Elizabeth Martin of Elizabeth Martin Tweed in her studio
In Lanarkshire Elizabeth Martin crafts elegantly modern womenswear from Hebridean Harris tweed and Ayrshire lace.
In Norfolk Chris Pengilley’s team is spearheading a unique revival making eye-catching carpet bags brighter than a box of gems.
Both are part of a UK makers’ renaissance in the fashion, accessories and homeware industries and this week they will gather with hundreds more at Meet the Manufacturer (MTM), now the key sourcing event for information on British producers and brands.
The creation of former Burberry and M&S designer and buyer Kate Hills, she set up Make it British and then MTM in 2014 after realising how mass outsourcing overseas would lead to a permanent skills loss at home.
This year’s MTM features 200 exhibitors with special showcases for British wool, creative brands and brainstorming sessions on the critical issue of how to develop future generations of manufacturers.
“Use it or lose it” is Hills’ essential message.
“Making in the UK is cost-effective and sustainable,” she explains. “By buying authentic British goods you are keeping the skills alive.
Chris Pengilley, Chief Exec of Carpet Bags with a selection of the new product designs
Carpet Bags handbags with Liberty prints
“Everything was becoming so fragmented, it could so easily have all disappeared. But now makers, designers and buyers have a central point bringing them together. This event has grown four-fold and we plan to hold more smaller ones and roll them out nationwide.”
Elizabeth Martin, a descendant of single parent seamstresses who had to make do and mend so “always valued fabric”, she switched from soft furnishings to fashion two years ago.
“My vision was to build a British brand and I’ve used my £70,000 savings to do it,” she says of her business Elizabeth Martin Tweed.
Sourcing, designing and making in Scotland both in her home studio and with a local factory, Martin draws on heritage textiles such as the hand-woven, fabulously rainbow- coloured Harris tweed, buttons from Nottinghamshire and soon luxury cotton being woven by a recently opened mill in Manchester.
A Carpet Bags skilled technician in its work shop
Kate Hills, founder of Make It British and creative force behind Meet The Manufacturer
Prices for her 25-piece, day-to-night, versatile range are mid-market and “for women who want individuality, sensuality and comfort. Our fabrics have provenance they appreciate that,” says Martin who acknowledges both the guidance she first had from retailer Liberty and the government support she has received to attend Far East trade missions and develop her website.
Overseas orders from north America and Europe are increasing with her Fiona swing coat (£379) and Florrie lace top with a pastel tweed trim (£125) the bestsellers.
Turnover is now heading for £21,000 and she employs two with another five indirectly.
“MTM is the chance to connect with buyers and where I will start on my next goal, finding wholesalers for joint venture partnerships,” she adds.
Carpet Bags also has its eye on the wholesale market and increasing its profile with retailers and distributors at MTM.
Fiona Harris Tweed coat, a Martin bestseller
Since investment group XPE bought it 18 months ago, following the retirement of its founder after 40 years, there has been a second coming for the iconic, but fading brand that had once made bags from old Persian rugs.
Now Carpet Bags has added 120 new product designs and chief executive Chris Pengilley forecasts a £500,000 turnover by 2020, selling both directly to customers and making for other retailers.
The bags, which cost in a range from £129 to £500, are now produced from plant-based viscose fabrics by a seven-strong team in its Diss workshop with 40 per cent exported
“The manufacturing scene has changed radically,” observes Pengilley. “Social media and selling directly online are one part of how opportunities are opening up as boundaries disappear. Provence and authenticity have become increasing important to businesses as consumers make more considered choices. Connecting with them through all channels is vital.
More Martin bestsellers with Ayrshire lace
“We deal with suppliers in the UK and Europe and can produce a bag from concept to market in under two weeks, without the need to buy a lot of stock upfront.”
Post-Brexit it’s noticeable the increase in inquiries from business and retailers asking about getting goods made in Britain
He sees innovation making personalization easier “with customers more involved in their purchase”, increasing their sense of a special experience.
The larger volumes that come with wholesale contracts should offset the tighter margins in this sector.
“The idea will then be to support long-term relationships with this market by creating bespoke designs for them so they are able to provide their customers with something different to our retail offering and not be in direct competition,” he adds.
“Re-integrating a wholesale pricing structure within all product design while continuing to grow retail sales on the back of price increases has been a bold but successful move for us.”
British manufacturing and the supply chain is now more connected and thriving says Hills who warns however that the biggest challenge going forward will be in finding more makers.
“Post-Brexit it’s noticeable the increase in inquiries from business and retailers asking about getting goods made in Britain,” she explains. “Having the capacity to meet demand will be the issue.”
The recession was definitely a catalyst for Martin, but others have been the referendum and Brexit. “So now’s the moment,” she says, “for British makers to shout from the rooftops.”