An education in the fabric of fashion: how the Industrial Revolution changed the creation of style

All the books that I have read over the years on the historical significance of the Industrial Revolution and the impact that it had on the manufacturing processes of fabric and clothing worldwide did not prepare me for what I encountered on a recent visit to mills in Bradford and Huddersfield, in the north of England.

Organised by Woolmark (a not-for-profit subsidiary company of Australian Wool Innovation Limited founded in 1964 whose unmistakable logo has been applied to over 5 billion products to certify that they contain 100% pure new wool), the trip was devised to meet the objectives of its ‘Loom to London’ programme, a pedagogical initiative with a long-term commercial goal: by educating young and emerging London fashion designers on the wool supply chain and UK manufacturer capabilities, and by showing to UK manufacturers how innovative designers can push the boundaries of materials and production methods, long-lasting relationships could be forged that would, ultimately, lead to an increase in the use of wool by designers. It was with this objective in mind that Woolmark invited Agape Mdumulla and Sam Cotton (the talented duo behind Agi & Sam, one of the most exciting current London menswear labels) to visit wool mills in Yorkshire.

As a follower and admirer of Agi & Sam’s work, I was thrilled to be invited to take part in the trip as the only fashion writer with exclusivity to the story. However, as the feeling of elation waned and the day of the trip loomed, I spent increasingly more time pondering on the purpose of the initiative: on the surface, the relationship between fashion and manufacturing seems to be an easy one to comprehend as both activities can be interpreted as distinctive and yet complementary. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that any sartorial concept underpinning the design of a garment tends to adjust to the physical limits of the fabrication processes available (with the final product becoming the result of making constant concessions throughout), whereas production instruments and methods do not tend to change owing exclusively to creative imperatives. Furthermore, as Agi & Sam are renowned for exploring the possibilities of fabric (such as using polyester fabrics made of recycled plastic bottles) and pattern (namely by incorporating trompe-l’oeil digital prints of tweeds, tartans, pinstripes and other forms of traditional tailoring), I became progressively more interested in the dynamics between designers and manufacturers. And with a series of unanswered question in my head, I joined Agi & Sam and two representatives from Woolmark one early morning in a late September day at London’s King’s Cross train station ready to embark on our day trip to Yorkshire.

As the train left London behind and the green English countryside began to surround us, I attempted to find an answer to the main question that had been going in circles in my mind: when it comes to the fashion industry, can manufacturers learn from designers as much as designers learn from manufacturers? And if a designer is to visit a factory and starts interrogating the potential of existing materials, tools and processes, what are the possibilities to introduce change? Agi believed that pushing the limits of existing knowledge “can be a very positive and enjoyable change for the industry. Quite often, companies end up doing standard products repeatedly and new design allows them the possibility to do something different.” Sam concurred, stating that “seamstresses, particularly, enjoy working with innovative designers as the new shapes that they bring to the table allow them the possibility to create a new garment, and do something different from the routine work that mass production entails.”

After arriving in Bradford, our first stop was Luxury Fabrics, a limited company that owns the long-established British brands Charles Clayton (founded in 1985), William Halstead (1875), Reid & Taylor (1837) and John Foster (1819), all well-known for their luxury suiting fabrics such as fine worsteds and mohairs. Despite being told that the mill produced 7,000 meters of fabric a week and generated annual sales worth approximately £8 million (of which 95% come from exports to international markets such as Japan, South Korea, Italy, United States, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), what impressed the most in this operation was listening to sales director Marcia Jennings. With 35 years of experience in the industry, Jennings revealed an impressive knowledge of the industry and shared fascinating stories about working with young British designers such as Lou Dalton and high-profile fashion houses from Paris and Milan like Jean Paul Gaultier, Hermès and Dolce & Gabbana.

