Inside old mills, a group of pioneers are trying to revive the industry that made Manchester

This city's textile and garment trade dominated the world before disappearing abroad. Could it have a second act?

Good morning Millers — our weekend read comes from the veteran Manchester business journalist Michael Taylor. He has been spending time in local workshops and factories to find out whether we might be seeing the first stirrings of a revival in the industry that made this city.

Before we get to that, we’ve published some fantastic stories for Mill members this week, including:

He’s here with his friend — who prefers not to be named — and they've both been watching United since their teenage years. “Back then you might’ve not had much money or whatever, but you’d just turn up without a ticket and blag your way in,” the friend says. It was called jibbing — football slang for getting in somewhere for free — and as a penniless 15-year-old kid in the 80s it meant you had access to endless adventures, from Barcelona to Bury. As long as you were good at it.

His friend recalls first deciding he wanted to join Roger on the jib: “Everyone came into school one morning and I asked, ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ Eh, arcades or eh, went park. Then Roger pipes up — ‘Oh I was in St Etienne watching United.’ Everyone looked at him like he said he’d gone to the moon, it was so exotic.”

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Reviewing the Tony Wilson biography

🎙 The latest episode of our new weekly podcast is out and it’s a cracker. Listen to it now on your preferred podcast app by clicking here. Joshi discusses the new Tony Wilson biography, which came out this week, and asks whether it fills in the gaps about Wilson’s life (you can also read our written review of the book here). Plus, Dani talks about the Hong Kong nationals who are arriving in Greater Manchester in large numbers, and we brief you on the most important local stories this week.

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By Michael Taylor

We’re in one of the last remaining clothing factories in the world’s first industrial city. I’m watching a machinist sewing the interior hem onto a coat with painstaking precision. He’s one of about 20 in the room turning high quality cloth and material into gorgeous jackets and coats.

The staff chatter and joke among themselves. They say they’re proud of what they’re making. Downstairs, in a department called “Jersey”, boxes are being filled with sweatshirts and hung on rails, ready for despatch. In the reception area, a snoozing bulldog greets guests with a twitch of the eyebrow.

The showroom on the ground floor is full of sewing machines currently out of commission. Just months ago they were being used to turn out desperately needed PPE for doctors and nurses on the NHS front line, when this facility was transformed into the largest manufacturer of medical-grade gowns and surgical masks in the country.

I’m at the Salford home of luxury menswear brand Private White VC — whose clothes are worn by the likes of David Beckham. In fact, Becks visited the factory a few years ago on his first day representing the British Fashion Council and was shown around by the company’s owner James Eden.

"What I love about this place, what I love about Manchester, is the kaleidoscopic culture we've got here,” Eden tells me as he introduces his staff. We meet skilled machinists and cutters from all over the world. “It's a real melting pot of colours, creeds, political persuasions, sexual orientations, you name it.”

In 2008, Eden returned to Salford from a lucrative but unhappy career in investment banking in the City of London to his family’s clothing manufacturing business by the River Irwell, not far from where he grew up on Bury New Road. “My reality cheque had bounced,” he jokes. He needed a new challenge, and the family firm needed him. Cooper and Stollbrand, as the business was known, had been founded from the same base in 1932, when it was one of hundreds of mills and factories in the area.

By the time Eden came back, it made mostly rainwear. The factory had supplied products for John Lewis as well as luxury brands like Aquascutum and Burberry, but it faced an existential crisis when Burberry pulled the plug. 

“When I took the business over it was like we were in a game of snakes and ladders, it was all boom and bust,” Eden tells me. “You could have a great couple of seasons with one retailer or brand, then the next they’re hitting you with credit notes and returns. I had to break out of that, but also feed this ravenous factory that needs to keep producing.”

What he built instead is Private White VC — a brand beloved by fashion magazines and affluent consumers (like Beckham) around the world. And what comes out of this plant is certainly high-end stuff. A long “Manchester Merino” woollen t-shirt is currently on sale for £99; a “Cashmere Submariner Roll Neck” is going for £495; and you’re going to pay £695 for a double-breasted Peacoat, putting Eden in competition with Burberry and Barbour.

The brand is named in tribute to Eden’s great-grandfather Private Jack White, who returned to Manchester a hero of the Great War bearing a Victoria Cross for gallantry, and later founded the family business. The company’s slogan is “Handmade in England” and the words MADE IN MANCHESTER are emblazoned across the website, presumably aimed at global customers who are less familiar with Salford. In addition, 90% of the source material comes from within a 100-mile radius of Greater Manchester.

On the day I visit, vans have been arriving all day from all around the North of England with rolls of fabric, suede, wool and cotton. One supplier is from Dukinfield, another business in Greater Manchester’s re-emerging fashion and textiles ecosystem. We’ll meet them later.

