UK fashion must embrace tech to be cost-competitive

Posted on 5 Jun 2019 by Maddy White

British manufacturers in the fashion industry must embrace technology if they are to ever be cost-competitive with the rest of the world.

British textile supply chains have become fragmented - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
British textile supply chains have become fragmented – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Over the past fifty years, the UK fashion industry’s production has slowly eroded. Retailers sought cheaper prices overseas to make their designs and this meant garment making moved offshore.

British textile supply chains have become fragmented because of this decline. But, in recent years there has been a slow revival of UK garment production.

This is in part due to retailers needing to get new styles to store quicker, timescales clothing factories overseas cannot meet.

Technology is playing a pivotal role in enabling this. It is offering new ways to monitor quality and record every step in a product’s process, from design through to a shop’s shelf.

Make it in the UK, Make it British

Make it British Live was held in the Business Design Centre in London on 29 and 30 May. It brought together UK manufacturers and producers of textiles, clothing and homeware.

One of the main aims of the show is to help bring the supply chain back together again. A key focus for the event this year was how technology will aid this.

Making on mass, quality & cost

“I can beat any mill on price in the world,” says director and general manager at English Fine Cottons, Andy Ogden.

Skills and training will be high on the agenda at this year’s Make it British Live! - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Technology should encourage craftsmanship – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

One panel discussion during the day focused on ‘craftsmanship Vs technology’. It sparked a lively debate about technology and the quality and cost of garment manufacturing in Britain.

“The definition of craftsmanship is not necessarily just because it’s made by hand in an old-fashioned way. It’s about value and quality. Capability and excellence,” says Andy Ogden.

“There’s no conflict between craftsmanship and technology. Technology is the tool and the craft is what makes it work,” says Prof Stephen Russell, director at Future Fashion Factory.

“Production in the UK is very expensive compared to the rest of world,” says Nick Keyte, managing director at Gieves & Hawke, a bespoke men’s tailoring company. “If we could make everything in the UK, we would.”

Keyte adds, “If the government is serious about the long-term sustainability of UK manufacturing we need a global level playing field.”

How to be cost-competitive in UK fashion

“We use the latest technology and a lean approach. You don’t need a long lead time to make a new yarn, you can do it the same day,” Ogden adds.

This tech-driven approach reduces waste by making to order and doing so quickly. Opened only four years ago in Greater Manchester, the aim for English Fine Cotton’s Tower Mill was to bring back cotton spinning to the North West.

The mill was first used for cotton spinning in 1886 when it was home to around 44,000 spindles. Now, it houses one of the most advanced and productive textile manufacturing facilities in the world.

english fine cottons weaving - english fine cottons
English Fine Cottons has embraced tech – image courtesy of English Fine Cottons.

It is the only commercial cotton spinner in the UK. It gives the consumer the right product in the correct amount and at the right time.

“We are cost-competitive because we use technology and that means we can be quick and maintain our quality,” he adds.

Using technology can make the delivery of a product quicker, but it also can ensure quality. 

This point was cemented in a keynote delivered at the event by Burberry Mill’s senior production manager, Hareesh Kallambella.

Burberry is a British powerhouse famous for its check pattern and woven trench coat. Its Keighley mill in Yorkshire is using IoT technology and cobots to ensure the quality of its yarns are perfect, with plans to use AI in the near future too.