ‘feel’ the texture of a fabric, to the legendary tailors Gieves and Hawke reducing the lead time for a bespoke suit from six to eight weeks to just 48 hours.

In all, the first round of projects drew down £645,000 from a £5.4m fund. The second round of bids is now open.

The heart of the new project is in Yorkshire because of the skills found in Leeds and Huddersfield universities, but it is also historically satisfying.

This article first appeared in the October issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe

Stephen Russell, Future Fashion Factory Director and Professor of Textile Materials and Technology at the University of Leeds, said, “Innovation has been at the heart of Yorkshire’s fashion and textile industry since its earliest days.

“We’re delighted to be part of this tradition by delivering ambitious projects that will add value to the businesses working with Future Fashion Factory, accelerating growth, creating new jobs and paving the way for innovative application of new digital and advanced textile technologies.”

Future Fashion Factory 🎥

No trouble at mill

The importance of developing new ways of manufacturing fashion is driven by a trio of critical influences: sustainability, the reshoring of manufacturing, and providing employment in the UK.

One of the reasons it has become normal to have garments made overseas is because of dramatically lower labour costs. That will not come as a surprise to anyone buying clothes on a regular basis, often at eye-poppingly low prices.

What may be surprising is the extent to which the supply chain at every level of the business, not just the cheap-as-chips end, has an overseas component.

As the Future Fashion Factory website says, “Developing high value luxury fashion products is a lengthy creative process from design to shelf. It can take months of design time and extensive physical sampling throughout the global supply chain before the design is finalised and the product reaches the point of sale.

“This means that new product design can demand huge labour and manufacturing resources as well as long lead times, limiting businesses’ agility.”

CROP - The textiles group will move its Halifax nonwovens business, Texfelt, to a newly built facility at Cutler Heights, with a focus on creating recycled textile products for a range of industry sectors.

The goal then is to move towards ‘right first time’ design decision-making using data-driven design tools, based on AI and data analytics, to understand consumer wants and needs.

They’re also looking at how to develop late-stage customisation techniques in manufacturing so that personalised products can be produced cost-effectively.

Then there is sustainability. Fashion is increasingly associated with significant textile waste and environmental impacts at every stage in the product life cycle, from design and manufacturing processes to retail, consumer habits, and the end of a garment’s life.

That life can be astonishingly short in our wear-today/landfill or charity shop-tomorrow culture. New approaches and techniques can help minimise at least some of that waste.

‘Right first time’ design will maximise sell-through, reduce over-production and minimise the amount of waste produced.

And if people continue to insist on throwing away their barely-worn clothes, the Factory is also researching how the principles of the circular economy can be applied to fashion.

That means developing new cost-effective recycling technologies.

The work of the Future Fashion Factory is a reminder that there is no aspect of our manufacturing and commercial life that is not touched by advances in digital technology.