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In focus: the resurgence of British wool


From Prada to Paul Smith, leading international fashion houses are sourcing their natural fabrics in Britain, Dominique Fenn reports

Dominique Fenn
Dominique Fenn ,

One hundred years ago, it wasn’t London that influenced international fashion, but a city in the north of England. Bradford was at the heart of the British manufacturing industry and was recognised as the global capital for wool, with hundreds of factories in the surrounding area. One of the reasons for Bradford’s dominance was because of the availability of soft water, which was used to clean the wool.

Over the years, the number of working factories (also known as mills) has decreased significantly, with only a handful still in existence. Yet many of the skills that were learned have been passed down through the generations and are still invaluable to this competitive industry, despite developments with machinery.

The Woolmark Company, the world’s leading wool textile organisation, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It has been working to support young designers and to raise awareness of the skills available in British manufacturing. The International Woolmark Prize is quickly becoming one of the most coveted designer awards; previous winners include British label Sibling and Belgian designer Christian Wijnants.

Launched three years ago, Woolmark’s Loom to London initiative introduces young designers to the manufacturing options in this country. One such label is Teatum Jones, a luxury womenswear brand based in London. Now in its third year, Teatum Jones is celebrated for its beautiful prints and innovative approach to textiles development and as a result became the bestselling womenswear label on the international floor at Liberty.

With the help of The Woolmark Company and British mills, the company created a 3D-relief jacquard fabric. ‘We developed and created this using very new techniques,’ says designer Rob Jones, who set up Teatum Jones with Catherine Teatum. Once the 3D fabric had been devised, another mill helped Teatum Jones to laminate the jacquard without flattening the 3D element of the fabric.

‘Our passion for making everything in the UK has come out of the need to have an authentic relationship with the manufacturers and mills that we use,’ says Jones. ‘Working on such highly developed intricate garments and fabrics, it has become essential to work closely with each of our suppliers. We are very lucky to have such highly skilled craftsmanship right on our doorstep to be able to do this.’

Teatum Jones joins a long list of UK and international interiors and fashion labels that are putting their trust in British factories: Prada and Louis Vuitton for example, source certain fabrics from British factories because of the expertise and innovation available here. 

Dunhill, the quintessential British menswear label, has a modern approach, despite its 100-year heritage. The company is investing in a new factory in east London and is a strong supporter of the quality available from British manufacturing. Paul Smith is another label that is full of British quirks. Its suits are coveted around the world, including in countries with much hotter climates than the UK, so the company uses Cool Wool, a finer, lightweight fabric, made by Joseph H Clissold in Bradford.

Of course, meeting the needs of customers around the world is why British fabric firms are so successful. ‘We get all sorts of requests from clients,’ says Nigel Birch, product development manager at WT Johnson & Sons, which dyes and finishes fabrics for clients around the globe. ‘We wove 24-carat gold into a fabric for a £700,000 suit, we finished a fabric woven with jade to hopefully bring good fortune for a Japanese client. We also had a Scottish client who wanted their fabrics laced with whisky – we always try to fulfil our clients’ requests!’

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