Meet the Manufacturer – day one

At today’s Meet the Manufacturer event in the Old Truman Brewery in London, Kate Hills from Make it British spoke about the changes she has seen in the manufacturing industry over the past five years.

Five years ago Hills established a blog about manufacturing in Britain. In 2012 the government launched a Make it in Great Britain campaign, and following the Jubilee and the Olympics manufacturers could ride on the wave of Britishness.

There was also a wave of ‘fake it’ British, because the demand for British-made goods was so high.

Exports of UK-manufactured garments have grown steadily – but with peaks and troughs as the UK is better at winter garments. 58% of manufacturers say their business is performing better in the last five years, and the majority of manufacturers (surveyed by Hills) want to stay in the EU.

In the next five years Hills expects to see more innovation and collaboration and more small businesses doing it for themselves.

Heritage versus innovation

Peter Marsh, ex-FT journalist, led the panel consisting of Ian Maclean from John Smedley, Guy Hills from Dashing Tweeds, and Tim Walker from Walsh & Blackhorse Lane Denim.


Is it a question of ‘either or’ or can heritage and innovation live side by side? The key is to blend craft skills with 21st century skills such as 3D printing, and there are some excellent examples of this in the UK.

Dashing Tweeds makes reflective tweed clothes – it’s all about the heritage of British sportswear, but with a modern edge.

John Smedley’s machinery looks very similar to the machinery in 1929 – an old company acquires a lot of machinery, and that’s a challenge. It you were setting up today you would buy more modern machinery that was more efficient.

The cost of labour is one of the biggest barriers to British textile manufacturing. There has been a huge drop off in British textile labourers, and the industry has globalised which makes it easier to find cheap labour elsewhere.

Education is also a barrier. People don’t know what their clothes are made of these days, the Japanese and the Germans are different. It’s the same with food – people are obsessed with where their food comes from, and it’s about raising awareness of the provenance of materials.

In addition, a lot of colleges focus more on the creative side of things – design and so on, whereas the technical skills are hard to find. It’s a real worry trying to find the skilled labour – a lot of people want to be fashion designers, and businesses struggle to find people to take on. Businesses are having to look to doing in-house training, but you cannot get government funding to train people for these specific seaming and linking skills like you can with maths and English and so on. Colleges don’t provide these classes because there is a lack in demand – people don’t choose these classes but the industry is crying out for them.

Manufacturers should bear in mind that funding is available to take on an apprentice.

Bringing mass-customisation to the UK knitwear industry

Hal Watts, CEO and co-founder of Unmade, discussed the need for digital tech in the manufacturing industry.


Today’s consumer browses hundreds of different sites, trends are hard to respond to as they can be very fleeting. Fashion is experienced through these social media channels, and consumers want to be able to understand how and why something has been made.

If someone wants to know where their clothes are made and you can’t tell them it’s going to work against you.

Luxury increasingly is being defined by uniqueness – you have to tailor the experience. United Colors of Benneton and Uniqlo no longer sell themselves as a diverse range – they now sell themselves as a good basics range.

Digital technologies in retail:

  • Promotional – having a website, but the majority of sales are made in-store
  • Commercial and catalogue – Online as a way to browse and find the best price for products
  • Access and curation –Online as a channel to gain access to a special product – online customers want curation and access and are willing to pay full price for that
  • Personalisation and customisation – Online as a channel to get the ultimate access – online customers want what they want and are willing to pay for it.

The music industry has had a content explosion – over the past few years there has been such a huge expansion of offering because it couldn’t afford not to. Fashion may well react to digitisation in the same way as the demand for personalised and unique products is on the rise.

Unmade allows you to personalise your designs and the pattern is sent to the team who hand-finish the product for you. Industrial knitting machines are basically 3D printers for the fashion industry so it becomes possible to make to order so you do not end up with leftover stock. It prevents clothes going to landfill because they remained unsold.

Unmade has not developed any machinery themselves, just the software that allows them to work with existing tech to innovate and provide something new. A big part of what they have developed is the tools for customisation. Their technology focuses on being able to show what products that do not exist yet would look like.

Their stock is just yarn – they are super responsive and sweaters are only made once it has been purchased. It is important the designers can set the parameters of what can be changed, but while allowing all the garments to be personalised.