Apparel Sourcing Intelligence - Worldwide

UK “manufacturing renaissance” held back by skills shortage

The UK’s Arcadia has added substance to UK media claims that British apparel "manufacturers are experiencing the green shoots of a renaissance as brands and retailers spurn overseas suppliers". But labour shortages may be a problem even in the UK

Arcadia’s BhS subsidiary reportedly directed a supplier to investigate making some thermal underwear in a Leicester factory after costs in Ludhiana started to look inflated by an Indian shortage of the right circular knitting machines. The UK manufacturer is claimed to have undercut the Indian competitor by 50 p ($0.80) a pair, even before freight costs. Neither Arcadia nor any suppliers were prepared to comment.

The story was reported as retailer JD Williams called an open day to meet UK suppliers at Leicester City Football Club on February 10. Linda Quinn, the JDW trading director for womenswear, said: "The issues in the Far East forced us to explore options closer to home. The cost gap is closing. It is still significant, but [it’s a trade-off] against speed to market and how much we need to buy." Alan White, chief executive of the company’s owner N Brown, said the price advantages that come with manufacturing abroad are being eroded. ""In the Far East… there has been inflation of labour wages, which we would expect to see continue as these economies continue to thrive. But the cost of fabric is a global price,…What we are looking to find out is, is there an appetite from companies that do textile manufacturing on a relatively small scale in the UK to boost there production?" Currently about 1% of N Brown production is UK-made.

Jane Shepherdson, CEO at womenswear chain Whistles, said "We are increasingly looking to the UK for high-quality manufacturing capacity". John Wilson, executive vice-president of manufacturing at footwear brand New Balance, which grew its UK manufacturing by 20% last year, said: "The ability to replenish stocks in season on short lead times is fast becoming an integral part of high street retailers’ survival kit, while the ‘Made in Britain’ cachet, coupled with product quality, has provided remarkable export successes."

Henry Butler, production manager for premium menswear brand Nigel Cabourn, which sources all its product in the UK, said: "The Made in Britain label has a strong cachet now, especially in the US and Japan. Labels like Nigel Cabourn and Margaret Howell are enormous in Japan and a major part of that is the Made in Britain label."

But before the Arcadia and JD Williams initiatives, the volumes involved were tiny. Even so, finding staff has been a problem. UK shirtmaker Rayner & Sturges trebled its revenues in 2010 and grew its staff from 65 to 135. It aims to have 260 staff by the end of this year, although owner Boyd Bowman said he could not recruit quickly enough. "It’s not a problem getting orders, it’s getting people to make them…We advertise weekly and just hope some of the people who were working 25 years ago [when manufacturing went offshore] will come back. The problem has apparently been worsened by UK public spending cuts hitting textile apprenticeship courses