Making things is not a soft option in the UK today

IN THE last twenty years, I have watched the decline of British manufacturing, particularly in my own textile sector. While prices for food and luxury goods have risen steadily, high street clothing prices have become so cheap that UK manufacturers cannot be competitive in the mass market.

According to the Working Futures report, which analyses projected changes in employment from 2010 to 2020, the future for manufacturing doesn’t look good. Manufacturing is set to hold its total output of 11 per cent, but employment in the sector is set to decline from 8 per cent to 7 per cent due to increased productivity, potentially a reduction of 400,000 manual jobs. So Britain faces a choice: we can either emulate the last twenty years, sit and watch it happen as these jobs disappear or we can work towards a more positive outcome.

Encouraging a more positive attitude towards the “makers” will be essential. The growth of a new craft movement in the UK has been a great start, with workshop centres like The Make Lounge helping to recognise the manual operation of making something as a valuable act. However, we need making to be more than a hobby. It ought to be understood as a respected profession. Websites like etsy.com, having started off quite homespun and craft-led have matured to represent some credible makers, showing that new technologies can create new market opportunities. In our disrupted future, manufacturing may yet come full circle and reinvent itself on a cottage-industry platform. Handmade, short-run items offer a human connection and the possibility of uniqueness that chain stores cannot replicate. Unlike the pre-industrial-revolution days, design, specialisation, expertise and craftsmanship will lie at the heart of this potential new manufacturing industry, rather than the requirement to make it quicker and cheaper and in ever-larger quantities. A number of well-established brands and businesses are already skilled specialists.

Despite the challenges in the industry, over my working life I have also seen the number of student places on design courses increase dramatically. Some have worried that this is unsustainable – where will all these designers go after their studies? But it is an increase that has helped the UK earn global recognition for design excellence, as evident in some of the top fashion houses being headed by British design talent: Phoebe Philo at Celine, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney. British talent now inhabits the top creative roles and is responsible for creating some of the most iconic products of the current age, most famously Jonathan Ive for Apple but there are many more like Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison and Daniel Brown – not to mention any of the architects and artists.

We have inspired new generations with the ideals of British design, but let’s now focus on the people who could be good at making things and give them an opportunity to shine. Made in Britain, not just designed in Britain, should be a badge of honour.

Dawne Stubbs is the director of Design Apparel. She is speaking on 28 March at Editorial Intelligence’s Comment Conference on the Manufacturing Economy.

www.commentconference.com