“The reason we’re working with our weavers and looms, Mallalieus in Delph, Oldham, is we’ve known them for a long time and they give us their best fabric,” Eden says. Pointing to the recent disruption to global supply chains, he feels comforted that he can anticipate a van from Delph, rather than a container ship from China, with the cloth and pieces he needs to make sure he has products to sell. 

It seems sensible and entirely in tune with the growing trend for sustainability in what we buy and wear, so why aren’t there more people doing it? “Because it’s fucking hard,” he says, his voice almost cracking. “It’s very difficult. When I look back now at what we tried to do, it feels impossible.”

Reviving a giant industry

The textiles and garment industries are what made the cities and towns of Greater Manchester rich in the first place. At its peak, the region imported up to a billion tonnes of raw cotton a year. “The clatter of the cotton mills and the looms can be heard everywhere,” wrote the German writer Johanna Schopenhauer in 1830. “Dark and smoky from the coal vapours, it resembles a huge forge or workshop.”

And for about a decade, a small cluster of people — including Eden and his local suppliers — have been wondering whether some of the jobs and production that have gone overseas during the decades of “offshoring” could start to come back to these parts. Whether what Private White VC and a small number of other firms are doing could represent green shoots in a return for high-quality textiles and garment manufacturing in the North.

One argument for that happening is the increasing popularity in the past decade of “Made in UK” clothes, with retailers like Jaeger, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer all now making a virtue of selling lines that are manufactured domestically. More locally, firms like Blackburn’s Community Clothing produce classic sweatshirts and t-shirts made in Lancashire for £20. And it’s not just UK shoppers who want UK-made clothes: the magazine Drapers reported in 2018 that emerging economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China have “created a new wave of consumers with new spending power,” who value British-made goods by high-end fashion brands like Mulberry, Aquascutum and, of course, Private White VC.

Beswick Street, Royton somewhere between 1966 and 1974 with Monarch Mill in the background and a group of children outside. The cotton mill closed in 1972 and was demolished in 2005. Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

On top of that, for the past few years, consumers have been waking up to the real environmental and ethical costs of cheap clothes. Increasingly, people realise that a poorly-made t-shirt that costs £5 or a dress that costs £15 is only possible because of exploitation in the supply chain — that some poor soul is toiling away for poverty wages somewhere to make it; and that the cost to the environment of buying these garments and having to throw them away soon after is placing a huge burden on the planet.

And then there are the purely economic reasons. The cost of foreign clothing production has been rising for years, slowly weakening the argument that drove the dramatic and devastating offshoring we saw in the twentieth century. More recently, Brexit has made it more difficult and expensive for brands and manufacturers to import materials and products from overseas, and the recent supply chain breakdowns have put that problem into an even sharper focus. Retailers and manufacturers are dealing with shortages, long waits and frustrating unpredictability as globalised production comes to look a little less cheap and convenient than it used to.

In 2015, a report by the former Rochdale MP Lorna Fitzsimons (which was partly funded by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority) made the case for “repatriating” UK textiles manufacturing. The report noted that £9bn of textiles were already being manufactured in the UK, with Greater Manchester the biggest hub of activity — representing 11,300 jobs. This city region also has one of the strongest concentrations of garment and knitted clothing sectors in the country, employing around 4,000 people. And ONS figures have been showing rising numbers of companies producing textiles and clothing in this country.

The beaming room at Regent Cotton Mill in Failsworth. The mill opened in 1906 and closed in 1958. The Lancashire Cotton Corporation Limited, which owned it, was at one point the world's largest spinner of cotton. Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images.

What is needed, according to the report, is government backing to help firms reach greater scale, lots of training so companies can hire the skilled staff that they need to grow, and better information for retailers, so their buyers know about the possibilities of buying from British manufacturers.

Fitzsimons’ research helped stimulate some inward investment and “onshoring”, repatriating production previously outsourced to cheaper countries. The coalition government supported her plans with a small £12.8 million fund called the Textile Growth Programme to invest in existing textile manufacturers in Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Eden’s business was one of the beneficiaries and is now being held up as a case for more intervention and more investment.

‘If you do it local, if you do it well’

One of Eden’s suppliers is English Fine Cottons, a business led by a similarly strong will in the form of director and general manager Andy Ogden. As a boy from Ashton, he would walk past Tower Mill in Dukinfield on his way to school in Hyde, a building that has become emblematic for the textiles sector in these parts. It was the location for the BBC TV series Making Out, which ran from 1989 to 1991, portraying a slice of Northern working class life that now feels like a bygone age.

