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Back for good: textile manufacturing in Greater Manchester

At London Fashion Week 2016, global fashion brand – and UK manufacturer – Burberry chose to celebrate the new ‘artisans’, the makers of their catwalk collection, one being a 26-year-old weaver from Keighley, West Yorkshire. 

For the wider world, the fact that Burberry makes its cloth at home is quite the revelation – after all, Britain’s textile manufacturing died out when our factories and mines closed their doors for good, didn’t it? 

But that’s where we’re very much mistaken, and for the past three years, The Alliance Project (TAP) has sought to raise the profile of the UK’s textile industry, in which Greater Manchester – alongside West Yorkshire and Lancashire – continues to play an integral part, as it continues to be the densest place for textile manufacture in the UK.

TAP started research into our homegrown textile industry back in 2012, the biggest piece of research of its kind in 20 years, and the results were astounding.  We found that the UK textiles industry is worth £9 billion to the UK economy – and is set to grow.

After all, a sector that has recently weathered two recessions andsignificant competition from cheaper manufacturers overseas must be pretty resilient. And with new markets coming on stream all the time – not limited to apparel, but homeware and technical textiles used in aviation, automotive and medical innovation, too – the potential is exciting. 

But our findings were not all glowing. The presumption that this nation of shopkeepers does not manufacture textiles at home, let alone enjoy a healthy export climate, has led to a decline in the skills required to support the sector.

The perception meant investors were risk averse, unaware of the industry’s potential or of the scale of innovation in the industry. Our report, though, gave existing companies confidence to invest and aided their connectivity, proving a strength in numbers and consolidating and reinforcing supply chains, both upstream and downstream.

Our research helped stimulate inward investment and ‘onshoring’, repatriating production previously outsourced tocheaper, overseas territories.  

But, perhaps most significantly in 2013, we used our research to win a government grant of £12.8 million which we’ve invested in existing textile manufacturers in Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

These three areas are still the heart of the industry in the UK, typically with high unemployment and poor growth, and our objective was to safeguard the industry we had and kickstart growth and expansion, raising the industry’s profile. 

The first fund was the best performing fund in the country and our investment has had a significant impact. So much so that in 2014-15, we won another government grant of £19.5m to run the programme nationally, not just in the three heartland areas.

Given the industry and our fund is in the areas where there was high support for Brexit, we think continuing our investment to be ever more crucial – and economically viable – as the Government talk about inclusive growth – making the economy work for everyone.

And it’s working. Government figures demonstrate that 13,000 new jobs have already been created in the UK textile industry, with a further 7,000 new jobs expected by 2020. I had the pleasure of attending the annual dinner of the National Weaving Association on 6 October and I was told it was the biggest – and buzziest – to date. 

Greater Manchester made its name in textiles, with its cotton known all across the world. Now, it continues to lead the way, recognising the value of its textile manufacturers in each of its town centres.

As stories regarding Greater Manchester’s current textile successes surface – Lewis Hamilton’s car and John Travolta’s private aeroplane components could have been woven in Greater Manchester – I believe that we can look forward to a brighter, more prosperous Greater Manchester, in which textiles is once again taking a leading role.