What happened to the British textile industry?

The manufacture and export of textiles was once the single most important industry throughout Britain. This market defined the Victorian era, acting as the driving force of the industrial revolution. The question is, what happened?

Since the latter half of the twentieth century, the grand and impressive buildings that once thrived have largely stood untouched and unused, causing a steep economic decline throughout the north of England. Thankfully, a handful of companies have looked to kick-start a revival and restore the textile trade to its former glory. It may take time, and it will almost certainly not match the heyday of the 18th Century, but every revolution begins with a small step.

The importing of cotton in Europe began as far back as the medieval period. Wool, linen and leather comprised much of the textile industry, with the super-wealthy enjoying the luxury of silk, but in the early 1700s British farmers began to use wool for mass-market production. Creating work all over the nation, this procedure eventually began to account for over 25% of British exports. Wool was joined by silk, fustian and linen, but before long cotton became the primary textile used for the production of clothing. This kickstarted the industrial revolution.

This term arose when a Lancastrian loom-maker named John Key invented and patented the flying shuttle, a piece of technology that rapidly increased the speed in which cotton could be spun – much to the disgust of a great many manual workers, who were used to working at their own pace, from their own homes, and were instead forced to attend a factory each day, beavering away in poor conditions for minimal pay. Workers began to fear losing their jobs in favour of being replaced by machines; the more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

The Roller Spinning and flying bobbin machines followed the flying shuttle, both invented by Lewis Paul and John Wyatt. These advances ensured that wool could be woven faster and more evenly than anybody could manage by hand, and production once again rapidly expanded. More inventions such as Richard Arkwright’s water frame and Samuel Crompton’s mule followed, and before long factories were rapidly cropping up all over Lancashire in towns such as Bolton, Manchester and Blackburn in order to keep up with demand.

The industrial revolution continued throughout the 18th Century, and life for British textile manufacturers would never be the same. Britain continued to dominate the textile industry beyond the industrial revolution, and peaked in 1912. Alas, like so many things, the outbreak of The Great War in 1914 caused a steep decline.

Before WWI, a great many overseas countries depended entirely on Britain’s exportation of cotton; the industry was the very backbone of the empire. Throughout those four years, while the nation was otherwise occupied, the industry slumped and territories forged their own techniques for the manufacture of textiles. Japan, in particular, took advantage of the distraction of their European rivals.

By the early 1930s, Japan was producing cotton in factories of their own, working 24 hours a day, and exporting the material all over the world for a considerably lower price than Britain had ever managed. On top of this, the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi in India led to a boycott of imported goods from Britain, having struggled so hard to gain independence for his nation. With that, the industry lost another 50% of its custom in one fell swoop, and slumped dramatically. Almost 350,000 employees lost their jobs or walked away, and an eye-watering 800 factories and mills were closed down between 1918 and 1939, Lancashire was hit hit worst of all; ever ponder about the origin of the phrase “trouble at t’mill”? There’s your answer.

WWII provided some brief respite, as the industry was called upon to work around the clock to create parachutes and uniforms for British soldiers. Labour was imported from other nations to pitch in and hopes were high for a revival in fortunes, but once peace was restored the bottom fell out of the trade once more. By the 1950s, Britain was importing more cotton that it was exporting, and factories continued to close at a rate of knots through the following two decades. British prices were simply not competitive when compared to their international competitors.

Britain’s textile industry had all but disappeared by the 1980s, despite remaining the fourth largest manufacturing employer in the UK at this point. As demand for cheap clothing grew, retailers increasingly looked to cost-effective ways of gaining stock to fill their shelves. Even today, labour costs are up to 37 times cheaper when outsourced to Asia than when buying from domestic suppliers. Unsurprisingly, most high street chains are continuing to turn their back on British manufactured clothing as a result – though a number of reputable names are campaigning to Buy British.

Disused factories still litter the landscape, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel – and, fittingly, it is emanating from Lancashire, the spiritual home of the British textile industry. Some industrialists have turned their hands to the weaving of artificial grass, an increasingly popular export, while a new factory has been built in Manchester thanks to the financial backing of a German company who still value that fabled Made in Britain tag. Up to 20,000 jobs are expected to open up by the year 2020 as a result of this upturn in fortunes, which is welcome respite for an industry that many feared would be consigned to history.

The absence of infrastructure and skills remains a concern, however, and considerable weight is being thrown behind campaigns to restore pride to the manufacture of cotton within the UK. It’s extremely unlikely that Britain’s cotton creation will reach the highs of the early 20th century again; at the time of writing, the nation sits at 15th place in the list of worldwide producers of the material. Starting smaller, however, with respectable orders for quality, luxury garments, points to the possibility of a brighter future than anybody thought possible three decades ago.

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