Way back in the 1980’s I worked in the UK textile manufacturing industry. Those were the days when selling british made products and the Made in Great Britain brand was simply what we did and sitting in a tiny showroom on Regent Street overlooking Liberties I saw it all. We produced top quality silk products for the upper end of the retail market globally – not just Liberties, Harrods and the independents in the Burlington Arcade but to major stores in New York, Paris and Japan. What the buyers came over to source in the UK was not just top quality products with the ‘Made in Great Britain’ label but also our British heritage too – with all its quirks and eccentricities. So this is exactly what we provided. We’d take them to visit our factory in Berkshire to meet the team, visit the silk weavers and printers in Kent and Suffolk who supplied our silk cloth and at the same time show off our country to boot. We were proud of what we had and they left wanting to become part of that English experience and join a community which they could see constantly supported each other.
A few years later I worked for a much larger UK manufacturer supplying products to Marks & Spencer. Ah yes, there really was a time when nearly all products sold by M&S really were made in Britain. They stuck to their guns as long as they could but as competition from cheaper manufacturers abroad continued to drive down the price of manufacturing they finally had to cave in, reducing its proud boast in 1999 that 90% of all products were made in the UK to a mere 10% by 2004. We didn’t lose just our industry but also whole communities – together with our self esteem.
So it was with a rather broad grin and gleeful chuckling that I sat and watched Mary Portas as she delivered the final episode on Channel 4 of her scheme “Mary’s Bottom Line” last week. As transportation and foreign labour costs are now on the rise she set out determined to prove that a quality product at an affordable price could be manufactured in the UK using only British made materials – from the lace to the packaging. Reopening a textiles factory Headen Quormby in Middleton which had shut its doors 8 years ago she took 8 unemployed youngsters and had them trained up by 2 of the original seamstresses.
The biggest challenge seemed to be the sourcing of materials rather than the selling of the products. Liberties, M&S and Boots all opened their arms to her placing enough orders to kick the scheme off, but the hunt for British woven lace proved to be a tough job. Finally she found a small factory producing lace owned by Jim Stacey who has diligently been ruthless with his overheads in the belief that once prices of goods from China start to go up then he should be able to make a living, and Douglas Gill who managed to remain open for business purely because of this project.
But this isn’t just a story about the new potential for cost effective British manufacturing. “Pants to unemployment” says Mary. As she put it: “we’re creating a social capital where people have a sense of belonging, where people feel great about themselves and put money back into this country”. And in the programme this is plain to see. The self confidence, sense of achievement and camaraderie which grows amongst the apprentices is touching. “I was really worried they would be sitting bored” she said. None of it. Watching one 20 year old guy who had never worked, had a child and whose parents had never worked either knuckle down and succeed was totally uplifting. They had a new family, were building a community, a common goal and above all a sense of purpose. As the scheme developed and the orders flooded in Mary turned to Lynn Birkbeck whose parents founded the company in 1935 and commented: “You’ve given such a beautiful energy to it – that’s why it’s happened”. “No more than anybody else” she replied “It’s team work”. There’s much talk these days about the new ideas of the flattening of hierarchies – but although hierarchies have always existed it should be remembered how even back then everyone was respected for what they brought to the whole. We were all spokes in a wheel each totally reliant on the other. I was reminded of my second week working in that Regent Street showroom when I had to ring my first order through to the factory. I was in my early 20’s and I spoke to Wally the foreman who was in his 60’s and had been there for donkeys years. “I’ve got an order but the client needs it in 3 weeks. Is that possible?” His reply: “It’s my job to make sure that whatever you need to happen happens love”. And that was that. We were a team, part of a close-knit community all working together, all proud to be selling Britain to the rest of the world.
I suppose at this point I should add what it is they are producing: Kinky Knickers. If anyone had told me 25 years ago that I’d be promoting and getting excited about the production of knickers they’d probably have gotten a sideways glance, a *roll of eyes* and watched me shuffle off quickly. But hey, if it takes knickers to catch the imagination of the British and get UK manufacturing rolling again then who am I to argue (*sigh*, *roll of eyes*, awkward shuffle of feet…)? But as Mary says on the show ‘All of you who spend £3 or more on a cup of coffee and a muffin you can surely spend £3 more on your knickers and you’ll be putting it into the British economy”. If it keeps the kids employed then you can’t really argue with that one can you?
I was telling this story to a friend who has had links with the textile industry since the 1970’s and who is currently one of our small shop keepers fighting a 50% rental increase whilst trying to survive. “She’s got it Janet, it’s all about positivity – Accentuate the Positive that’s what she’s doing. Send her this song.” So @maryportas and Lynn @HeadenQuarmby , here’s this song from us to you: