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A History of Clothing Manufacturing in Britain

Spinning JennyEarly Days

Before the textile revolution of the mid 18th century, clothing in the United Kingdom was a cottage industry. Most garment wear in Medieval Britain was influenced by either Scandinavian invaders or the Roman Empire. The rich would wear imported silk, linen and patterned wool. The poor would wear local or homespun wool - often without colour and edged with hand embroidery or tablet woven bands.

By the 13th century, however, the dying and working of wool had progressed and there was also more common use of linen in simple clothing. Yielded from the flax plant, this linen was laundered and bleached in the sun to provide linings and cotton, imported from Egypt, was also used for padding and quilting.

By the mid 14th century clothing was becoming increasingly tailored with curved seams, lacing and buttons. The manufacture of wool became more sophisticated, creating a broadcloth with a velvety nap and dyed in rich colours – still within the cottage industry.

As prosperity grew more complex clothing followed. By the 17th century 'point lace' became popular in England, reflecting floral patterns of that period.

The Textile Revolution

The Industrial Revolution brought about a huge change in how clothing was manufactured in the United Kingdom. The textile industry was one of the first to be mechanised. Recently built canals, railways and roads aided trade expansion and the workforce swelled as people came in from the countryside to towns and cities. Steam power, the use of coal and water wheels aided the new machinery, and a boom in production followed.

The Introduction Of Machinery

This increase in productivity was aided by a number of well known inventions. Richard Arkwright's Water Frame, James Hargreaves' Spinning Jenny and Samuel Crompton's Spinning Mule (a combination of the Frame and Jenny) were some of the first machine powered devices to spin cotton. Dedicated cotton mills followed with many areas of the Midlands becoming synonymous with textile production. Cities like Derby (still home to one of our suppliers Slenderella) became important in the manufacture of clothing in Britain.

In the following years, machines similar to the Frame, Jenny and Mule spun worsted yarn and flax for linen. The Flying Shuttle, patented in 1733 by John Kay, vastly improved the process of weaving. Shuttle boxes at each side of the loom, connected by a long board (shuttle race) enabled the shuttle to be knocked back and forth at great speed, with the aid of cords attached to a picking peg.

After a shaky start in 1785, the Power Loom (Edmund Cartwright) mechanically wove cloth onto a beam at the back of the loom. By 1850 there were 250,000 power looms in Britain, more than half were located in Lancashire.

Meanwhile, new textiles were coming through including viscose, nylon and polyester providing the opportunity for greater versatility and choice.

Post Industrial Revolution

Textile production peaked in England in 1926. The outbreak of the First World War meant that cotton could no longer be exported to foreign markets and countries like Japan set up their own factories, with cheaper labour. Once the mills were decommissioned, much of the machinery was sent to India and China to aid development. Over the second half of the 20th century there was huge expansion of textile production within these countries.

During the Second World War there was a short reprieve of textile production in Britain as factories produced uniforms and parachutes but this was short lived as once the war was over, Britain could no longer compete with cheaper overseas manufacturers.

bourne millClothing Manufacture In Britain Today

At present, the UK clothing industry employs around 140,000 people. Over the years, many UK manufacturers have struggled to compete and sadly fallen by the wayside. For those that have survived, many now outsource their production overseas to countries like India and China. These firms have now simply become marketing ‘fronts’ as no production actually occurs on home soil.

However, there are a few firms that still manufacture in Britain, Carr & Westley being one of them. We have been employing the same techniques for almost 100 years. We pride ourselves on providing traditional clothing styles without compromising on quality. We hope that, in this time of austerity, more clothing companies move their operations back home because profit isn't everything. We are proud of our heritage, and proud to be British.

To see a range of our British Made Clothing visit the Carr & Westley brand page.

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