After looking into samples of fabrics produced in the mill and a short debate between Jennings and Agi & Sam that resulted in agreeing that innovative fabrics and prints can be developed as long as the manufacturer is involved and collaborates with designers from the very beginning, we were shown around the production area. In here, 20 large looms worked unceasingly at a vertiginous speed that had me wondering how it was once possible for fabrics to be made in any other way. However, despite the computer-controlled mechanised intensity that enveloped us, I noticed that workers were still visible on the factory floor checking how machines were functioning and how yarns and fabrics were being used. And when we moved to the final room of the mill, where a group of employees painstakingly repaired flawed fabrics that had just come out of the looms, I allowed myself a poetic reverie: if mechanical looms (which are designed to make perfect fabrics faster and in larger amounts than humans) fail to produce flawless cloth is their occasional fallibility a reflection of human interference and therefore, a suggestion that mechanical errors are a deviation from standardised making in the same way that artistic creativity can reshape our perceptions of known material realities by repositioning their intentions and purposes? Could it be that the flawed fabrics that result from human imperfection in thought and gesture should be the materials used for fashion outputs?

Our next visit was to Abraham Moon & Sons, founded in 1837 and one of the three manufacturers left in the region that can be considered a fully vertical production mill, with different teams on site involved in all stages of producing and selling fabric, including working the wool (dyeing, blending, carding and spinning), weaving the fabrics, designing prints, cutting and finishing items, and selling and marketing them. A succession of large rooms devoted to different production stages revealed a series of impressively complex operations that flowed seamlessly. By the time we reached the business sales division of the company as the last room in our visit, there was no doubt that this was an extraordinary machine with an esteemed reputation. However, if the fabrication processes and machines used at Abraham Moon & Sons couldn’t fail to impress, they also suggested a certain reluctance to depart from existing design and production habits towards exploring new ways of thinking and making, something that could be confirmed by the numerous reproductions of heritage pieces from the company’s rich archives.

After a short car ride to Huddersfield, we reached our last stop, W T Johnson & Sons, a company founded in 1910 that has secured a reputation as one of the world’s leaders in textile dyeing and finishing. Technical manager Alan Dolley gave us a tour of the factory, which employs 95 people and includes a Research & Development team that constantly investigates what can be achieved by applying new technologies to fabric finishing. Prestigious mills and leading fashion designers and tailors from the UK and abroad have used their finishing services to obtain the best qualities from their worsted fabrics by undergoing processes such as milling, scouring, decating, drying and cropping; the latter procedure being offered in a myriad of options that make fabrics look and perform better (for example, a thick and warmer fabric can have layers of fibre removed and become thinner and more breathable).

As we gathered our thoughts on the train journey back to London, our comments turned to how much fashion students (or, for that matter, anyone interested in fashion and design) would learn from spending time working for a few days or weeks in one of the mills we had visited. We all agreed that being involved in the process of making fabric from its inception to the moment one handles the finishing touches was an extremely valuable education. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about the words ‘Loom to London’ that Woolmark had chosen to name the initiative: as London-based professionals involved in creating, supporting and commenting fashion, we had unquestionably learnt a lot on that day by visiting the mills and meet the people who work in them; however, shouldn’t Yorkshire-based manufacturers involved in all stages of fabric production (from those handling the rough wool to seamstresses to sales representatives) spend time on similar visits to London design studios and businesses involved in promoting fashion such as public relations and marketing agencies, magazines and newspapers?

A few days after the trip, I realised that the many questions I had been asking myself about how design is engendered through production and production is shaped by design would always be left unanswered as long as the processes of thinking and making involved in creating fashion remained removed from each other. Woolmark’s ‘Loom to London’ programme was, without a doubt, an important step towards forging stronger relationships between designers and manufacturers to attempt to find an answer. But, two centuries after the Industrial Revolution changed manufacturing so irrevocably, maybe what fashion as an industry needs right now is a Design Revolution, or a radical change in the different stages and processes of manufacturing that incorporates creative and original thinking throughout in a continuous cycle that does not take London or Loom as starting or end points.