Sew what about textiles | EEF

Sector Friday: Sew what about textiles?

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You won’t be surprised to find out you can thank the textiles sector for the clothes on your back, but there’s more to it than that. Advances in technology are providing high quality mass production and the introduction of wearable technology.

So, let’s weave our way into the world of textiles

The basics

The sector encompasses yarns and fabric preparation, textile mill products, the production and development of new fibres and wearing apparel, the dressing and dyeing of fur and processing leather into goods (think suitcases and shoes).

Currently there are 90,000-100,000 people employed in the sector in the UK and it exports about 15% of output, last year exporting over £8.2 billion worth of fashion and textiles.

Made in Britain

“But all my clothes are made in China or Taiwan, the UK doesn’t really make clothing anymore”. If that strikes a cord with you, then prepare to eat your hat.

Firstly, there is still a significant textiles presence in the East Midlands, Yorkshire & Humber, the North West and Scotland.

Secondly, the UK has a reputation for high quality products, rather than cheap mass production. But this hasn’t put British brands off manufacturing here.

The speed of changing trends and fashions means brands are inclined to bring production closer to home. Here they can create smaller, more bespoke runs, maintain higher quality control and avoid lengthy shipping times.

But what about those still looking for cheap frills? Well rising prices abroad and advances in automated, robotic manufacturing means that even mass production is being repatriated.

A large sportswear producer recently announced it is bringing production of shoes back to Germany with a heavily automated smart factory. This could become a trend over the next few years. Some are estimating that over half of all salaried employment in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam is at risk of displacement due to technology in the next 20 years. Will we live to see a Britain embroidered with textile manufacturing?

Technology and textiles…Techstiles?

The textiles sector is full of innovation; spending on R&D in the sector currently sits at about 5% of turnover. Recent innovations can be seen in specialist clothing for various professions (sportswear, protective clothing) and advances in sewing machines and techniques (seamless clothing).

At the sci-fi end of the spectrum is the melding of modern technology with textiles, termed ‘smart textiles’ (I am coining the term Techstiles). Conductive fabrics that allow wearers to charge electronics by simply plugging them into a belt or jacket already exist, and fabrics and fibres that can prevent infection or contain sensors could be especially useful in the medical clothing market.  

Some are estimating that by 2022 6.3% of the global textiles market will be in ‘wearable tech’.

The market for wearable ‘smart textiles’ (Techstiles is so much snappier too) is forecast to grow by 132% between 2016 and 2022, which would make it a $70 billion market.

Winding things up

It may sound like the UK textiles sector knows no bounds, however, I haven’t finished spinning my yarn.

The sector does have its difficulties. Many producers are heavily reliant on contracts with high street retailers, which means they are heavily impacted by dips in consumer spending. The industry has an ageing work force and is suffering from a shortage of people with sewing skills. With no new talent to replace retirees, reshoring may not be such a seamless transition. And China and Turkey still offer lower production costs.

But if investment and innovation are in the right areas then there could be a bright future ahead.

After all, a stitch in time saves nine.



Survey Coordinator

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