As with most enterprises, prior to the 1840s industrial revolution, clothing manufacture was a highly specialised cottage industry. It was a far cry from 2014, where clothing manufacture forms part of a textile and fashion industry which is worth over £20 billion and directly employs over 140,000 people. High fashion was the strict preserve of a tiny elite, who could afford to import fine silks, linens and exotic wools. By contrast the huge majority of the population was stuck with poor quality, colour free fabrics.
The industrial revolution
The UK textile industry was one of the first major industries to be transformed by mechanisation. This was brought about by several inter-related factors. Improvements in technology that brought about steam power, based on the use of coal as well as much more efficient water wheels. Together, these developments provided the extra energy needed to bring about mass production. As new machinery allowed cotton to be spun in ever larger quantities, the Midlands became the epicentre of a global trade in textiles. At its peak the industry had hundreds of cotton mills producing thousands of tonnes of textiles each year. The power loom was arguably the most important invention of the time. By the middle of the 19th century there were over a quarter of a million of these devices in the UK and over half of them were found in the textile mills of Lancashire. In addition, improved infrastructure, in the form of an interconnected road, rail and canal network enabled improved transportation of the newly manufactured goods. In short, markets, people and product were brought much closer together and as result production and trade steadily expanded.
The 20th Century
The industrial revolution was of course not unique to the UK and despite the economics of empire which guaranteed markets for UK textiles, things began to change. The advent of the First World War meant that the products of British textile mills could not be exported to previously guaranteed markets. In addition, rapidly industrialising countries such as Japan and the US soon began to out-compete the mills of the UK. Textile production in the UK reached its zenith in 1926 and from there underwent a steady and systematic decline. By the 1940’s many of the industrial mills of the previous century were decommissioned and the equipment scrapped or transported to the Far East. The Second World War gave UK textiles a short reprieve as the armed forces needed a whole host of specifically made materials. However, as soon as the conflict was over this market dried up and the decline continued.
UK clothing manufacture in the 21st century
Despite the steady decline outlined above, fashion and clothing is of major significance to the UK economy. Clothing and fashion is not merely concerned with the frivolous or garish. Taken holistically, the industry covers garments ranging from designer dresses to everyday staff uniforms. The overspill or multiplier effect of this industry is estimated to provide employment for almost 1 million people, which is approximately 3% of the workforce.
Over the last 170 years the UK clothing industry has changed radically but is still home to quality clothing and is a serious business that has direct and indirect benefits, which produce a significant contribution to overall GDP.