The parent company Culimeta Saveguard, which makes protective clothing and fabrics for engines, moved into the empty Tower Mill building in 2013 and started to dream of bringing cotton spinning back to the site. Then in 2015, an investment through the Textile Growth Programme brought in £1m to help make the dream a reality. English Fine Cottons is now up and running as the only commercial cotton spinner in the UK, and says it is “breathing new life into a British industry that used to be the envy of the world.”

It supplies a plethora of specialist brands, including Private White VC, but also emerging Manchester brands like 7Layer, Joe & Co and Lanigan & Hulme. The company’s ethos is to create higher quality products that look better, wash better and run counter to the trend of disposable fashion.

“If you do it local, if you do it well, with a product that’s going to last, and you do it with skills that you’re proud of, then you actually care about it and you become passionate about it,” says Ogden. “All the esoteric feelings that luxury items give, but at a price that represents good value.” By way of example, a men’s cotton t-shirt from the company’s website is £50, but it is a thing of beauty. Soft, well cut and you have that satisfaction of knowing what it’s made out of and who by.

It’s remarkable to imagine that this is the only place spinning cotton in Greater Manchester — the region that used to spin cotton for the whole world. The raw bales are grown in California or Queensland, Australia. As we step into the first floor, to see the bales, I ask Ogden: “Where are all the people?” Automation means it’s a remarkably lean operation, and the company claims to have the most modern cotton spinning facility anywhere in the world. Few staff are required to operate the machinery here, but there’s a more familiar factory feel to the work on another floor where the pattern cutters, fabric cutters and machinists are busy making garments.

‘Our activism is softer’

What Eden and Ogden are doing aligns with the aims of the Manchester Fashion Movement, an initiative started by Alison Carlin and Camilla Cheung. Both have given up corporate careers to create an organisation that will promote more sustainable thinking about clothes, and they are planning workshops to highlight the facts about how problematic and damaging our modern consumption habits really are. They want to create a more sustainable and decent fashion legacy in Manchester.

No one particularly wants to say so, but the great elephant in the room, in the city in fact, is the rise of “fast-fashion” sites. Most notably Boohoo — the very successful Manchester online retailer that sells extremely cheap clothing to young consumers across the country from its base in the Northern Quarter. Boohoo sources many of its clothes at the opposite end of the domestic manufacturing market, from low-cost factories in Leicester, some of which have been caught paying less than the minimum wage. But that's a subject for another story. I’m upfront with everyone I speak to for this article — Eden, Ogden, Carlin and Cheung — that I am interested in them because they represent an antidote to fast fashion, a sustainable alternative.

“Our activism is softer,” says Carlin, when I ask about calling out Boohoo and retailers like it. She and Cheung want to subtly change behaviour, to inspire a shift in attitude to quality, to think of a quality garment as “vintage” rather than “second hand”. They work with schools and universities to balance out the cynicism and negativity that surrounds the fashion and textiles industry and to promote an alternative to fast fashion.

Manchester’s colleges and universities have enthusiastically embraced the values of the new industrial revolution in textiles. The Manchester Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University has signed up to Textiles 2030, a new expert-led sustainability initiative to limit the impact clothes and home textiles have on climate change. Although it’s a voluntary agreement, it aims to transform the way the UK supplies, uses and disposes of clothing and textiles over the next ten years and is backed by the government.

Politically, the levelling up agenda might offer hope for a revival of sectors worth building again. The playbook for this has already been written, by the work done by Fitzsimons and others. A 2017 report from Alliance Manchester Business School argued for an interventionist industrial strategy that prioritised reshoring what it called “mundane sectors like textiles”.

That won’t be easy. As worthy and decent as all of these initiatives are, they are small scale in relation to the vast overseas manufacturers. Labour and energy costs are still much higher in this country than in some developing markets, so manufacturing here will likely always be limited to the luxury and middle markets. And the lack of scale among British textile manufacturers creates a major problem around research and development — smaller firms aren’t able to spend hundreds of millions a year developing new technology. On top of that, it feels like there is a lack of coordination and communication in this nascent fightback industry.

Back in Salford, Eden reflects on a rough ride through the pandemic. At one point, he even wondered whether the business would survive. After orders collapsed to nothing, trade slowly returned, online sales ticked up and he was then able to open a second unit in Glossop making medical-grade machinery to manufacture masks. Online sales, giving international reach, have been an unexpected boon, even when his one retail store, in London’s Mayfair, was unable to open due to Covid. Currently, the business is doing well, making a profit on sales of £8.5m.

You want all of these initiatives and businesses to succeed. You want their values to triumph. But there are two competing voices in my head after reporting on this story. One says: this is too small, too little, too late. On the other hand, the winds feel like they are changing, and consumers are increasingly realising they have important choices to make beyond the colour and style of the outfit they are buying. No one is predicting the return of a mass textiles and garments industry in Greater Manchester to rival the days of Cottonopolis — but there are definite signs of hope and achievements to build on.