New Spin at UK Woollen Mills

on Oct 23, 2012
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**Woollies Return and Ease Trouble at T’ Mills**

During the Industrial Revolution of 1750-1850, woollen mills were emblematic of life in Northern Britain. But despite their image as the country’s 19th-century sweatshops, the mills recently appear to be making a new spin in the UK wool industry, The Times reported on 22 October 2012.
The resurrection of wool has been a long time coming. Once a wardrobe staple, it lost out in the mid-1970s to new synthetics. The dip in men’s formalwear did not help and soon wool was regarded as fusty, old-fashioned and associated solely with keeping warm. Today, however, wool appeals to designers and retailers more than ever, creating demand for the natural fibre.

Last year the amount spent globally on wool reached £1.42 billion, marking an 18 per cent increase since 2009. Both UK production and imports of wool have been growing. Although far from the modern ideal of Silicon Valley and even a Silicon Roundabout, the wool industry in Britain is rising, providing jobs in some the country’s worst-hit areas and opening business opportunities to target the global high-quality wool market.

**“Made In Britain” Label Can Command Premium**
According to James Laxton, who runs Laxtons, a family yarn business founded in 1907, “a lot of brands now want UK-made products.” He believes that this demand is in the early stages, but it can grow further if consumers drive it. Over the past year, Laxtons has enjoyed double-digit growth in revenues and profits. And while the company’s workforce was only six in 2010, today Mr Laxton employs twenty people.

!m[](/uploads/story/620/thumbs/pic1_inline.png)These optimistic growth signs, however, follow eight fallow years, during which Mr Laxton was forced to shut down the company’s manufacturing operations in the UK due to the unbearable competition with China and Turkey, whose cheap products have taken over the global wool market. During this period Mr Laxon ran a small operation commissioning products from factories in Europe. Then he decided that, in fact, UK wool manufacturing could compete — simply not on the mass market for cheap clothes. Mr Laxton realised that the middle and top of the wool market can provide growth opportunities for British manufacturers. He now exports 50 per cent of his production to countries, such as the United States and Japan, where a “Made in Britain” label can command a premium.

Despite the relative success Laxtons and other UK manufacturers have achieved abroad, the production offered on the British market is still predominantly foreign. Mr Laxton hopes that the UK costumers will also start to recognise the quality of the domestic wool production. Currently, much of the fleece for spinning comes from abroad. British imports of “greasy wool” — fresh off a sheep’s back — from Australia rose from 1,500 tonnes in 2006-07 to 2,315 tonnes last year. The wool arrives as greasy fleeces and emerges from Britain’s home-grown factories as colourful “fancy-spun” yarns ready for weaving into upholstery, clothing and scarves.

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